The first recorded Ballycastle regatta and sports was held on Thursday, 27th August, 1869. It was a great week in the history of what was sometimes affectionately referred to as the “wee town”. The place was then a comparatively small township; indeed it was not until just over half a century later — 1920 — that it became a town officially in the form of the establishment of an Urban District Council.
The regatta, which concluded with the holding of a number of sports events, formed the climax to the annual Lammas Fair — a fair then, as now, looked forward to with much interest both by old and young and generally regarded as marking the end of the Ballycastle summer season. One hundred and twenty one years ago the fair lasted several days its crowning day devoted to pleasure was Thursday after the last Tuesday in August, when the first recorded regatta took place at Ballycastle Bay.
From an early hour immense crowds began to pour into the town from every direction. It was estimated that about mid-day the number of people present could not have numbered much less than from seven to eight thousand. The morning was somewhat hazy, but towards noon it cleared sufficiently to enable the vast concourse of visitors to view the bold and magnificent form of Fair Head as a thing of life, clear and distinct. From mid-day onwards the sun shone down his rays in unmitigated splendour. It must be remembered that this immense crowd came to Ballycastle either by boat, by horse-drawn vehicles or on foot. Mechanically propelled forms of transport, certainly as far as Ballycastle was concerned in those days were for all practical purposes quite unknown. There was no rail connection to Ballymoney until October 1880. Be that as it may, Ballycastle Bay was studded with craft of all shapes and sizes, many of them showing a large display of bunting and including some Islay luggers. To add to the attractiveness of the scene the little steamer “Banshee” on her way from Glasgow to Coleraine, entered the bay with her flags flying.
As for the regatta, the flag ship was placed opposite the coal mines beyond Bath Lodge, just over a mile from the Commodore’s boat (Captain Peel, R.N.). The committee responsible for the aquatic events consisted of Captain McGildowny, J.P. John Stewart Moore, Esq. J.P. and George Williams, Esq., starter. The regatta began with a sailing race open to all square sterned boats with any sail, 13 to 18 foot keel, for entry from the Bann to Red Bay. The first prize offered was £3; the second prize £1.10.0 and there were four entries. “Spray” Ballycastle (Lyden) was first; “Banshee” Cushendall (Dr. Stone), second; also competed “Grebe”, Ballycastle (Dr. O’Connor) and “Wave” Ballycastle (Sheppard).
As there was scarcely a breath of wind to waft the boats along, the races were rather tedious to watch. Some of the boats were not able to return to the starting point for about four hours! No official “card” of the races had been published — a circumstance which was the subject of some adverse criticism. The public could not tell except in a few cases what boats competed, but this was occasioned by the fact that the entry list—as indeed was customary at subsequent regattas—was allowed to remain open until the morning of the regatta so as to give as many as possible an opportunity to compete.
The second race was for four-oared shallops or yawls, not less than 24 foot keel, coxswain allowed. It was won by “Dart”, Coleraine (McLean) and “Catherine”, Portmoon (Brown); also competed “Nobody’s Child”, Cushendall (Hamilton). The third and fourth races were for shallops or yawls under 24 feet keel and the winners included “Wilson”, Ballycastle (McKinlay); “Eliza Jane” Blackrock (Weir); “Shamrock”, Portmoon (Curry) and “North Pole”, Rathlin (McCurdy). Other competitors were “Mary” Ballycastle (Coyle); “Victory” Portbradden (McKay) and “May”, Ballycastle, (Lyden).
If the dead calm made the sailing events tedious to watch, the sea was in excellent condition for the rowing races. These included one for pair-oared punts 12 to 17 feet keel, coxswain allowed. This race was won by “Maud”, Coleraine (McLean) and “Fido”, Ballycastle (Boyd). A sculling match — distance 200 yards — was won by “Flora”, Ballycastle (Dr. O’Connor). The aquatic events concluded with a duck hunt, the chasing boat not to be less than 24 feet keel. Altogether a sum of £25 was disbursed as prizes to the various winners in the sailing and rowing events — a very substantial sum one hundred and twenty-one years ago.
SPORTS AND THE WARREN
Upon the conclusion of the boat races —just after 6 p.m. — thousands of people made their way to a large field called “the Orchard” on th,e left-hand side of the present Quay Road (as one goes towards the sea) and almost directly opposite “Shangarry” and the Primary School. Most, if not all, of the houses on the Quay Road — and certainly the row of terrace houses — were then non-existent. “The Orchard” is now traversed by Beechwood Avenue, Strandview Road, Cedar Avenue and Cedar Drive were then non-existent — and indeed for long afterwards. (I remember when not one of these highways existed.) My late uncle, John Nicholl built the three terrace houses now Nos. 44,46 — the house in which I was born — and 48 Quay Road and he used to say that if he had built yet another (as he had contemplated) there would have been no Beechwood Avenue — a highway that got its name from Beechwood, the old brewery (now no. 43 Quay Road) and the residence of the McNeile family after it left Colliers Hall circa 1795. My uncle called his three terrace houses Annahavil because the word derives from the Irish “the marsh in the orchard”, a derivation that agrees with the location, as there was (in my memory) a marsh near the site of Leabank Nursing Home.
“The Orchard” in 1869 was regarded as “splendidly adapted for a people’s park if the proprietress of the estate ever felt inclined to present such a boon to the good people of Ballycastle.” This reference to a people’s park is of unusual interest when it is remembered that it was mooted long before the setting up of such machinery of local government as exists to-day. The proprietress of the Ballycastle estate in 1869 was Mrs. J. Humphrey Keats (nee Boyd), great aunt of the late Miss Kathleen Isobel Boyd, the Manor House, Ballycastle, born 1865 died 1944.
The athletic events included a mile flat, 200 yards and a sack race, the winners being Francis McGrath, John McNeile, Thomas Whelan, Joseph Blair and D. Hutchinson. The Committee responsible for the athletics consisted of Messrs. Robert Woodside, Andrew Sharpe, E. Sheppard, John McG. Boyd, Archibald Gray, John McDonnell and “the very efficient honorary secretary Hamilton Chichester Kirkpatrick, Northern Banking Co., Ltd., Manager of its recently established branch in the town (1863). “The Coleraine Chronicle” reported —
The day will not soon be forgotten in Ballycastle, and we trust next year to have a repetition of it on a much more extensive scale.
So ended Lammas Fair Week in Ballycastle one hundred and twenty-one years ago.
Apparently the aquatic events loomed more largely in 1869 than did the athletics. It would be true, generally speaking, to say that in later years the reverse tended to be the case especially when the sports events began to be held on the warren. The annual event tended to become one of the most popular fixtures of its kind in the north of Ireland. The regatta was virtually a household word among many — so much so indeed that it tended to become a minsnomer in the sense that when people spoke of the annual Ballycastle Regatta it was the sports rather than the aquatics that they had in mind.
Writing of the event in 1888 George Henry Bassett stated:
Ballycastle is a good place to witness a coast regatta. It is generally held in August each year and occurs on the day following the fair for horses, cattle, sheep and pigs. A great deal of originality is displayed in making up the programme and much innocent sport is very keenly enjoyed on the occasion by the assembled inhabitants of the surrounding country, including a large contingent from the neighbouring island of Rathlin.
Who of us elder folk have not any but delightful memories of this annual event? —the superb venue, the lovely grass track on the Warren, the band, usually a very good one playing familiar music within the compass of the sports ring, the ice cream “sliders” — then somewhat of a novelty, the odour — this moment of the freshly cut sward, the next of the liniment or embrocation, if one was in the proximity of the tent used by the competitors; the official starter and handicapper of the Amateur Athletic Association for many years, the somewhat excitable Mr. Henderson, with his little “bang” pistol to start the races — and that was a special attraction to us boys! above all the cheers and shouts of the great multitude that lined the track, as the ringing of the bell announced the last lap of a particular race.
Small wonder the late Mr. E. J. Fogarty first Town Clerk of Ballycastle described the annual regatta and sports as “Ballycastle’s Gala Day”, second only in popularity in the town’s social calendar to the annual Lammas Fair.
GROUP OF COMMITTEE
Centre (sitting) left to right: W.J Scally (hon.treasurer), G.H. Scarlett (chairman), E.G. Deignan(hon. secretary).
Second row (sitting): J. Douglas, A. Boyd, J.R. Williams, W.H. Belford, J.P., M.J Feerick, A.McAuley, J.P., H.A.McAlister, C.B.M Pelly, Captain Hardy, J.McCartney, F.McKinney.
Third row: P.Hughes, D. Lamont, J. Thompson, J.P., H. Kennedy, H.Rankin, I.S. Hunter, J.W.McCaughan, M.F.Quinn, E.J. Fogarty, C.M. Lawrence.
Fourth row: (standing): H.A. Boyd, W.Kelly, J.S Scarlett, J.A. McBride, Captain Roy J. Craig, W.R. Workman, J.A. Irwin, M.D., Captain McLean, E.F.McCambridge J.P, J.B. Ekin, J.Moore, J.P. J.McBride, J.Tumelty, W.Robb, C.Bakewell, H.Hipson.