The Square in Ballyclare has been the focal point of the village and later the town for over 300 years. Indeed, according to local historian Robert Grange:
‘Long before the Square could be correctly long before the Square could be correctly described as a ‘Square’ the roadway leading out of Main Street swept up to the Doagh Road in a gently curving fashion. Then as the village began to emerge from its obscure position in the valley and take on a more prominent place in markets and fairs, the Marquis of Donegall granted to the people the plot of ground which stretched from the hawthorn hedge to the gully running alongside the road from the Doagh Road to the entrance of Main Street, The gully was always called ‘the trinket in the Square’. The grassland from the hedge to the trinket was known as Fair Hill and was given to the people of Ballyclare for the holding of fairs and markets. By some ancient law or procedure the Marquis retained a controlling interest on all that took place in this piece of land and had the power to abolish, transfer or establish all fairs and markets. Any change in dates required his sanction.
Before the plot was handed over to the village it was used by the occupiers of the homesteads at the north side of the Square as a dumping ground for their ash pits and house refuse. Part of it was also used for recreation. The Square itself was an area of about three acres and has long been the focal point for all big celebrations, both local and national, while its size and position provide the ideal place for fairs and markets.’
The first wooden market house in Ballyclare was erected by public subscription in the eighteenth century for the handloom weavers selling in the linen market which ran in the town up until 1851. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that a more substantial stone construction was erected at a cost of £480, again raised by public subscription.
An upper storey was added in 1873 at a cost of £500. Again raised by public subscription, this upper floor was to be used as a Town Hall, separate to the Market House beneath.'
In the early 1930s ambitious plans were made for the extension of facilities in the Town Hall and, following receipt of a loan from the Ministry of Home Affairs, a contract worth £5,000 was awarded to WH and RJ Beggs to begin the work in 1934. According to the Town Clerk’s Press Release ahead of the opening of the new building a year later:
‘So far as the present building is concerned, it has been transformed from a mere wooded structure, which is was some 80 years ago, to one of the finest modern buildings in Ulster commensurate with the size of the town.
The new building contains a specious dance hall upstairs with floor space of approximately 1,800 square feet besides a stage, retiring room and dressing rooms. The floor of the Dance Hall alone cost over £600 and was erected by a London firm who specialise in this work. It is specially constructed of Appalachian seasoned oak and is set on springs which can be operated so as to make it either rigid or flexible. The seating capacity of the hall is 500-600. The Town Clerk’s office is on this floor. On the ground floor are situated the Council Chamber and the Market House as well as the Rate Collector’s Office, two cloakrooms and the Strong Room.
The Clock and Clock Tower on the north side of the building are a special feature. With three faces the clock can be seen from almost any part of the town day or night. The Clock Tower to the peak of the spire is some 60 feet from the ground. The Clock is 40 feet from the roadway and is an electronically controlled one with a master clock inside the building. The movement is exactly similar to that of Big Ben and is controlled independently of the main electric current thus ensuring against faults caused by possible failure of the mains electric supply. The clock face is 5 feet 2 inches in diameter and the work of erecting and installing it was carried out by Sharman D Neill Ltd.
The heating and lights of the building was carried out by Messrs Wm Coates & Son Ltd, of Belfast and is also done by electricity. It is calculated to be the largest tabular electric system in Ireland. In the main dance hall the heat is regulated by means of thermostatic control which ensures a uniform heat throughout at any desired degree without the necessity of turning off or on the current.
The floors of all the main rooms and offices are made of oak and passages and corridors are constructed of Terrazzo. The spire of the clock tower rising some 18 feet from the level of the tower is of special Westmoreland Green slates, the entire covering for the roof of the spire weighing over two tons.
The windows on the North, South and East sides of the building on the top floor are of leaded and coloured glass and the centre windows on the North and South ends contain replicas of the Town Coat-of-Arms.
The entire painting and decoration was carried out by Mr D McCluney, Balllyclare. The sun blinds and window curtains, carpets and Council Chamber chairs were supplied by the Bank Buildings, Belfast and the seats for the Town Hall were supplied by the Bennet Furnishing Co Ltd.'
The Official Opening ceremony for the new town hall was set for 12.30pm on Wednesday 23 October 1935. The Right Honourable Sir Thomas Dixon Bart, HML did the honours in front of the 100 or so dignitaries invited to witness the historic moment.
A Grand Opening Ball was held later that evening, complete with Orchestra, buffet supper and dancing on the legendary springy ballroom floor – all for four shillings a ticket.
The town hall became a real focal point for the local community. Among the events held there in 1937 were 2 weekly dance classes; an elocution class; a Gymnastic Display by Ballyclare and District Recreation and Physical Training Centre; Whist Drives by Ballyclare Poultry Club, Ballyclare Tennis Club and Ballyclare Comrades Football Club; a Dramatic Performance by Ballyeaston Church Players; Variety Concerts by Ballyclare Choral Society; Ballyeaston Presbyterian Church and the Ballyclare Nursing Association; a presentation to an employee in the local paper mill; a Religious Meeting; regular auctions by Ernest McClelland and many, many dances from the regular Saturday nights to others organised by Hollybush Tennis Club, Ballynure Hockey Club, Mossley Tennis Club, Ballyclare Victoria Flute Band and a number of Young Farmers’ Clubs.
Ballyclare’s pride in its magnificent town hall was perfectly captured at the time by local poet Sandy Robinson from Ballyalbanagh who wrote:
THE BALLYCLARE TOWN HALL
There may be buildings built for style adorned wi’ different kinds
O’ ornamental images and fancy work designs,
But should you search the Emerald Isle from Cork to Donegal,
You wouldnae see a structure like the Ballyclare Town Hall.
It stan’s for no particular cause nor differs its desires,
But lends alike its massive space for what the town requires.
To business, pleasure or to prayer to all things great an’ small
The door is ever open at the Ballyclare Town Hall.
The Yankees usually blow an’ boast how they can build so high,
And where their towers terminate a fraction form the sky;
An’ sure enough the world admits that Yankees make ‘em tall,
But not so high and splendid as the Ballyclare Town Hall.
A stranger passing through the town, a beggar or an Earl,
Would stop and gaze as if it were a wonder o’ the worl’;
And e’en when folk from far and near foregather at a ball
They cannae dance for glowering at the Ballyclare Town Hall.
The Duke o’ York once crossed by air from London to Stranraer,
And on its route the royal plane passed over Ballyclare;
On peeping out the Duke exclaimed “Behold, the Court o’ Saul”
“Och, nonsense”, said the pilot, “that’s the Ballyclare Town Hall.”
He talked about his Da and Ma, he meant the King and Queen,
If only they could cross the sea an’ see what he had seen;
But sure if they, Their Majesties, could see the place at all,
They would bring their royal flittin’ to the Ballyclare Town Hall.
So if you’re fond o’ seeing sights that never lea’ your eyes,
Just come and get a glimpse of what this masterpiece supplies,
And should you never see again you’ll say ‘twas worth it all,
E’en just to have it said you saw the Ballyclare Town Hall.
Did you know that up until 1920, Ballyclare had a Town Crier who would, resplendent in a fine blue coat rang his bell up and down main street making public announcements on the latest sales and auctions?
With special thanks to Jack McKinney's wonderful book 'They Came in Cars and Carts' for some of the details referenced in this article.