Wednesday 6th June 2018. Very hot.
Just two miles from my home. I am in Lurgan once or twice a week. It seems remiss that I have not written about it.
Lurgan (population 25,000) is in North Armagh and about 41 kilometres (25 miles) from Belfast. It is about two miles from the southern shore of Lough Neagh, Ireland’s biggest lake.
The area was given to William Brownlow an English settlor “planter” in 1610 and the Brownlow family (Lord Lurgan) built the town soon after. They built Brownlow House which overlooks Lurgan Park (apparently only the Phoenix Park in Dublin is a bigger public park) .
The town’s fortunes grew with the rise of Linen Industry in the mid-19th century and waned with the fall of Linen in the late 20th century.
In population terms, the town is about 60% Catholic (Irish nationalist) and about 40% Protestant (British unionist) but Lurgan is officially part of the “new city” of Craigavon. In the mid-1960s, the Unionist government of “Northern Ireland” created Craigavon, as a model city based on post-war “garden cities” in Britain.
The “new city” was created by joining Lurgan with Portadown (a strongly Protestant/unionist town which is five miles from Lurgan) and villages such as Waringstown and Bleary. The name “Craigavon” honoured the first Prime Minister, James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) and the name itself created a cold place for Catholic nationalists. While anti-Catholic discrimination in jobs and housing was rife, it is also fair to say that many old residents of Portadown had negative feelings about “Craigavon”. The government enticed people to move to the new city with offers of houses and re-settlement grants but the new residents were not overly welcomed by the indigenous population. The new residents were often believed to be social misfits from Belfast.
Although most young people would not connect the name “Craigavon” to the name of a unionist politician, few people actually use the word. Most people say that they live in “Lurgan” or one of the other towns and villages. Nowadays, Craigavon refers to several housing estates built between Lurgan and Portadown. The name was dropped from the local shopping mall and the more bland “Rushmere Shopping Centre” is the new name.
The decline of the Linen Industry, the closure of the major “new” employer, Goodyear Tyres in the 1980s and retail business lost to Rushmere have all contributed to Lurgan’s decline. The Troubles from 1969 also had an effect. Several people, mostly Catholics lost their lives to loyalists and Lurgan was part of the “Murder Triangle”. This is not to under-state the killings that the Irish Republican Army and British Army/Royal Ulster Constabulary carried out.
Sectarianism is an issue in Lurgan. The town is split into a predominantly “Catholic” north side and a predominantly “Protestant” south side. Irish Flags, GAA Flags and Palestine Flags are common sights in the north side and British Flags, Orange Order Flags and Israel Flags are common sights in the south side.
The neutral zone lies between the War Memorial and the “Bleachers” a monument dedicated to the workers in the Linen industry.
I have lived in two different villages near Lurgan since 1982. But I have a historic connexion. My paternal grandfather (the son of a Royal Irish Constabulary police officer) grew up here. My paternal grandmother was born and grew up here. She made hankerchiefs in a local factory. And they were married in St Peters Church in 1908. They moved (via England) to Belfast.
So even growing up in Belfast in the 1950s, Lurgan and the surrounding areas was often mentioned. I recall my granny singing “Master McGrath” to me.
“Master McGrath” was a greyhound owned by Lord Lurgan (Brownlow) who won the Waterloo Cup, the premier greyhound race in England in three separate years. So he lives on in the statue donated by the Brownlow family in the 1990s and the name of one of a Lurgan’s pub (bar). And of course the song.
Sadly in the late Victorian era, greyhound racing or “coursing” involved live (soon to be dead) hares.
The most famous “resident” of Lurgan has actually been dead for three centuries. Margorie McCall was buried around 1705 but was not dead. This was only discovered when grave robbers tried to steal her wedding ring. Hence her gravestone reads “Lived Once…Buried Twice”.
This may or may not be true…but it should be.