Beannchar, the Irish name of Bangor, comes from the Old Norse for ‘horned bay’. Bangor Bay, after which the town is named, is located on the southern coast of Belfast Lough, just before the Lough opens into the Irish Sea. The town now serves as a dormitory town for Belfast 25km (15miles) away, but has a long and illustrious history of its own.
Monastic Bangor and its Saints
The current location of Bangor Abbey has long been a religious site for the area. Indeed, Bangor rose to such importance as a religious centre that it appears on the Mapa Mundi. The monastery was first established on a site known as the ‘Valley of the Angels’ by St Comgall in 555, and became a centre for sending out Celtic missionaries to mainland Britain and Europe. Indeed, still to this day, the Faith Mission Easter Convention and World Wide Missionary Conventions are still held in the town.
One of the early monks was St Carthage1. He set up as a hermit at Kiltallagh, before being forced to leave by the neighbouring bishops. He then came to Bangor, to study under Comgall for just a year before heading back to his native County Kerry to establish churches at Kilcarragh and Kilfeighney. In 590, he established a monastery at Rahan, near Tullamore, and was promoted to Abbot-Bishop. This grew into a great monastery but was soon surpassed by the establishment of a another at Lismore, County Waterford in 635, where he died four years later. Lismore is still a major cathedral city in Ireland today.
One of the early missionaries was St Columban2, who was born in Leinster around 543. He would have studied under Comgall before leaving Ireland in about 590, accompanied by 12 fellow monks, among them the saints Attala, Gall (circa 550 – 645) and Columbanus the younger. They established themselves at Annegray in the Vosges Mountains, Gaul3 and built monasteries nearby at Luxovium4 and Fountaines.
However, Columban and his follower’s Celtic practices caused the local clergy and the Burgundian court to try and force them away. Columban appealed to Pope Gregory I (circa 540 – 604) for support, but the campaign lead by King Theodore II (circa 586 – 613) eventually forced them to abandon Luxovium in 610 and flee to Switzerland.
Here Columban, Gall and others preached to the pagan Alemanni people and are remembered in Bregenz, Austria5 and Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, and other locations, for the work they did. Columban was forced out of here as well and fled to Italy, setting up a monastery at Bobbio; here he died in 615. Gall stayed in Switzerland setting up a hermitage at what is now Sankt Gallen before dying there in 645.
Other monks who were associated with the monastery at Bangor include:
· Findchua, who is chronicled in the Book of Lismore.
· Luanus, who founded 100 monasteries.
· Dungal, who defended orthodoxy against the Western iconoclasts.
Danish Raiders and Rebuilding
9th Century incursions by the Danes razed Bangor, sacking the town and the abbey. It was partially rebuilt, when St Malachy (Máel Máedoc úa Morgair) was appointed the Bishop of Down by Archbishop Caellach of Armagh. In 1127, the year after he completed the restoration of the abbey, he was appointed Bishop of Connor. Caellach then broke with the Celtic tradition of hereditary succession by nominating Malachy his successor in 1129. However, having followed opposition on his appointment to the Bishopric of Connor, Malachy did not accept the position of Prelate and Archbishop for another three years. Then for the five years he held the position, he did not enter the city of Armagh, for fear of his own safety. He decided to stand down from his position and on a trip to Rome to find his successor, Pope Innocent III (1160 – 1216) created him Papal Legate for Ireland. He is accredited with introducing the Latin Liturgy and the Cistercian Order to Ireland, and he was also the first Irish Catholic to be canonised.
The English dissolved the monastery in 1542 and the current abbey was built from the stones of the former in the 15th Century with a majestic tower. A spire was added in 1693.
In all, there are three church towers or spires that can be seen on approach to Bangor by sea. Apart from the Abbey, these belong to First Bangor Presbyterian Church and St Comgalls, Bangor Parish Church both just seen from Main Street.
Development of the Town
From being a Neolithic settlement to the establishment of the monastic settlement and beyond the shores of Bangor Bay, Bangor had a long history of settlement. Its location in a sheltered bay so close to the Irish Sea established it as a fishing port and harbour. A tower and tower house were built in 1636 as a custom house down at the docks. These are still present today and house a tourist information centre. The sandy beaches at Bangor Bay and nearby Ballyholme Bay later established it as a holiday resort for families to escape the industrialisation of Belfast. The Bangor to Belfast rail line is still one of the busiest lines in Northern Ireland today.
Queen Victoria visited the down and drove along the sea front giving the road its current name of Queen’s Parade. To the east of the bay were laird’s boats that tourists could hire out for a row in the harbour. Beyond that was Pickie Pool, an outdoor swimming arena, where many generations of Bangor and indeed Belfast children learned to swim. On the other side of the bay, the docks developed to take in goods and coal, whereas the fishing vessels moored adjacent to the harbour in the Long Hole and natural small fjord-like inlet. Along the sea front, facing the various hotels and tourist amenities, a sandstone clock was donated by the McKee family, which still works and bears their name to this day.
Open Spaces in Bangor
The Castle and its land was long the private preserve of the Hamilton family and stretched from the abbey the whole way along Abbey Street to what is now Church Street and back along the Gransha and Newtownards Roads to what is now the Ring Road. It was surrounded by a high wall, bits of which still remain to the north of the land along Abbey Street. With the town expanding though, the demand for land and amenities grew. Part of the land was given over for the market, then last century part was given up for the building of secondary schools for girls, and some more for their athletics fields. Eventually in 1973, the whole Castle and lands were given to North Down Borough Council as a Council Building and for Civic Amenities. Today the Castle Park and its former lands comprise two secondary schools, one primary school and the Institute of Higher Education, the Valentines playing fields, a Cineplex, council offices and a heritage site. There is also an arboretum and gardens that contain some rare species that the family established for their pleasure which the community can now enjoy.
The former brick works seems an unlikely location for the second major open space in the town, but when the manufacture of bricks ending at the close of the 19th Century, it became a gift of the Ward family for the people of the town. They developed landscaped gardens and also a bowling green and two tennis courts. Ward Park has developed through the years – the site of the tennis courts became first one, then two other bowling greens, the tennis courts moving to another part of the garden. A small children’s animal park, with rabbits, peacocks, budgerigars and guinea pigs was established on the banks of the stream, which is the home for ducks and other wild fowl. The town’s war memorial is also located in the park, along with a heavy infantry gun captured in the First World War, which has become a great climbable play thing for the children of the town.
Late 20th Century
The late 20th Century saw a major shift in the state of the town. Out of town shopping centres at Springhill, then also Clandeboye6 and now at Bloomfield, led to the degeneration of the town centre. The once proud Queen’s Parade was gradually dying, as holidaymakers went abroad rather than to the nearest available beach. The first phase of this redevelopment was to clean up the bay, which was heavily polluted. So with European funding two breakwaters were built, the outer one stretching out from the old west pier, the inner stretching out from Pickie Pool, which itself was now disused7. Then the beach was concreted over to enable a landscaped car park and the base on which to built a marina. A new harbour office and lifeboat station were built on the new waterfront and named Bregenz House.
Pickie Pool was pulled down as part of the development of the marina and in its place, a new children’s play area has been established, with climbing frames, sand pits and café. Also a train track that the kids can sit on winds its way across the fun park, past the pond with its pedalo swans. The location was once part of the promenade for Bangor and the path from the McKee clock out along the marina and past Pickie fun park has been landscaped to include fountains, borders and places of tranquillity to revive this quality again.
A new shopping centre at the foot of Main Street, covering the site of the old gasworks and reaching to High Street, was built to try and encourage people back into the town centre to do their shopping. The Flagship Centre was the first phase of the planned redevelopment of the sea-frontage that by now had many vacant and run down properties. The council started to buy up the majority of Queen’s parade with the intention of re-establishing a theatre in the town in a leisure, hotel and conference facility that will mirror the modern marina it is facing.
As well as encouraging people to moor at the marina, other transportation systems were in need of an overhaul, as the Victorian railway station was no longer capable of being one of the main stations on the Northern Irish Railways network. Alongside the station there was a ramshackle bus station that offered very little shelter from the elements. Over an 18-month period, the old stations were pulled down and an integrated bus and train station was built in a modern style. The roof of the glass-fronted structure reflects the seaside location with an impression of waves that sweep and lap over the train platforms. Computerised bus display boards make it easier to locate the correct bus stand and time of departure.
Bangor has over two millennia of history, but it is not resting on it; it is looking to the future and trying to provide an environment that the ever-increasing population is going to utilise and enjoy.
1 His Irish name is Mochuda.
2 Columbanus in Latin.
3 Modern day France, near the German border.
4 Modern name Luxeuil.
5 Bangor’s twin town.
6 Burnt down in 1987, rebuilt as a retail park.
7 People preferring the heated warmth of the indoor pool at the leisure centre.