Bangor, County Down - Story of Belfast

THE town of Bangor is situated on the County Down side of the entrance to Belfast Lough. It is about ten miles distant from Belfast, and is a very popular and prosperous seaside town and a favourite holiday resort. It resembles Armagh and Carrickfergus in being full of ancient history, and, like them, it has also passed through many vicissitudes, but all the dark and troubled times are now almost forgotten. The Bangor we know to-day is a more prosperous place than it ever was before. The change and improvement within the last ten years is remarkable, and every year seems to extend the town.

Old Castle in Bangor, 1600

Old Castle in Bangor, 1600

Centuries before Belfast was ever heard of, the town of Bangor was known all over Europe for the great College and the beautiful Abbey Church. In the ancient history of Ireland, Bangor held a very important place. In the year 555, St. Comgall built an Abbey for Regular Canons, which was the foundation of a town later on. He presided over it for fifty years, and when he died his body was enshrined in it. Some time after the great School of Learning was established, and in process of time it became one of the most eminent colleges in Europe. Many persons of distinction and of the highest rank sent their young men to be educated in Bangor College.

When King Alfred the Great wanted professors for Oxford, he sent to the great school at Bangor for the teachers he required. As Sir James Ware, the well-known authority, truly says, "The English Saxons received their education from Irish schools." Bangor was the quiet and peaceful habitation of sanctity and learning. A colony of students which varied in numbers from two to four thousand left an indelible mark upon the history of the land. There were men renowned for their power and wisdom, leaders of the people by their counsels and knowledge. They were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their time. A strange confirmation of the numbers attending the College was recently discovered in the Library in Oxford when an ancient manuscript roll was found containing the names of three thousand students in Bangor.

The original Psalter written by St. Comgall in the Abbey, the "Antiphonary of Bangor," a curious ancient "Book of Anthems" in Latin, was carried by an Irish monk to Bobbio, and is now one of the most precious volumes in the Library of Milan. The Abbey and College prospered for many years until the Danes invaded Bangor in the year 822, and, as no man is lord of his own any longer than he can defend it against others, so the monks were overcome, and the invaders ruthlessly massacred the Abbot and nine hundred monks. They desecrated the shrine of St. Comgall and left a trail of desolation behind them. The Abbey was rebuilt by St. Malachy, who planned it after the Model of Armagh, at that time (1125) the largest church in Ireland. It was the custom which the Irish tenaciously adhered to, to build them exactly the size St. Patrick had made so many throughout the country, sixty feet long and twenty-five wide. The new church was a magnificent building one hundred and forty feet long, it was called "Pulchro Choro" "the fair white Choir," from the beautiful white stone and lime that was used for the first time in Ulster. Traces of the old foundations are still visible. Bangor was known at that time as the "Vale of Angels."

The town suffered many times from invasion and still the Abbey lived on. The Church of Bangor was built within the precincts of the Abbey in the year 1617, and it was finished in the year 1623; both dates are cut on a stone set into the south wall, and are also carved on an old oak pulpit. A legend still lingers that there was a secret passage from the old Abbey out to the sea, opening at a point called "Jeannie Watt's Cave." Adventurous boys have often tried to go through, but a short length of the cave generally proves quite long enough. We can well believe such passages were a dire necessity in times of trouble. The old church was found unsuitable in many ways, and some years ago a very handsome new building was erected on a central site in the town. The old bell of Bangor is now in the possession of Colonel McCance of Knocknagoney.

The castle was built in the year 1600, on the site of an older castle. The Market House has a story connected with it too, for it was there the women and children were placed for protection during the terrible scenes of 1798. The guns and pikes were kept for many years behind the church doors in readiness for any sudden emergency—a vivid memory of stirring times. One very pleasant remembrance of Bangor is the fact that the first Sunday School ever formed in Ireland was at Rath-Gael. It was established by R. J. Cleland, Esq., in the year 1788.

In the year 1831, Mr. James Cleland of Rath-Gael brought six snakes to Ireland. There was great indignation when it became known that he had turned them out into the fields, but four were killed and two lost.

There are the remains of twenty-five forts and raths in the parish, but the largest is at Rath-Gael. It covers two acres, and is surrounded by a double vallum. The first body of English forces under the Duke of Schomberg anchored in Groomsport Bay with 10,000 men, a small fishing village near Bangor which was formerly called "Graham's Port." King William afterwards created the Duke "Earl of Bangor," but he will always be known as Schomberg. It seems difficult to believe the Bangor of the olden time that suffered such severe disaster through plunder, fire and invasion can be the pleasant smiling place we are now familiar with.

Almost every general shop shows festoons of sand shoes, cascades of little buckets and bunches of wooden spades to delight the heart of the young Belfastians. The small builders design some wondrous architecture on the sandy beach, while the older generation disport themselves in the blue waters of the bay.

Long may Bangor flourish as a health-giving outlet for the city of Belfast.