The Sport of Curling in Ulster

Author: Andrew Steven

Date: 1996

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 4 Spring 1996

When I mention the sport of curling in an Ulster context, I have to emphasise the letter “c”, not “h” (ie curling not hurling), as few people are aware that, last century, and possibly before that time, outdoor curling was a pastime enjoyed in parts of Ulster. It seems to have died out just after the turn of the century, with an unsuccessful attempt to revive the sport in Newtownards in 1910.

Admittedly, today, there is an Irish curling team, but it comprises expatriates based “across the water” competing in indoor ice rinks, a far cry from the frostier days of, say, the 1870s and 1890s, during the final phase of the so-called Little Ice Age (which reached its maximum development about 1750, from an estimated beginning in the 13th century). Indeed, there is a theory that the severe weather conditions of this Little Ice Age was a factor in leading some Scots to seek pastures new in Ulster, or to their being sent there.

Early historians of the sport of curling surmised — without quoting any evidence — that curling accompanied the settlers to Ireland during the reign of James I of England and Ireland (and VI of Scotland). This is possible, though there is no known evidence to support this claim. If the sport did cross the Irish Sea, it is said to have “speedily died out”, and it may well be that the comparative mildness of climate was unfavourable to the sport. Apart from climatic conditions, it has been suggested that the condition of the country had been unfavourable to curling, there being a lack of sympathy and cordial understanding between

“The tenant and his jolly laird,

The pastor and his flock,”

which in Scotland made the sport so enjoyable.

The first definite evidence of curling in Ireland arose from the activities of Dr John Cairnie, of “Curling Hall”, Largs, Ayrshire, a great enthusiast in the development of the game. He was friendly with James Boomer of the Falls Road Flax Mill, and in 1839 encouraged him to make a curling pond (about half an acre in extent) in his grounds at “Seaview”, Shore Road, Belfast, and to set up a Club. The Club was affiliated to the Grand Caledonian Curling Club (now the Royal Caledonian Curling Club), the regulating body of the sport, in 1841-2. Boomer died in 1846 and the Club then ceased to exist. It was revived by four gentlemen with experience of Scottish curling, who used The Thistle Tavern, Waring Street, Belfast, [later in Arthur Square] as their base to set out in a search for suitable ice whenever the hard frost set in. They had, on one occasion, a problem with “roughs”, who tried to steal their belongings; and, another time, with a “hummle cow”, which trampled their ice on a pond temporarily obtained. The nomads were thus glad, eventually, to return to the Seaview pond, by courtesy of Mr Boomer’s widow, who became Patroness of the Club. A contemporary account described a piper accompanying the curling with renderings of “Scotch airs, with now and then a touch of The Protestant Boys, Boyne Water etc”. In 1855, the Belfast Club seems to have reaffiliated itself to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club.

There are said to have been “international matches” between the Curling Clubs of Ardrossan and Largs, and the Belfast Club, “in Ireland in the mid-1850s”, though I have yet to find confirmation of this.

Curlers were certainly enthusiastic in these days last century. It is recorded that one Scots expatriate, in the winter of 1859, hearing of keen, gleg ice at Seaview, travelled, “one snell frosty morning”, from his home at Ballyronan, Co Londonderry, by gig and rail to Belfast, with his “stanes an’ kowe an’ a’”.

In January, 1861, the Ardrossan Castle Curling Club met the Belfast Club at Seaview, after a stormy voyage across, the match being abandoned after heavy rain intervened half-way through. A return match took place at Ardrossan on 31 December, the same year. Another game is recorded against Ardrossan at Seaview in the Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual of 1871-2. On Boxing Day, 1878, again at Seaview, a Scottish rink [a team of 4 curlers] from Perthshire met the Belfast Club, before travelling next day to Drumbanagher Castle, near Poyntzpass, Co Armagh, by invitation of the local MP, Maxwell Close Esq, for a return encounter with the Belfast rink. Three weeks later, two Ayrshire rinks travelled over to meet the Belfast Club, this time on the pond at “Dunraven”, Malone Road, Belfast, the residence of James P Corry Esq, MP.

Curling in Ulster

Curling stanes and kowes in action.

During that hard winter of 1878-9, two curling clubs were founded in Co Down. One with 15 ordinary members was established at Clandeboye, near Bangor; Lord Dufferin being president and active promoter. The lake in the demesne was used for the sport. Through the initiative of Mr W Sibbald Johnston, a club, initially with 40 members, was formed in late January, 1879, near Mr Johnston’s linen chemical bleach works, at Milecross, Kiltonga, Newtownards. They used Bradshaw’s Dam (part of which still remains), and the Kiltonga Dam (in the present wild-fowl area). Sixteen pairs of curling stones were ordered by telegraph from Thomas Thorburn’s Curling Stone Works at Beith in Ayrshire, when the Kiltonga Club was founded, though half of these arrived too late as the thaw set in. The first part of the order comprised 4 Ailsa Craig stones, double soled, with brass mounted handles, at 46/- a pair, and 4 Burnock stones at 42/- a pair.

Whenever ice conditions were favourable in the following years, competitions took place between rinks from the Ulster curling clubs.

Another “international” encounter took place in May, 1880, between two Belfast rinks and two from Liverpool. The late date (May) is explained by the fact that the contest was played in the indoor Southport Glaciarium, which had opened in the previous year.

1895 was a year revered by the curling community in Ulster, as several weeks of hard frost occurred in January and February. The three curling clubs occupied themselves busily. Lough Neagh froze over, and excursion trains, or trains with special fares for skaters, ran to Antrim, Glenavy, Crumlin and Toome. Although I have not yet managed to find any record, in print, of curling on Lough Neagh at this time, I did speak on the telephone recently to a farmer (and curler) residing near Glamis, in Perthshire, who insists that his great-grandfather took part in a “curling international” on Lough Neagh in the 1890s, and that family tradition is that a horse and cart was used to carry the stones across the ice. 1895 would have been the only year in the 1890s when this was possible. Incidentally, it was on a Saturday afternoon in early February, 1895, that a serious tragedy was narrowly averted, when the ice gave way on the Clandeboye lake, and numerous persons fell into 15 feet of water. Skating, not curling, was taking place at the time.

That year, 1895, turned out to be exceptional, however, and a series of mild winters heralded the end of curling by the three Ulster clubs. The last record of actual play at Kiltonga was described in a newspaper report of 2 February, 1902, of a match between the home Club and the Belfast Club. During the game, a curling stone sank through the ice, and this turned out to be the Club’s final event. An unsuccessful attempt to relaunch the Club was made in January, 1910, but a rapid thaw set in. The curling stones were kept in the, now demolished, Kiltonga Bleach Works, in the hope that the old-time winters would recur, and, as a newspaper history of the Club had it, “maybe we shall hear the whoops and wails of the Curlers once again ring over Bradshaw’s Brae”. It was, apparently, not to be. Some of the old curling stones have survived, and I know their whereabouts.

I have not been able to find out, so far, when curling ended at Clandeboye, but it was, presumably, about the same time as the demise of the other clubs. The Belfast Club remained a member of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club until 1905, but the final date of curling at the Seaview pond is not now known. The pond was, subsequently, filled in, and built over. The house was demolished in the 1920s.

Lastly, an anecdote, which almost mirrors an event in Neil Munro’s humorous dialect novel, Fancy Farm (1910). I was told of an incident during the late stages of the Kiltonga Club involving two young girls, who had the task of carrying a full soup tureen down the hill for the curlers’ lunch. Instead of going down the road, they took a short cut across the ice. Seeing the men skimming the stones across the frozen surface of the dam, they did the same with the warm soup tureen — the ice melted, and the tureen went to the bottom. I wonder if it is still there to this day?

Andrew Steven



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