by “The Digger” – December 2009
The city of Lisburn has an added attraction this festive season and invites the public to the first ever outdoor synthetic ice skating rink as part of the 400th anniversary celebrations. Many families are trying out the temporary rink situated in the Castle Gardens area of the city.
There are some younger residents of the city who are particularly interested in this new venture. They are involved with a relatively new sport in our country – ice hockey. They are members of the Junior Belfast Giant’s Ice Hockey Team who hold regular practice sessions in Dundonald Ice bowl. Many of the Junior Giant’s members also have regular cross border training sessions and matches with the Junior Dundalk Bulls. The North-South Ice Hockey Partnership and the Cross-Border Ice Hockey Initiative 2009/2010 are the projects behind this collaboration. They in turn are supported by the European Union’s PEACE III Programme as awarded by County Louth Peace and Reconciliation Partnership. Extra ice time at Lisburn’s skating rink will assist in honing the skills of these enthusiastic young local players. Presently there are four members of the Junior Belfast Giants residing in the Lisburn area and other members with family connections in the city. An eleven year old member of the team recently discovered that his great grandfather had once been a champion ice skater at the King’s Hall, Balmoral in the late 1930’s.
Ice skating and associated sports go back further than the 1930 era. In the 1840’s there were reports in the local press of a curling club in Belfast. It was described as a game similar to bowls, but played on ice. In the 1870’s the club used a pond situated in the Seaview Demesne, close to Fortwilliam Park in Belfast. It was reported that they “prayed for John Frost to cast his spell.”
In October 1875, a skating rink had been introduced into the Ulster Hall, Belfast and in January 1876, a purpose built covered skating rink was opened by Robert Maynard at Camden Street, Botanic Road, Belfast. You may be forgiven for thinking that this was an ice skating rink when you first glance through the reports. In fact it was a roller skating rink. It was considered a much safer form of amusement in comparison to ice skating. The official opening of the Belfast Skating Rink took place on Thursday 18th May 1876 with military and string bands in attendance. The rink was 180 feet long by 80 feet wide. It was reported to be one of the finest covered rinks in the United Kingdom and was complete with refreshment room, offices, waiting room, lavatories, gas lighting and situated on the route of frequent passing tram cars. Public yearly tickets could be purchased at a price of 2 guineas for gentlemen, 25 shillings for ladies and half price for children under the age of fourteen. Members of the public were admitted for the sum of one shilling and children under the age of 14 for 6 pence. A further 6 pence was charged for the use of skates. Events held there included visits from Chinese and the Imperial Russian skaters and in June 1877 an American, Mr. W.H. Smythe undertook to perform a walk of 200 miles in 50 consecutive hours on the rink. In August 1882 The Belfast Skating Rink and adjoining properties were up for sale.
But of course some of the best ice rinks in the district were to be created by “Jack Frost” himself. Throughout the 18th and 19th century there are numerous records of heavy frosts and harsh conditions for those living at that time. A great frost had been recorded during the winter of 1709 and again in 1715/1716. It had continued for ten or eleven weeks. The intense cold experienced during that period was reported to have split large trees and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of cattle. Lough Neagh was frozen over during a period of what was described as black frost lasting from late December 1739 until the 15th February 1740. In 1763 it was reported that the opening of the Lagan canal had been hampered by ice that had blockaded all navigation. It was said that a glass of water left on a table in the open air took only five minutes to freeze over and was hard enough to bear a 5 shilling piece. A glass of wine froze in two hours and a glass of brandy was covered in a layer of ice in six hours! Lough Neagh was again frozen during an 89 day period of frost in 1784 and again in 1813 when another frost commenced on Christmas day. People were able to cross on foot from the Antrim shoreline to Ram’s Island. One of the local gentry, Colonel Heyland, rode his horse across the ice to the Island from Crumlin Water foot.
In later years others would engage in similar activities. In February 1895 it was reported that a businessman from Crumlin, Mr. Robert Mulholland, crossed the ice to the Island with his horse and sleigh. It was estimated that the ice on Lough Neagh was eight inches thick that year. The local minister, the Rev. Charles Frederick Newell placed a letter in the Belfast Newsletter that year inviting skaters “onto the good ice on Lough Neagh.” The Great Northern Railway had issued excursion tickets to enable skaters to take advantage of the conditions on the Lough. It was reported that the company had also provided illumination on the Lough in the form of lamps so that the skaters could continue on the ice for several hours after darkness had set in. In January 1881, some people were having fun skating across Lough Neagh described by one correspondent to the Belfast Newsletter as “the finest sheet of ice in the British isles, with no snow whatever on it.” Others, however, were dismayed at the “roughs” who were who were alleged to be deliberately cutting holes in the ice in the Ormeau Park, Belfast, causing skaters to trip and “driving respectable persons away.”
The numerous mill ponds found throughout the countryside proved to be amongst the public’s favourite places to skate. But it was not to be a pleasurable experience for all who engaged in this form of amusement. The newspapers of yesteryear carry a catalogue of catastrophes whilst engaged in activities on the ice. In January 1879 a 15 and 22 year old lost their lives when playing on the ice at an old pond mill at Ballysillan. In 1895 a 13 year old girl drowned in the mill pond at Mossley when the ice gave way. Two boys aged 10 and 11 years drowned in a factory dam at Carrickfergus in January 1899 when the ice they were playing on broke. The list of fatalities were endless. However, despite the dangers, skating on ice was enjoyed by many throughout the Lisburn District.
In February 1900 it was reported that some excellent skating had “been indulged at Brookmount, Lisnatrunk, Duncan’s Dam and Monro’s Dam at Lissue.” In January 1931 a severe frost made it possible for more skating at Brookmount. People travelled from as far as Belfast to participate in the activity there. Special trains were laid on. One of my older friends recalls walking from Knocknadona corners to the dam in order to participate in the skating with two of his friends. One of them had a pair of hob nailed boots to which a pair of skates were nailed. The yells and shouts of the delighted skaters at Brookmount could be heard for miles around that evening. The moonlight provided the perfect backdrop for them, supplemented by cars parked on a bank with their lights on. The skaters stayed there to the early hours of the morning. Skaters on the Lagan canal and the long icicles often found hanging from the thatched cottages are sights perhaps never to be seen again in the neighbourhood. The dam and nearby fields that flooded and subsequently froze at Brookmount were again visited in December 1938 and January 1945 by the skaters.
I have spoken to many people who recall walking across the ice from the shores of Lough Neagh to Ram’s Island. One lady vividly remembers seeing a donkey and cart positioned on the ice selling “minerals” to passers-by. Truly memories to be cherished.
For details of the outdoor ice rink at Lisburn see www.lisburncity.gov.uk.
For further details of Junior Belfast Giants Ice Hockey see www.juniorbelfastgiants.com.
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