A seaside resort’s overlooked anniversary of exclusive day off

While we lament the closure of Barry’s in Portrush due to Covid-19 regulations, and await the outcome of the famous amusement park’s impending sale, a completely forgotten local anniversary is approaching.

Friday, 14th May 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 14th May 2021, 8:31 am
‘Exuberant Portrush youngsters were let loose amongst the Zoo’s wildlife’
‘Exuberant Portrush youngsters were let loose amongst the Zoo’s wildlife’

Former Coleraine Chronicle editor and author Hugh McGrattan reckons that May 24 doesn’t immediately spring to mind as an important date in the seaside resort’s esteemed past.

But as Hugh now reminisces on the rest of today’s page, for many years most Portrush people, particularly the children, looked forward to May 24 with pleasurable anticipation. It was known as Portrush General Holiday, the annual day off, applicable only to the town’s residents.

It was a greatly appreciated breather before days off would be impossible with the influx of summer visitors by car, train, bus and regular ferries like the Scotch boat.

‘Back on trams to the city centre for an hour spending their precious savings’

Though it was predominantly for traders and guesthouse owners, local schools closed too, allowing children a day out with their parents.

During Hugh’s childhood in the 1940s it was a Red-Letter occasion, marked by a mass exodus by train, usually to Belfast.

It started in 1901, so this year is the 120th anniversary of the unique Portrush General Holiday. It’s long gone but not forgotten by those of a certain age.

The excursion was organised by local churches, principally Church of Ireland and Presbyterian. As one of the latter, in the custody of his elder sister, Hugh joined the expectant throng at around 9am in the Church Hall at Mark Street, where Will Nimmon, their energetic and fondly-remembered Sunday School superintendent, had things under control.

Queen Victoria was born on 24 May 1819

Issued with tickets, instructions and cautions, the children sang a Sunday School chorus and after a prayer it was off to the railway station to embark on a many-carriaged train pulled by an already panting steam locomotive.

The destination was Belfast’s York Road station, and onward by specially chartered trams to Bellevue Zoo.

After lunch in the Floral Hall the exuberant Portrush youngsters were let loose amongst the Zoo’s wildlife.

Later, back on trams to the city centre for an hour spending their precious savings - sometimes as much as ten shillings (50p) - in such retail paradises as Woolworth’s, which was at least twice as big as the one in Coleraine.

Then, laden with purchases and consuming such confectionery as they’d been able to buy (wartime rationing was still in force, remember) they steamed back westwards towards the setting sun and an almost deserted Portrush.

How the General Holiday came about, no one ever asked.

It was simply an exclusive Portrush right!

Hugh once tried to discover its origins and found that it was instituted in the early 1900s by no less a body than the Portrush Urban District Council.

Councillor W.J. Morrow first raised the issue in the Council Chamber by announcing that he ‘understood’ that the King (Edward VII) was about to proclaim May 24 as a National Holiday.

Whether this was correct or not, he could not say, but he “begged to propose that in future years the May 24 should be recognised as a General Holiday in Portrush.”

Councillor Thomas Bamford seconded this historic proposal and the deed was done, whether the King agreed with it or not!

Within a few days the Coleraine Chronicle was confidently predicting that the General Holiday promised to become an annual fixture.

The paper was right.

Thus, on 24 May 1901 almost all the business establishments in Portrush were closed.

Many people set off on the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway for Belfast and other places down the line.

About 50 members of the Northern Star Good Templar Lodge went off to the Glens of Antrim while members of the Boys’ Brigade and scholars of the Presbyterian Sunday School with their friends - around 300 in all - travelled by special train to Ballycastle accompanied by Bushmills Pipe and Drum Band.

“All returned early in the evening well pleased with their first annual excursion” the Coleraine Chronicle reported, almost with relief. And so it continued into the 1970s.

There was even an attempt to have a second General Holiday in the autumn for the people of Portrush to lick their wounds and prepare for the coming winter.

But it never caught on in the same way.

On 21 January 1993, the Portrush Chamber of Commerce voted by eleven votes to four to scrap the May General Holiday and by ten votes to two to scrap the October day off.

But the option to close still remained with those businesses and shopkeepers who wished to do so.

Why was May 24 the chosen date?

For many years Hugh had no idea, until his friend Bobby Fisher, then in his 80s, told him that the General Holiday had sometimes been referred to as ‘the Queen’s Birthday’.

The penny dropped!

Queen Victoria, who was recently deceased in 1901, was born on May 24 in 1819.

Today, the General Holiday is an almost forgotten institution.

Hugh surmises that with strictly controlled working hours, affordable trips to Disneyland and school outings a regular item on the curriculum, the need for a day out no longer exists.

But for him, and many more of Portrush’s senior citizens, the excitement of that magical train trip to the big city remains a vivid memory!

And we thank Hugh enormously for sharing his wonderful account here today.

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