A Short History of Ballymena

'Ballymena', derived from the Irish 'An Baile Meánach' meaning Middle Town, is literally the middle town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It has been settled for centuries, but 'proper' construction of the town only really began in 1626, when the land was given to William Adair of Kinhult, Scotland by the then King of England, Charles I. Adair had to promise that the town held two annual fairs and a free Saturday market.

Since those days, Ballymena has evolved from being a small market town into a centre for shopping commerce. To this day, though, the town holds the largest two-day agricultural show in Ireland (at the Showgrounds), but the long-running Saturday market (The Fairhill) has been superseded by a shopping centre bearing the same name.

 Nestled in the beautiful Glens of Antrim, on the banks of the River Braid, Ballymena is approximately twenty-four miles northwest from the capital city, Belfast. The town was a major player in the Linen Industry during the nineteenth century with the opening of the Spinning Mill, and, indeed it has always been an affluent town. In recent years it has witnessed a population explosion - 28,500 people in 1998 - a growth of 17.8% since 1971, and these are only the people who live within the town itself.

The Borough of Ballymena, created in 1973, saw the merging of the town with the surrounding rural area, covering an area of 200 square miles. It maintains its strong farming, agricultural and textile industries and the total population of the Borough stands at over 57,300 people.

Ballymena is not simply a centre for business however, but is a very popular residential area. This is reflected in the inflation of house prices the town has seen in recent years, the active building and its proximity to other Northern Irish towns, principally the city of Belfast. There are also many excellent schools in the town including: Cambridge House Grammar School, the Ballymena Academy, St. Louis Grammar School, Dunclug and Ballee High schools, not to mention the many primary schools for children under eleven years old.

Known locally as the 'City of the Seven Towers' due to its highly visible seven towers in bygone days, Ballymena, despite its recent expansion, maintains its links to the past. The seven towers, (named such by Sir Shafto Adair) were: Ballymena Castle, First Ballymena Presbyterian Church, The Old Parish Church, The Braid Water Mill, St. Patrick's Church, the Old Town Hall and All Saints Roman Catholic Church. Only three of the original towers remain - All Saints, St. Patrick's and the Old Parish Church.

Many of the old terrace houses remain, and the basic layout of the town has not changed in the intervening years. The Pentagon (a circle where five roads meet) was named thus long before its more famous counterpart in America, and it stands just in front of the oldest hotel in Ballymena - The Adair Arms. There are several excellent hotels and Bed and Breakfast accommodation in the town, ranging in price from 12 pounds to 50 pounds per night.

Morrow's Shop Museum, situated beside the Town Hall in the centre of town, has retained the décor of the draper's shop it once was and contains many photographs and artefacts depicting the town's history. The Town Hall itself, built in 1924 on the site of the Old Market House has seen its fair share of events (the Market House was besieged and gutted in the rebellion of 1798). Today, the Ballymena Council has its 'headquarters' here and the Borough of Ballymena hosts many events in the Town Hall throughout the year. These are open to the public and include the annual Arts Festival (typically held in the month of October).

The bandstand at Broadway dates from 1908 and is situated close to many of the oldest bank buildings in the town (including the Bank of Ireland and the Northern Bank). Another landmark is undoubtedly the People's Park; the Adairs gave this beautiful area to the people of the town in 1870.

Encompassing twelve acres it includes sports facilities (golf, a football field and tennis courts), a well-equipped children's playground, a man-made lake on which many species of ducks can be spotted, and some beautiful walks. The Park has retained many Victorian features including a statue to commemorate the visit of Earl Spencer to Ballymena (an ancestor of the late Lady Diana Spencer). The People's Park is also the place where two young boys drowned in the lake off a point now known as 'Devil's Point' and this adds to the folklore surrounding the area.

There is another park in the town - the 'Memorial Park' - situated near the railway station on the Galgorm Road. It commemorates the townsfolk who lost their lives in the First World War.

Ballymena has one of the largest leisure centres in the Province of Ulster and a multiplex cinema nearby.

For the tourist, there are many activities to choose from in the area - from shopping to dining, cinema going to sightseeing. Close to Ballymena, in the neighbouring village of Cullybackey the restored eighteenth century farmhouse that was the ancestral home of the 21st President of the United States of America is open to visitors all year round. Named the Arthur Cottage (after Chester Alan Arthur) it is a picturesque thatched-roofed dwelling, which has retained all the original features (including an open hearth).

Gracehill, another small village on the road from Ballymena to Ahoghill, has had a Moravian Settlement since 1764 and has won many 'Best Kept Village Awards', while Broughshane, a village on the other side of Ballymena is the Garden Village of Ulster, having won many awards for its beautiful floral displays.

Constantly watching over the Borough is Slemish Mountain, a 1437-foot high volcanic plug, and it is here that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, tended pigs as a boy in the fifth century AD. The climb is a relatively gentle one and the view is outstanding from the top. On a clear day you can see Lough Neagh and as far East as the Irish Sea. For centuries there has been a pilgrimage here annually on St. Patrick's Day (17th March) and it is a popular place for family picnics during the Easter Holidays.

Also close to Ballymena is Portglenone Forest with its beech and oak trees, red squirrels, huge patches of rhododendrons and spectacular walks. Slightly further away but within reach (via rail) is the North Coast of Antrim and the Giant's Causeway, Portrush, Portstewart and some of the best scenery in the country.

In conclusion, the 'City of the Seven Towers' has been drawing both settlers and tourists alike for centuries. Today it is a thriving shopping town, and boasts two shopping centres (The Tower Centre on Wellington Street and The Foothill Centre at the top of Ballymoney Street). Hypermarkets are also now commonplace.

Ballymena has also always been a very religious town, known for its Christianity, but also, for its Unionist politics. Times seem to be changing on that front however as more 'outsiders' settle in the town. Liam Neeson, the actor (of Star Wars fame), is perhaps the town's most famous 'son'. He was born and raised in Ballymena.

With the growth of Ballymena there has come prosperity but in recent years it has also become known as the drugs capital of the North. Sectarianism is not what the police force is fighting today - now they are struggling to contain the drug invasion. For the town's sake the proud people of Ballymena hope that they win this new struggle.

 

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