Speaker for 15th October 2019
Coleraine Probus visit 'The Diamond' in four centuries
Alison McCaughan, guest speaker at the recent Probus Club meeting, had members fascinated as she told the story of our town centre over the last 400 years. From asking everyone to close their eyes and imagine they were in the centre of Coleraine, and posing the simple question "what did you see in the Diamond today?" she then began to her tale by saying "If the year was 1619, the Diamond was a hive of activity". It was time the English were transforming Ulster and the London Companies liked what they saw.
From 1585 until 1613, Coleraine had been the main town in the North West of Ulster, and the surrounding area was 'County Coleraine'. The London Companies decided on Derry as their main fortified town, renaming the town and the county 'Londonderry'. The completion of the Londonderry walls was in 1619.
The 1611 'Blueprint' for the building of Coleraine (From the PRONI collection)
Coleraine, sited on the banks of the Bann, was seen as an ideal site for another fortified garrison town. In 1619 the street lines were almost the same as today, and were secured by earth ramparts. Scottish names were prolific in the countryside, while a mix of English and Scottish traders and businessmen were establishing themselves around the town centre, although these were relatively small in number and housed mainly in cottages. St. Patricks Church, built on the site of an ancient Abby, had recently been completed, and there was a Mill and docks on the banks of a river. Coleraine was beginning to establish itself as a town of importance.
If you were in the Diamond in March 1689, you would have seen a much-enlarged town. There were many more Scottish settlers, and they were coming into the town as refugees. Coleraine was under siege and Red Coats manned the ramparts. It was the soldiers of James II and Jacobite Army that was invading Ulster. Fortunately for the town, there was a more pressing need for the troops, who then bypassed Coleraine and headed off to Londonderry.
If you were in the Diamond in mid 1718, you would probably have seen a man talking about 'the New World'. This sounded very tempting, especially to Presbyterian farmers, who thought they were being treated very unfairly by the Government. There had been several poor harvests and the rent kept rising. And it was even more tempting when land could be got for 1 penny an acre!
The original 1716 Bridge
If you were in the Diamond one Saturday morning in October 1770, the place would be packed. There was a brand new stone bridge connecting the town to Killowen and the cloth workers that were housed and worked there, and in Articlave. In the centre of the Diamond stood an impressive stone built house that was the Mayors Parlour. Stone buildings also stood on each of the corners that formed the Diamond. Tradesmen were busy selling their wares, as the horses and carriages of the better off clattered over the rough cobblestones on the town square. Coleraine was the 'home' of some of the finest linen you could buy. It also well-know for its Whiskey, which did incur more than the occasional problem, especially on Market days!
The Diamond in the mid 1700s
If you were in the Diamond later in 1845, it may have looked a deserted and dreary place. Coleraine was lucky to have escaped the worst of the rebellion and the famine, but it hadn't escaped the cholera outbreak that that swept through the town taking many lives.
The Town Hall in mid 1700s
If you were in the Diamond during the spring of 1857, you would have wondered what was happening. There were big crowds of people, smashing and breaking anything they could get their hands on - Why? It was a political meeting, and polling was taking place for the English Parliament elections. For Coleraine and the wider area there were only two candidates: The sitting MP Sir Henry Hervey Bruce - landlord and 'finger in every pie' for the town, which he very much controlled, and his opponent; supporting the 'Tenants Rights' cause - a remarkable grouping of both Protestant and Catholic families - Samuel Curry Greer (who had been educated in Scotland). What made this election violence so remarkable was the fact that only about 4% of the population could vote. You had to own property to be eligible to vote, and for a town like Coleraine and its surrounds, the vast majority or people were tenants. However, Greer was the victor and represented our area for two years - although this success may well be more likely due to the deep unpopularity of everyone's landlord, Sir Henry.
Brook Street celebrations in 1912
If you were in the Diamond in 1914, what a change you could see. Everything had grown. Cloth-workers had expanded the Waterside. The town was prosperous, Lady Hervey Bruce was very popular, many notable and fashionable people could be seen in the town and its shops. The Bann Rowing Club was preparing the Boat House for the Annual Regatta Ball; everyone was enjoying the safety, peace and comfort of our town. But soon many husbands and sons would be answering the call to war.
If you were in the Diamond 1990s and early 2000s would you believe the changes that had taken place over the last 400 years? Would you recognise the social; industrial; political and educational progress in the area, from early times up to the present day? As Alison came to the end of her extraordinary peek into the past, she left us with a thought to remember: "An appreciation of the past should keep us humble; it reminds us of where we belong and where we came from; life was so much harder in the past, and we owe so much to those who have gone before. We in our turn are stewards only for a very short time".