The Lurgan Park Story|
By Ken Austin
Lurgan Park is without doubt the jewel in Lurgan's Crown. Covering some 259 acres, Lurgan Park is the second largest public park in Ireland, the biggest being Phoenix Park in Dublin. It's lake and grounds have been the stuff of many fond memories over the years to the local community and many a marriage proposal has taken place here. It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time back in 1907/08, when it looked as though the Park would not be created at all.
Lurgan Park was part of the land known as the Demesne owned by the Brownlow family since the Plantation of Lurgan in 1610. The Demesne was bought by the Lurgan Real Property Company, who cut down most of the timber from the great Avenue which was planted during the Plantation period and gave it to the residents of Lurgan. The Demesne was later sold to the Lurgan Borough Council in 1893 for the princely sum of £2,000.
At a meeting of the Lurgan Urban Council on the evening the 7th October 1907 the chairman (Mr. W. G. MacGeagh, J.P.), tabled a motion that a committee be appointed to consider the advisability of providing Lurgan with a public park. It was, he said, unnecessary for him to point out the necessity for a town park, for the general consensus of opinion was in favour of such a project, and many large ratepayers told him it was the last thing they would begrudge paying rates for. As they all knew, the class of work in which the majority of Lurgan people were engaged was very confined, and he knew of no town requiring an open free breathing space more. Mr. White seconded the motion. The Chairman took it that the business of the committee would be to interview the Real Property Co., and find on what terms they would sell a site in the Demesne.
Mr. Mahaffy: Is there only one site suggested?
The Chairman said the Demesne was the only suitable and central site that he knew of. Of course, if they could not get reasonable terms, the matter ended; but he believed they would.
A committee was so formed and entered into negotiations with the Lurgan Real Property Company, Limited, the ground in the Demesne was, in their opinion, the most desirable to obtain because of its central position and means ready access from all parts of the town. The Real Property Company bad agreed to sell the ground fronting on Windsor Avenue, from the edge of the lake; then right across to the rear of Avenue Road, taking in 73 acres bounded by the Demesne wall. The price agreed upon was £35 per acre in fee, together with £300 for the frontage, making a total of £2,800, this purchase to include all the walls surrounding the proposed park, timber, fencing, with the use of the lake and water for public baths, boating, skating, and fishing, all the gate lodge and grounds on Avenue Road. The only reservations were that the council could not let for building purposes any ground for a period of ten years after the completion of sale, and that they should take over the carriage-way leading to Brownlow House, and make or maintain the same. The proposal to spend £700 on improving the ground, would bring the total up to £3,500. This, on annuity or stock principal, would cost £162, and they estimated expenses for upkeep at £140 yearly and the probable receipts at £30, leaving a yearly expenditure of £272, which represented 2d in the £1. The whole council in committee had recommended this report to the council for adoption. The Chairman moved the adoption of the committee's report. Dr. Moore seconded the proposition, which was carried unanimously. They accordingly empowered the chairman to personally conduct the negotiations with the proprietors.
In July 1908 Mr. P. O. Cowan, M.lnst, the Local Government Board's chief engineering inspector, visited Lurgan. He spent nearly three hours examining the seventy-three acres of land which was proposed for the public park in the Demesne, which was the subject matter of an inquiry held by Mr. Cowan the previous week. Mr. Cowan also made a minute inspection of the sewerage outfall into Lough Neagh, and examined into the probability of the same contaminating the Water supply of the town. Later he examined the new sewage system of the workhouse, which had just been completed.
Then the arguments started.
That same week under the auspices of the Lurgan branch of the United Irish League, a public meeting was held in the National Hall, Lurgan, for the purpose, as the handbills summoning the meeting set forth, of considering the question of the proposed purchase of a pubic park on a site where it can only serve as a recreation ground for the Orange Lodges of Lurgan, and where it cannot be enjoyed by Roman Catholics, who are one third of the population, and pay one-third of the rates. Mr. Andrew Donnelly presided, and the principal speaker was Mr. Richard M'Ghee, who, in a lengthened speech, said that their case was, that there was one-third the ratepayers of Lurgan who had, not now and never had, any voice in the business of the town, and those ratepayers could not make any use of the park, and that the purchase of the park was a job on the part of the Orangemen of the council to use public money for the use of a single class. It was at the back of the principal residential and aristocratic quarter of the town, the rear of the houses occupied by the wealthy classes, who had extensive gardens of their own, and did not require a park, and at a considerable distance away from where both the Protestant and Catholic working class resided. If a park was formed at all, it should be in a place where it would be for the benefit of Protestant and Catholic alike, but the proposed site was difficult of access to the people for whom a park should be provided. None of the Catholics in Edward Street or Brown Street would dream of sending their children to it, and he was sure the people of Hill Street, Mary Street, and Victoria Street would not patronise it either owing to its inconvenient position. That being so, it was important to know that they were being foisted on them a park, and an addition to the rates from which they would derive no enjoyment. Mr. M'Ghee continued: If the urban council were so wealthy as to have a lot of money at their disposal, why did they not carry out schemes which were more essential and more pressing than a park? The sewage from the town, which emptied itself into Lough Neagh, from which they obtained their water, was seriously contaminating that supply, and a purification or sewage district works was absolutely necessary. Only the day previous the tea in his house had to be thrown out owing to its unpleasant flavour, and on investigation he found that this was due wholly to the water, which had an unwholesome taste. In reading the evidence of the Local Government Board inquiry into the park scheme he noticed the chairman of the town council said he was not inclined to go for a sewage purification scheme, as he had never known the system of sewage disposal at present in existence to cause sickness. That was a very cruel, heartless remark, and was tantamount to saying that he the chairman of the council would not be prepared to take any steps in this matter until some people had, because of the nuisance, been called to their long homes. In his (the speaker's) opinion, a sewage purification scheme that would do away with any deleterious effect the present system would occasion was much to be preferred to a scheme for providing recreation or amusement, even if such recreation and amusement could be enjoyed by the entire community, which would not be so in the present case.
Mr. Donnelly concluded by referring to the exorbitant price which the council proposed to pay for the park, and stated that they were buying it at £10 an acre more than its value. Mr. Joseph Heyburn, seconded Mr. John Bailey, then proposed the following resolution: That this public meeting of National and Catholic ratepayers of the town of Lurgan strongly protests against the proposal of the Urban Council to purchase 73 acres of ground from the Lurgan Real Property Company, for a public park, on the ground that we would be prohibited from making any use of the park by the fact that the Orange Hall sits alongside it, and still we would be compelled to pay a large share of the rate for its purchase and for its maintenance. Further, consider the time for such an increase of the rates as would be necessary quite inopportune just when large numbers of the working people are suffering from starvation owing to the state of trade in the town; and when the time arrives that the working classes can bear an increase of rates, it is our opinion that there are more urgent questions to be dealt with than the purchase of a park - questions such as the proper disposal of the town sewage, now being poured into Lough Neagh close to where the water is drawn which supplies the town; that we instruct the secretary send copy this resolution to the Local Government Board for the purpose of pressing on that body the duty of refusing the loan which the council has applied for. The resolution, protesting against the proposal was passed unanimously.
In an article in the Belfast Morning News on 28 July 1908 entitled 'Official Attitude towards the Opposition', its feature editor wrote: "There are here two points that deserve attention. One is that the party aspect was not originally raised by the Catholic and Nationalist side. The other that if the Local Government Board ignore this aspect, they would have done much to render their administration responsible for future disorder in Lurgan. No one wants to labour unduly on this party question. The stupidity of officialism in Ireland is, however, never so obvious as when it is attempting to cloak a job by pretending that there is nothing of a party nature about it. One could well wish it to be otherwise, but long and sore experience has opened ones eyes to the futility of expecting anything else. Whatever the report of Mr. Cowan, the inspector of the Local Government Board may be, he has laid himself open to grievous criticism by his remarks at the Inquiry. For example he referred to the weedy and stagnant condition of the pond in the 'Park' as curable. It might be cured, as Mr. M'Ghee reminded him, but it would be at a cost of £2,000 to £3,000 a burden that working class people from all over Lurgan would have to bear in these days of depression and financial tightness. The more the public pulse is felt in Lurgan the deeper becomes the conviction that this park scheme is repugnant to the good sense and intelligence of all that is wholesome in the electoral forces of the town. The local Government Board's decision is awaited with the utmost anxiety by Catholics and Independent Orangemen alike."
All through the summer of 1908 arguments for and against the scheme raged throughout the town. An unlikely alliance between Trade Unions, the United Irish League and a group known as the 'Protestant Watchmen' - a name taken from an earlier troubled time in Lurgan - argued against the Park Scheme in favour of a new Sewage plant at Lough Neagh and a baths for the town. In the end all were ignored and on 25th September 1908, the plan was ratified by the Local Government Board paving the way for the town Council to take possession of the land formerly known as the Demesne.
On 8 October 1908 the final sanction came from the Local Government Board when they agreed to the Council's applications for loans of £3.500 for the provision of a public park and £500 for the erection of sheds for an egg and butter market, the repayment for the former spread over period of 60 years and of the latter 20 years. At the council meeting that day, The Chairman (Mr. W. G. MacGeagh, J.P.), congratulated the Council and town generally having at last obtained the Local Government Board's sanction for a loan for establishing a public park and on the excellent value they were obtaining in the ground proposed to be acquired. "For surety of £2,600 they were getting a park already made containing 73 acres, which, were it not already enclosed, would have taken almost that amount to enclose it. He trusted that where opposition to the park existed it now die a natural death, for he was satisfied that a great many of the statements at the inquiry were made in the heat of the moment, and had very little foundation in fact. He hoped that all sections of the community, irrespective of creed or clan, now that the park was an accomplished fact, would enjoy the use and privilege of it without molestation, and could warrantee that no party would receive annoyance on a ground that now belonged to both parties alike."
On 2nd November all loans in place the deed of conveyance was ratified by the Town Council. But there was still one last protest. The Irish News reported: A special meeting of the Lurgan Town Council was held this evening for the purpose of signing and sealing the deed of conveyance of lands from the Lurgan Real Property Co., Ltd., to the Lurgan Town Council, for the purposes of a public park. Mr. W. G. MacGeagh, J.P. (chairman), presided. The deed of conveyance set forth that in consideration of the sum of £2,800, the Lurgan Real Property Co. should convey to the Lurgan Town Council 73 acres of the Lurgan Demesne, with skating, fishing, and boating rights on the lake, and subject to certain restrictions as regards building sites. The Chairman moved that the seal of Council be attached to the deed of conveyance.
Mr. Waite asked: wasn't there an alteration in the ground about to be acquired from that shown in the original map?
The Chairman said there was a deviation in the line on the far side. Instead of being straight it was now crooked, but the amount of ground was the same.
Mr. Waite: Was the alteration before the council?
Chairman: We never knew the place the line would strike until now. The fact that the line is crooked, instead of straight is not to our disadvantage.
Mr. Waite: ln any case there is an alteration from the original map, and I protest.
The Chairman: All right. I'm glad you have succeeded in getting something to protest against. He dissents because the boundary line is not straight. This is pure quibble - contemptible quibble - a pure knot in his brain. The motion was carried, Mr. Waite dissenting.
A sequel to the purchase was announced by the chairman of the Council at a special meeting of the Parks Committee on 2nd December 1908, when he mentioned that the question of obtaining possession of the Demesne lake, which comprises an area of 53 acres, had recently cropped up. He said he was given permission by the Park Committee to interview the owners with reference to its acquisition. He had done so, and he was given to understand by them that they would be prepared to sell the lake and all rights pertaining thereto: also the portion of the road encircling it from where the park joined the Orange Hall grounds up to the sheep walk at a spot less than 60 feet in width, for £250, a sum which was practically nothing when compared with the interests and advantages they would acquire. They would have absolute control over the water rights of the lake, which they could utilise for boating, fishing, swimming, and skating; and they would also have control over two thirds of the drive round the lake. Moreover, he understood that representations had been made to the Estates Commissioners, who had purchased the remainder of the Demesne, with the object of inducing them to give the Council the rest of the walk, and they had replied that they were favourably considering the matter. This would give them a walk drive around the entire lake. The sum asked for all these advantages to the town was small that a penny rate struck for three years would more than cover it. The Park Committee, in their report bearing the same matter, empowered the chairman to enter into a provisional agreement with the Real Property Company, and recommended the matter to be submitted the Council for ratification or otherwise. The Park Committee reported that four sets of plans for laying out the new park, for which the Council offered a prize of £25 were submitted, and they had accepted that sent in under a nom-de-plume, and which they subsequently learned belonged to Messrs. Cheal and Son, of Crawley, Sussex. On 6th January 1909 at a special meeting of the Parks Committee, the deed of conveyance was signed and sealed for the purchase of the lake and walk.
But the arguments didn't stop there. At a meeting of the Lurgan Town Council on the evening of the 1st February 1909, under the presidency of Mr. W. G. MacGeagh, J.P. (chairman). The Park Committee recommended that the tender of Messrs. Cheal and Sons, of London, for supplying two hundred lime trees for planting on either side of the main avenue through the park at £26 10s be accepted.
Mr. Mahaffy asked how it was the Committee had not given effect to the Council's recommendation that tenders were only to be sought from Irish firms.
Mr. Lonadale: There was no formal recommendation; it was only an expression of opinion. The Chairman said Mr. Cheal had gone out of his way in coming over and advising them how the park should be planted, and as he was charging them no fee, and his price was almost as low as the lowest, the Committee did not see that they could overlook him.
Mr. Mahaffy said Cheal's was not the lowest tender and he held that the Committee had gone too far in placing the order, as he understood they had, without the Council's approval, and strongly protested against their action.
Chairman: We had power to act, and we come here to tell you what we have done.
Mr. Mahaffy: This Committee met on the 18th January, when some of the members of it were not in office.
Chairman: That's a nice legal point. I would advise you to pursue it.
Mr. Mahaffy said the Committee in placing the order without the Council's approval had acted in a most high-handed manner. Ten members voted for the adoption of the minutes and four against. Later on the Council proceeded to appoint a Park Committee for the year. The Chairman said: Now you have an opportunity of sweeping away the Park Committee, whose action you have talked so much about.
Mr. Lonsdale moved that the whole Council form the Committee for the year.
Mr. Miller seconded.
Mr. Mahaffy said that Some of them won't act, so there's no use putting it to a vote.
Mr. Drennan, seconded by Mr. White, moved the re-election of the old Committee. Seven voted for the latter motion and five against. Mr Lonsdale moved that in future the Park Committee should not have power to act, but should recommend to the Board, the same as other committees. This would obviate adverse criticism in future. Mr. Mahaffy seconded. The Chairman said it would be practically impossible and absurd for the Committee not to have power to act at the present time, and until such times as the park was ready for opening. Mr. Lonsdale said He made the proposition on account of the accusations which had been made, and which had no foundation in fact. Mr. Ballentine, seconded by Dr. Moore, moved an amendment that the Committee be given power to act. Eight voted for the amendment and five against.
Work on the Park now started in earnest and provided many jobs for the unemployed of the area over the Spring and Summer of 1909. An air of excitement overtook the whole town as finally the opposing factions came together in a spirit of communal pride. Trees were planted, the lake was drained and cleaned, lawns and flower beds were laid and pathways cleared. Finally a date was set, Lurgan Park would be officially opened on 31st July 1909.
As the great day dawned, many in the town agreed that they hadn't seen such activity in many a year. The streets were adorned with bunting of myriad colours. A pretty display had been arranged in the park in the afternoon, 2,500 children from the fifteen schools in Lurgan marching in processional order under the charge of their teachers to the cricket-ground in the park. As they formed the Viceregal stand, the girls in white costumes, the boys with fluttering flags that made a brave show of colour against the dark green of the trees, while a military note was given to the parade by the lads of the Boys Brigade swinging along behind, their bugle loud. All Lurgan had turned out to see the show, as their Excellencies Lord and Lady Aberdeen arrived to officially open the Park and received a great reception as they drove up. When they had taken their places on the stand a deputation of the scholars stepped forward, and Miss Mina Chambers presented Lady Aberdeen with a handsome bouquet on behalf of the children. Master R. Symington read the following address, which was afterwards handed to the Lord Lieutenant by Miss Eva Gracey:
"We, the children attending the various day-schools in Lurgan in connection with every section of the community, venture to approach your Excellencies on the occasion the formal opening of our new town park and respectfully tender you most cordial and loyal welcome. Young are, very many of us have heard and read of his Excellencies efforts since coming to Ireland for the betterment of the people generally, and all Ireland. North, South, East, and West rings with the praise of the Countess of Aberdeen for her noble self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of our health and that of the whole people of Ireland. His Excellency on opening the park will no doubt have used a golden key, but her Excellency has opened all our young hearts and secured our abiding affection with a key far more valuable, her real genuine love for children and her great interest in their welfare. We earnestly hope that your Excellencies present visit may prove enjoyable, and that on some future occasion wish our younger brothers and sisters may be privileged to once again tender to your Excellencies welcome to Lurgan equally cordial as do to-day."
The Lord Lieutenant, in reply, said they were all delighted to see such a splendid assemblage of children in that beautiful park. The girls and boys had presented them with charming addresses, full of kind feelings and thoughtful expressions, offered especially to Lady Aberdeen. Her Excellency was very fond of children, and he ventured to say that he himself was not very far behind her in that respect. They appreciated the full enthusiasm shown that day, and congratulated the people of Lurgan on the happy circumstance that brought them together on the occasion of the opening of that new park, of which he knew they would make the best possible use. His Excellency then called for three cheers for the success of the park, and cheers were also given for Mr. and Mrs. MacGeagh. The children, headed by the Boys and Church Lads Brigade, then began their march past the Viceregal stand, both Lord and Lady Aberdeen securing a series of snapshots of the ceremony. Their Excellencies were heartily greeted as they motored through the park to the Town Hall. The children were afterwards entertained to refreshments in the park, and during the afternoon the band of the 5th Dragoon Guards, under the conductor-ship of Mr. T. W. Barker, rendered a musical programme.
In 1928 the Coalbrookdale Fountain was moved to the park to make way for the new War Memorial. The Cast Iron Fountain was erected in 1888 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria and was built by the Coalbrookdale Company of Ironbridge, Shropshire. The Company were well known for their Cast Iron Structures and Iron Bridges. The fountain was dismantled from its place of pride in Church Place in Market Street, and moved to it's current location in the Park.
Today Lurgan Park, despite all of it's difficulty and opposition is a much loved feature of the town. It boasts six floodlit tennis courts (four of which are all weather), a bowling green which can be hired by individuals or clubs, a boating lake, the Park Lake has been stocked with Roach, Bream and Tench and there are 20 fishing stands allowing the visiting angler excellent access. The beautifully landscaped parkland contains a number of well maintained paths which provide excellent walking and running ground. Thousands flock to it every weekend in the summer to enjoy it's facilities, and with God's grace will do so for many generations to come.
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