Coleraine is situated in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on the River Bann, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean some 5 miles downriver. This part of the province is known as the Causeway Coast, since it contains the Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage site, much visited by tourists from all over the world.
Prior to the Plantation of Ulster, in the early 17th Century, the present County Londonderry was named County Coleraine. Since 1 April 2015 the town has become part of the new Causeway Coast and Glens Council which includes Limavady, Ballymoney and Moyle.
Coleraine’s story stretches back for some 9000 years. On a high mound, on the East bank of the river, about a mile South of the town centre, is Mountsandel Fort, site of the earliest known settlement in Ireland. Mesolithic man, nomadic hunter-gatherers, built their shelters here around 7000 B.C.
There is much evidence of Neolithic men in the area, dating from about 4000 B.C. Stone tombs, such as the Druid’s Altar at Magherabuoy, near Portrush, and standing stones, such as the White Wife at Carnalridge, and the Daff Stone at Moneydig, near Coleraine, are to be found in many places.
There are many heroic Celtic tales which have connections with this locality, from an oral tradition that had been handed down for thousands of years, and recorded by monks in the 5th to 7th Centuries. Authorities differ as to the exact location of some of the places with ancient Irish names. For instance, Dun Da Bhean, stronghold of the chieftain, Niall of the Shining Deeds, was thought to be Mountsandel Fort, but more recent scholarship suggests that it was at the Giant’s Sconce, a hill fort some 6 miles west of Coleraine. Other opinions state that the Sconce was the site of Dun Ceithern, fort of Ceithern, grandson of Niall, and friend of Cuchullen, the legendary Hound of Ulster, and origin of the local name of Ballycairn.
The Celtic Princess Creeve (Croabh), who, distracted by grief at the loss of home and family, threw herself into the waterfall at the Cutts, near Mountsandel, is still remembered as a street name in the town today.
Coleraine is reputed to have received its name when St Patrick passed through here around 450 A.D. Popular tradition states that the Saint was given a piece of land by the local chieftain on which to build a church. The ground was covered with ferns, and so he called it “Cuil Rathain”, which means the ferny corner. Again, authorities differ in this, some asserting the meaning to be “the rath at the bend of the waters”. Over the centuries the name was anglicized and became “Coleraine”. It is believed that the first church, or monastery, was in the same location as the present St. Patrick’s Church.
Archaeologists discovered 14th century and 17th century foundations under the church, which was re-built between 1885 and 1887. Another remembrance of St Patrick is Tubber Patrick, the holy well which still overlooks beautiful Portstewart Strand, in ancient times a place of pilgrimage. The later Monastery of St Mary’s in Coleraine was erected by the Dominicans in 1244 A.D., and its location, recently excavated, is commemorated in the name “Abbey Street”.
Amongst other early religious foundations were the Celtic Church at Camus, 3 miles South of Coleraine, on the west side of the Bann, which was consecrated by St Comgall in 580 A.D.
Apart from the ancient graveyard, all that remains of the church is the pillar of its former High Cross. Outside Portrush, there is another ancient church at Ballywillan, now in ruins, dating around the end of the 13th Century.
The religious foundations and the small communities surrounding them were not left to grow in peace. In 830 A.D. the Vikings sailed up the Bann and murdered the Abbott of the first monastery. The rise of the Ulster clans meant that many battles raged as they disputed territory, often in the region of the very important and ancient Camus ford, near which the Bann Disc was found. The native chieftains also had to defend their territory from foreign invasions.
In 1002, there was a battle between raiding Norsemen and Irish at Whiterocks, Portrush. In 1101 the O’Briens of Munster crossed Camus Ford, burnt Coleraine and massacred its inhabitants. It is said, though there is very little evidence that in 1103 the O’Corrs of the castle at Ramore Head defeated Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, at what is still known as “The War Hollow” on what is now Royal Portrush Golf Course.
In 1177, the Normans came, and, after predictably burning the town and church, established a castle on the Bann , probably at the Loughan, beside the Camus ford. They created in Coleraine an Anglo Norman town and a port which served the North of Ulster. Recent archaeological digs near the old Blind Gate have revealed evidence of a medieval town, with trading links to Europe. So it continued for two more centuries, Coleraine suffering repeated devastation from successive invaders and captors, as they fought over what was the main East/ West crossing point of the broad Bann river. By the end of the 16 th century Queen Elizabeth’s forces had succeeded in subduing the Ulster Clans.
Shortly after the accession of James 1, at the King’s instigation the Hon. The Irish Society was formed from a number of London Companies, with the intention of colonizing Ulster with English and Lowland Scots on land taken from the Irish Clans. In 1610-11 the first settlers arrived to rebuild Coleraine and erect fortifications. The town was laid out in its present form, surrounded by an earthen rampart and a ditch, with entrances at the King’s Gate and the Blind Gate, each with a drawbridge, which was drawn up at night.
A cut was made in the rocks across the Bann at Castleroe. The London Companies were partly persuaded to fund this enterprise by the value of the salmon fishing on the Bann – 62 tons of salmon were netted in one day at what became known as “the Salmon Leap”. There were also quantities of valuable timber from great forests upriver of Coleraine. The new town received its charter in June, 1613.
The settlers’ difficulties in adapting to their new lives were not yet over. The dispossessed Irish arose against them and Coleraine was once more threatened. In 1642, during a siege lasting for 6 weeks, the town held out against the Irish forces, and over 2000 people, many of whom had fled from the countryside for protection, died from famine and disease. The Scottish army, who relieved the town, held it until they, in turn were defeated by the Cromwellian army. Still more disturbance was to come. When the army of James the Second approached the town in 1689, the garrison and the people were forced to flee to Derry, where they once more endured the full trials of siege and famine.
The beginning of the 18th century found Coleraine suffering the results of the disturbed era through which it had passed. Trade recession and farming difficulties, payment of tithes, and general hardship and disaffection caused people to seek a solution in emigration. During the first half of the century particularly, there was a great exodus from the town and countryside. In Dunboe and Aghadowey, near Coleraine, whole church congregations left for the New World. At the same time, the linen industry grew apace in the surrounding countryside. Coleraine became an important linen market, and was, indeed, the home of cloths of the finest quality, known as “Coleraines”.
The Giant’s Causeway was “discovered” by the literati of the day, as well as by serious scientists, and became a “must” for the fashionable tourist.
Downhill Castle was built on its extraordinary cliff-top site by the brilliant and eccentric Bishop of Derry, new churches and schools were established, the great linen merchants built mansions in the country, and, by the end of the century, Coleraine lost its frontier town aspect, and began to acquire some of the elegances of a Georgian town.
Before the end of the 18th century, however, Coleraine was once more under threat, this time by the United Irishmen rising. Coleraine had remained, through the centuries, a garrison town, so the threat was from outside. There was great anxiety as reports came in of the massing of rebels preparing to march upon the town. The earthen ramparts were strengthened, the local Yeomanry were issued with guns, and everyone was for a time on high alert. However, although two rebels were hanged in the town, and a number of rebel sympathisers were forced to flee abroad, the expected attack did not happen.
There was a serious outbreak of cholera in 1832, which caused much suffering. Due to increasing destitution in the population, workhouses were being built throughout the country, and Coleraine Workhouse was opened in 1842. The Great Famine of 1840 did not affect the area as much as it did in other places, although there was an influx of destitute people from outside. Nevertheless, there was great expansion during the 19th Century. Portrush Harbour had been built in 1827, and, with the advent of the railway, the small fishing village began its rapid change into a popular resort and port, with fine hotels, the most notable being the Northern Counties Hotel. In 1844 a new stone bridge was built across the Bann, the Gasworks opened in 1845, and a new Town Hall replaced the old Market House in the Diamond in 1855.
A railway line was laid from Coleraine to Derry in 1853, and was to be extended later in the century to Ballymena and Portrush, and developed into the Derry Central Line. Portrush also acquired a Town Hall in 1872, the Portrush – Bushmills Tramway opened in 1883, and was extended to the Giant’s Causeway in 1887 – the Giant’s Causeway Hydroelectric Tram. (which could claim to be the first in the world to run over several miles).
In 1888 the Barmouth was dredged and piers built to facilitate the passage of ships to Coleraine Harbour. Substantial terraces and villas sprang up throughout the area. The shirt-making industry expanded in Coleraine, a flourishing textile industry, a Distillery which produced Coleraine Whisky, considered to be a fine spirit in its day, and a large foundry which produced and serviced farm machinery.
The 20th Century was dominated by the two World Wars. Many local men had fought in the Crimean War and in the Boer War, and a great number of young men enlisted in the First World War, many in the Ulster Division. The Battle of the Somme had a devastating effect on the area, for so many families were bereaved that in some streets there was scarcely a home which was not in mourning. The tradition for enlisting is strong in this area, and consequently, many of the next generation also joined up in the Second World War, and many did not return. During the Second World War, many servicemen from around the world trained here.
Like many other Ulster towns, Coleraine had difficult times during the past period of political unrest. In 1973, a car bomb killed 6 people. In 1992 another bomb exploded in the town centre, and in 1995 a car bomb devastated the Diamond area. Coleraine, however has recovered from many attacks over her long history, and she continued to do so.
In 1968 the first students were admitted to the New University of Ulster at Coleraine. From small beginnings, the university has now more students than any other in Ireland, with four campuses, the largest being in Coleraine. The Borough of Coleraine is continuing to expand as a residential and tourist area– the towns of Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart are almost merged into one, although each town has its own distinct character. The harbour in Coleraine, which a generation ago was busy with coastal shipping, is largely inactive now. The textile and shirt-making industries are gone, as are the foundries. We look forward with interest to see what the 21st Century will bring to this ancient and adaptable place.