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Bangor On Belfast Lough Becoming “The City of Bangor” Is Nothing New

28th May 2022
The completion of the international-standard Marina in Bangor Bay in 1984 enabled Ballyholme Bay (top) to remain as clear water, ideal for dinghy racing and junior sailing, with soothingly unspoilt countryside along its eastern shore at Ballymacormick Point
The completion of the international-standard Marina in Bangor Bay in 1984 enabled Ballyholme Bay (top) to remain as clear water, ideal for dinghy racing and junior sailing, with soothingly unspoilt countryside along its eastern shore at Ballymacormick Point

There has been a surprisingly mixed reaction to the news that next weekend, in celebration of the Royal Platinum Jubilee, the sailing-mad town of Bangor on Belfast Lough will be conferred with City Status. Joy has not been unalloyed. Apart from the classic Bangorian’s default reaction of “What’s it going to cost us?”, the time-honoured “Bangor-by-the-Sea” has had its own neat and evocative power of expression over the years.

It’s a title that trips easily off the tongue, much more so than “City of Bangor”. It tells you exactly what the place is all about. And while some famous cities undoubtedly exude glamour, far more of them have a distinctly gritty workaday image, emphasised in this instance by the fact that while Belfast was the smokey place where Bangorians commuted each day to work, their home town was the fresh-aired haven where they gladly retreated each evening, a healthy place where in summer they went sailing, played golf, made an attempt at tennis, or simply enjoyed the benefits of sea air and the fact that it wasn’t a city, Belfast or otherwise

You knew where you were with “The Town of Bangor”. But the sudden imposition of the title of The City of Bangor on a place that’s exactly the same as it was last week has evoked some sardonic responses. Not least was the assertion that it should have been given to the one of the more disadvantaged alternative places that were promoted for the honour but failed to make the cut, less favoured towns such as Coleraine or Ballymena, “for they need it a lot more than we do”.

“Bangor-by-the-Sea” as it is now, quite big enough and actually a city for 1,500 years“Bangor-by-the-Sea” as it is now, quite big enough and actually a city for 1,500 years

Outsiders may find this reaction a bit ungracious. But in Bangor, there are those who know that, in thinking they’re conferring city status on Bangor, the modern authorities are deluded with their own self-importance. For they’re simply enabling the contemporary conurbation to revert to the city status which it held 1,500 years ago, when Bangor was an active monastic city of European significance.

Indeed, it had such staying power that when the Mappa Mundi – the World Map - of Hereford Cathedral was created towards 1300AD, only four places were marked and named in Ireland – Dublin, Bangor, Armagh and Kildare. Other monastic cities such as Clonmacnois and Derry, which had also been setting the international pace when Bangor was getting up to speed, were no longer significant. Yet Bangor – despite having proven a natural base for the Vikings – had survived to be the only place of importance on Belfast Lough.

At the time of the Hereford map, Carrickfergus on the Antrim shore was just a rocky islet behind which storm-beleaguered boats could find shelter at high water, while Belfast was no more than mudflats at the mouth of the very shallow River Lagan. Thus Bangor with its two north-facing bays – sheltered in the prevailing southwest wind - was the continuing natural centre of maritime and urban activity.

This seems to have partially been because while Clonmacnois had prospered for centuries as a place of such importance in learning that it drew people in, while Derry was never the same once Columcille had departed to convert the Scots in 563AD, Bangor was in for the long haul and outward-looking, thanks to continuing two-way missionary connections with Europe, notably to the Swiss, Austrian and North Italian Regions.

The voyaging Irish monks from the ancient Monastic City of Bangor had a greater impact in the heart of Europe than any other Irish seat of learningThe voyaging Irish monks from the ancient Monastic City of Bangor had a greater impact in the heart of Europe than any other Irish seat of learning

They also sent missionaries to what is now the Glasgow area, but that may have been a mixed blessing, as subsequently the rough Scots began to move in on the Bangor area to such an extent that the Stuart king James VI of Scotland, aka James 1st of England, granted Bangor port status in 1620, with all the trading monopolies which that conferred.

However, by that time Carrickfergus was the primary fortified port on what had generally become known as Carrickfergus Bay. Yet it was only a matter of time before it became Belfast Lough, as the rapidly-growing township at its head was becoming such a major commercial and industrial force that in 1888 it was finally conferred with the much-sought City of Belfast status when such titles really meant something.

Bangor meanwhile was developing in fresh directions. For a while, one of the bigger landlords in the little town tried to turn it into a cotton-manufacturing centre, and up to 300 people were employed in the North Down equivalent of the Dark Satanic Mills around Bangor Bay. But the coming of the railway from Belfast in 1865, with links throughout Ireland, was transformational.

For a while, it led to attempts to turn Bangor into a classic Victorian seaside resort. This worked to a certain extent for some time. In fact, it had a certain validity until sun-centred package holidays changed everything. But meanwhile it generated an underlying tension, for Belfast’s very rapid industrial growth meant that by 1900 it was the most atmospherically-polluted city in the world, and for many people this meant that Bangor was much more useful as a healthy-aired dormitory town well clear of Belfast’s grime, rather than somewhere with gaudy hospitality tendencies trying to generate an unreliable income from budget-limited visitors.

This in turn changed the geography of sailing development on Belfast Lough. We have records of recreational sailing in the Belfast-Holywood-Cultra-Carrickfergus upper part of the lough before 1800, and the oldest known image of this sailing is the painting of Belfast Regatta in 1829, when the race area was between Belfast and Carrickfergus

“Belfast Regatta” of 1829 – the full title reads: “Race Won 19 June 1829, at the Belfast Regatta, by the ‘Ariel’, John McCracken Esq., against the ‘Crusader’, Sir Stephen May, and the ‘Zoe’, Marquis (sic) of Donegall. From the painting by Andrew Nicholl, Ulster Museum.“Belfast Regatta” of 1829 – the full title reads: “Race Won 19 June 1829, at the Belfast Regatta, by the ‘Ariel’, John McCracken Esq., against the ‘Crusader’, Sir Stephen May, and the ‘Zoe’, Marquis (sic) of Donegall. From the painting by Andrew Nicholl, Ulster Museum.

But with improving rail and road connections to Bangor, the now rapidly-growing former monastic city by the sea began to play an increasing role in the Lough’s sailing development, and though the town’s Royal Ulster Yacht Club (founded 1866 just one year after the railway opened) is historically best-known for its direct links to Thomas Lipton’s five America’s Cup Challenges between 1899 and 1930, in terms of ground-breaking sailing development its input into the new-fangled concept of One-Design keelboat classes through its key role in the Belfast Lough One Design was something of global significance.

There’s a reminder of all this in the April 2022 Edition of Classic Boat magazine, where Tom Cunliffe writes of the restoration by craftsman boatbuilder Alastair Garland of the New Forest in Hampshire of Uandi, the 24-footer which started life in the mid-1890s as one of the new Belfast Lough No 1 ODs designed initially by William Fife in 1895.

Alastair Garland’s restored 1897-built 24ft LOA Belfast Lough OD in Hampshire. An un-restored sister-ship still exists in Ireland, in much the same state as Uandi was pre-restoration (upper right). Photos: Alastair GarlandAlastair Garland’s restored 1897-built 24ft LOA Belfast Lough OD in Hampshire.

In Uandi’s case, she was built for T V P McCammon of Holywood in 1897 by A Hutchinson & Co, whose yard was on North Twin Island in Belfast. Her sail number in the growing class was 7, but their time as the No I class was very brief, for enthusiasm was such that they’d become the No II Class by 1897 with the arrival of the 37ft boats which became the No I class through Force Majeur, and indeed by 1899 the little boats of 1895 origins had become the No III Class thanks to the arrival of new 31ft Mylne-designed sloops which elbowed their way into becoming the No II Class, better known as the Stars.

The first design for a Belfast Lough OD - the 24 footers which eventually became Class III - was this remarkably modern set of lines first sketched by Wiliam Fife in 1895.The first design for a Belfast Lough OD - the 24 footers which eventually became Class III - was this remarkably modern set of lines first sketched by Wiliam Fife in 1895.

The new class getting up to strength, racing at RUYC Regatta 1898. Photo courtesy RUYCThe new class getting up to strength, racing at RUYC Regatta 1898. Photo courtesy RUYC

All the joys of a running finish at the 1898 regatta…….Uandi on left, with the new RUYC clubhouse under construction in the background. Photo: Courtesy RUYCAll the joys of a running finish at the 1898 regatta…….Uandi on left, with the new RUYC clubhouse under construction in the background. Photo: Courtesy RUYC

Be that as it may, the original 24-footers first mooted in 1895 were of huge historical significance, and all power to Alastair Garland for recognising this and providing himself with a very attractive little day sailer while he’s at it.

However, he’s wrong on one count – Uandi is not the sole survivor of the class. I happen to known where the very restorable hulk of one of her sisters is hidden in plain sight in Ireland, but have so far failed to persuade classic boat enthusiasts that a very important yet manageable Fife creation is waiting for what will undoubtedly be an expensive but very worthwhile restoration, for the boats are a joy to sail in their own right.

Regatta Day 1898, and the new boats look very well, but after a gybe finish this foredeck is busy and the spinnaker is still up there behind the mainsail. Photo courtesy RUYCRegatta Day 1898, and the new boats look very well, but after a gybe finish this foredeck is busy and the spinnaker is still up there behind the mainsail. Photo courtesy RUYC

Who knows, but maybe some classics enthusiast in the new City of Bangor might feel that this particular restoration is now a doubly-worthwhile project, for all the stories about Bangor’s new status lead with the fact that it’s now home to the leading marina in Ireland.

This is not something which was achieved easily. A month ago, we published a piece  about how Bangor’s anchorages sometimes suffered from severe onshore gales. When it was re-posted on the Ballyholme Yacht Club website, it drew a sad response from Richard Thompson about how the great northeasterly gale of 1976 had resulted in the total loss at Ballyholme of his 26ft Swallow Class Philomela, a boat I once owned myself for several happy year.

But Richard’s point went further than that, for out of a fleet of 80-plus boats moored in Ballyholme Bay, 41 had either been totally lost or very severely damaged. It proved to be a pivotal point which resulted in massive developments about the planning of which I’ve only a sketchy notion, but the fact that Bangor now has a marina of top international standard speaks for itself.

It seems that after the 1976 storm, two Bangor councillors who had long thought the town badly needed a decent yacht harbour tried to encourage local officials to explore what might be possible through special grants and development support from the recently-joined European Union, or EEC as it was then. But the prospect of Brussels bureaucracy and paperwork generally was daunting in the extreme.

However, it happened that at the time the late Hugh Kennedy  was the very active Rear Commodore of RUYC, and he took his family holidays every August in Baltimore in West Cork. There, one of his neighbours at high summer was the late Peter Sutherland, an EU Commissioner among many other things, highly regarded as a man who knew his way around all the corridors of power and could get things done. Hugh wondered if it would help if he could arrange an informal summertime meeting between the Bangor marina proposers and Peter Sutherland, and apparently it took place, and very successful it was too.

Thus in looking at today’s Bangor Marina, the jewel in the crown of Northern Ireland’s newest city, you can’t help but wonder if it all began to become reality with a friendly handshake in the back bar of Bushe’s Bar in Baltimore. But beyond that, there’s no need to feel any special obligation to Brussels. For back in Bangor’s Monastic City days 1,500 years ago, Bangor gave some enduring and priceless gifts of faith and civilisation to Europe, so the building of Bangor Marina marked payback time.

Be that as it may, the new city status is going to pose some immediate acronym problems. At the end of June, the town, the marina, and the yacht clubs of Bangor are going to co-operate in staging the successful biennial Bangor Town Regatta, known to everyone by the neat title of BTR. That can hardly be retained now. Yet City of Bangor Regatta becomes COBR, which is quite a mouthful, and inevitably will become COBRA. Do you think the promo “Let’s do COBRA” will have wings?

Action stations at Bangor Town Regatta, usually known as BTR. With Bangor’s new city status, will this year’s event from 23rd to 26th June become COBRA 22?Action stations at Bangor Town Regatta, usually known as BTR. With Bangor’s new city status, will this year’s event from 23rd to 26th June become COBRA 22?

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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