Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The first football pitch (and golf course) in Ireland - now located?

I have posted about this story before, recorded in The Montgomery Manuscripts, describing a period around 1620 when Hugh Montgomery built a 'great school' with a green – "allowing the scholars a green for recreation at golf, football, and archery..." (page 126). But the precise location of the school, and the green, was until recently a mystery. Montgomery's Ards centred around the old ruined Priory which had been burned down in the 1570s by the O'Neills, and his new Market Cross.

A few weeks ago I found online a reproduction of a 1722 map of Newtownards which shows a 'bowling green' in front of the Old Priory - the ruined church that Montgomery restored for use, also lived in for a time, was eventually buried within, and for which he also built a House, and a Bawn wall which still survives to this day. So I expect that this is indeed exactly where the 'green for recreation' was. Greenwell Street (interestingly mis-named as Cromwell Street) is another clue.

Below is an OS map from the early 1800s showing the green, but which by then had trees on it. The ornamental 'pleasure garden' and 'front garden' of 1722 were still there a century later; the 'kitchen garden' had become a 'castle garden'. Castle Gardens Primary School was built nearby; the CastleBawn retail park with a huge Tesco and Matalan is another naming reference back to Montgomery's time.

Below is a view of the Priory from the green, a pic I took in 2006 around 5:30am one summers day to get the light in the right position!

So, if this detective work is correct, perhaps someone should approach the relevant golf, football and archery associations for a commemorative plaque to be installed at the green. 

The rest of the map is also interesting – another area shows that Newtownards had a 'West Port' and a 'North Port' - close to today's streets of the same names. 'Port' is a Scots term for 'gate' and nothing to do with boats or harbours, so these must have been entry points into the settlement and town.

And below is the whole map. Given that this is a 1943 copy of the 1722 original, and that it was drawn for Robert Colvill (who dominated Newtownards in between the 1600s Montgomeries, and the arrival of the Stewarts from Ballylawn in Donegal in 1744), perhaps the original map this was copied from is in PRONI within the Mount Stewart / Londonderry papers there.

An exciting discovery. Perhaps a gifted illustrator might now be able to reconstruct a depiction Montgomery's Ards one day - maybe his grand Scottish state funeral of September 1636, the day before Eagle Wing set sail for America.