Category: Archive

View North: Belfast parks: green, glorious and historic

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

For such a small city, Belfast is unusually well-endowed with public parks. Within a short distance of the center there are three: the Ormeau Park, the Botanic Gardens and the Falls Park, all of them spacious, well-kept, and all very different, with their own character and mood. There is also Dunville Park, which is not in the same league as the others. But of all the parks, the Dunville was the one that I knew best, simply because almost every day, five days a week for more than five years, I walked through it on my way to school.

The Ormeau, the Falls and the Dunville parks date from the late 19th Century, created just after 1888, when Belfast was granted a royal charter and became officially a city. Botanic Gardens was older and went back to 1827, when it was founded by the Belfast Natural History Society.

The Ormeau Park is a magnificent stretch of greenery that once belonged to Lord Donegall, lying on the crest of a rise above the south bank of the River Lagan. At the turn of the century, its slopes ran right down to the river bank. The riverside slopes were favorite places for picnics in the old days. On Easter, children would roll their Easter eggs down the slopes. Unfortunately, a stream of traffic now flows between the park and the banks of the Lagan, along the Embankment linking the Ormeau to the Ravenhill Road.

Yet, in most ways, the Ormeau Park remains remarkably unchanged for more than the 40 years that I have been visiting it. It still possesses the most magnificent trees of any of the Belfast parks — huge elms and oaks form avenues of deep green shade in summer and, in autumn, they make the ground a slippery carpet of dead leaves.

The Ormeau Park is not like the other parks also in that it is almost always empty. Though this huge expanse of green runs from the Ormeau Road to the Ravenhill Road, I have found, during the years, that it was rare to find more than a handful of people in it at any time. In the heart of the park, under the trees, or by the old Victorian bandstand or the benches around the wrought-iron shelter, there is usually no one to be seen, except in the early morning when the occasional stroller is out walking his or her dog.

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Why this should be I don’t know, except to attribute it to the Troubles. The Ormeau Park stands between the lower Ormeau Road — mostly Nationalist — and the Annadale Flats — mostly loyalist. However, I know of no sectarian incident ever taking place there over the years. The lack of visitors imparts to the park a rather somber mood, especially in the dim winter afternoons when the bell tolls for early closing. It certainly is the right spot to go and sit if you seek a little solitude.

Not so the Falls Park, in West Belfast. When I first went there as a very small boy with my grandmother, it seemed to me I was in the heart of a glen. A stream runs through it, tumbling down from the hills, under the Falls Road and away towards the Bog Meadows. It is actually a little glen, tree-covered, and must have been pretty at one time, but as the years went by the stream became choked with rubbish and junk. The Falls Park is bleaker than the Ormeau, a continuation of the bare slopes of the Black Mountain, which rises to the west beyond it. But it is never empty. There is nearly always a team playing Gaelic football or hurling or a crowd of kids just wandering around. It is a park that is used, even in winter when it can be very bleak. You are bound to find somebody running over the muddy fields chasing a ball.

Unfortunately, the Falls Park lacks those little secluded spots where people can sit quietly and look at the grass or the trees or the flowers. Not so the Botanic Gardens, near Queen’s University in South Belfast. Of all the parks in the city, it is undoubtedly the most beautiful. It contains one of the city’s most famous buildings, the wrought iron and glass Palm House, built in the 1850s, and recently restored. It is one of the finest pieces of Victorian architecture in Ireland. When I was a child, it brought the scent of far-off lands, with its exotic plants and trees. It was a reminder of the time when the British held dominion "over palm and pine," to use Kipling’s line. Indeed, the Botanic Gardens, and the Ulster Museum, which is situated there, are very much a creation of the confident spirit of empire when the empire was at its height. The landscaped rose gardens, the trellised walks, and the flowers beds around the Palm House, with their extravagant colors, have the rich feel of Victorian times about them still.

Alas, not so the last stop on this, my little trip around the parks. The Dunville Park is a small enclave of greenery between the Falls Road and the Grosvenor Road in West Belfast. In the center stands a Victorian fountain, a once beautiful example of 19th Century iron and stone work, with a huge carved basin. But by the early 1960s, it was a dried up old ruin. I can still remember it when water flowed, and when the drinking fountains had little iron cups attached to them on chains. But a generation or two of Falls Road children changed that. The park attracted the children because of its swings and roundabout. It was a terrible distraction to have to walk past those little pleasures every day on the way to school. But it was an even more infuriating sight to see them chained up on Sundays when the good Christian burghers of Belfast locked up the park. As we all know, the Creator of the Universe could not countenance the thought of Ulster’s kids enjoying themselves on the Sabbath.

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