Carrick Harbour Stories
I have been volunteering and working for Carrickfergus Museum since 2014, and during my time working as Education Officer for the Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI), I was lucky to be involved in some of the initial discussions around the regeneration of the town through the Carrickfergus Regeneration Investment Programme (CRIP) and City Deal. In these discussions, key message repeated time and again was the need to entice visitors from the castle into the town. I think at the time the statistic was a nearly 80% fall off between the castle and the town: largely because of the road.
But the road wasn’t seen as the sole problem: there was also the perceived lack of activity or sites of interest within the town to entice visitors across the road in the first place. Various strategies were discussed including a hypothetical yellow brick road. This would guide people around the town, taking in the town walls, the museum, Flame Gas Works and St Nicholas’ Church, to name a few. A great and logical idea. However, at the time, I thought more could be done.
That was two years ago. Since then, my role has changed, and I am no longer directly feeding into CRIP or City Deal, but the idea remained of using the castle and town museum as beginning/end points for the town tour from which this yellow brick could lead to or from. I envisioned each site providing brilliant overviews for our town’s history and then a mini-exhibition trail could be followed to explore some of the topics covered in more detail. For example, Bells had a photography studio upstairs, so you could provide some history on the building and how photography developed, along with the use of postcards. Dobbins could expand on the story of tower house in the town, etc, etc. The Guard Room belonging to the Antrim Artillery Warrant Officer’s House, currently being conserved thanks to funding from the THI and National Lottery Heritage Fund NI (NLHF), is a perfect example of an exhibition being developed in a small space on a specific topic. On this occasion led by the museum and supported by funding from the Irish Walled Towns Network, through The Heritage Council.
The next opportunity to present itself came in the form of the Kelly’s Coal Office. Also restored with thanks to the THI and NLHF. Given the local importance of the site, exemplary conservation, and the fab view from the top window, the current occupant and owner of Robinsons Shoes, Robin Stewart, was keen to explore the possibility of developing the space. Robin had acquired images, information and artefacts from the last 80 years relating to the Kelly’s building and brand. Ah ha, I thought, the perfect space for a small maritime exhibition, looking at the harbour, the coal ships and Kelly’s.
This led to several chats over quite a few cups of coffee and resulted in an application to the NLHF Community Fund programme in December 2020, to develop and deliver a community exhibition. The application was submitted by positive carrickfergus, and the owner and occupant has agreed to lease the space to the group for a period of 5 years, should the funding bid be successful. We will find out if our application has been successful at the end of January 2021.
There has recently been the suggestion of the development of a larger maritime museum in the town, so why don’t we use a smaller exhibition to generate interest and use visitor figures and feedback to form a case for greater investment in the future?
I want this project to be about the people of Carrickfergus, their stories and memories of the harbour and foreshore as well as the historical development. In preparation and with a positive outlook, we had our first session on the 15 January so I could get a sense of the topics important to local people. This also allowed me to gather a range of stories from which I could start developing the exhibition idea. While I would love to have been sitting with everyone in the museum, with their extensive image collection and a cup of coffee, the modern zoom meetup had to do on this occasion. I hold out hope for a real life catch up some day in the not too distant future.
From experience, these events can either flow naturally or totally bomb. Given the online element, with no bribe of a free cuppa and a biscuit, I must admit I was nervous.
I shouldn’t have been! While we were a small group, this gave people room to tell their stories, and the conversation flowed. Memories were shared and old acquaintances reconnected. For an hour and a half, I listened to people share their memories of Carrick, the events, the misspent youths, narrow escapes from the harbour and many nights at Smugglers. For that time, I completely forgot about the extended Covid-19 restrictions that had been announced not 3 hours before.
During this new normal, we are often so focused on staying relevant in our jobs and just trying to make it through the week, we sometimes forget to look outwards and make those small connections that are so important. Made harder by the current circumstances, they also become more important than ever. They lead to random conversations, new friendships, old ones reignited, and new projects imagined. I deal with the history of Carrickfergus daily but in an hour and a half of listening to people talk about 1960s and 1970s Carrickfergus, so much of what I look at fell into place and context. These stories, YOUR stories are priceless, and they need to be recorded for future generations or we will lose part of our history. Some call it reminiscence, some call it modern duration and collection. It doesn’t really matter what label you give it, the information is important regardless.
The pride that the people who came along for the Carrick Harbour Stories event really showed through during our natter, and I am sure there is more out there to be uncovered! So, if you want to share your pride for your town and share your stories, we would love to hear from you. These stories can be from any time in the last 100 years: if you have a story from the castle, Legg Park or the Pirate Park you visited with your family last week…I want to know!
And…are you a parent having to home school? How about a mini homework challenge? Can you get your child to draw a picture of their favourite thing about the Harbour, the Marina or the Marine Highway? I think having something like this on show would be great for any visiting families. People are always more inclined to visit places if they have local recommendations!
Thank you for reading and lets work together to make Carrickfergus a place for everyone.