[Extract from the Portaferry and Strangford list by G P Bell, C E B Brett and Sir Robert Matthew, published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in 1969 (reprinted 1973).]
Portaferry and Strangford are sited one to the north-east,
the other to the south-west, of the narrow channel, seven miles
long, that joins Strangford Lough to the Irish Sea. The slipways
of the two villages are a little over half a mile apart by water;
but they are 49 miles from each other by road. Between them lies
the expanse of Strangford Lough, an irregularly shaped sheet of
salt water twelve miles long and, at its widest, some four miles
wide, studded with green islands, pladdies and shoals; bounded
on the south and west by the drumlin country of the barony of
Lecale, and the estuary of the River Quoile; on the north and
east by the twenty-mile peninsula of the Ards, a narrow ridge
dividing the outer from the inner sea.
Both villages have been somewhat insulated, by geography and by history, from the industrial revolution. They are remote from railway lines. There is one factory in Portaferry; none in Strangford. By road, Belfast is 29 miles from Portaferry, 31 from Strangford; yet the distance seems much greater. It is only 35 miles as the seagull flies from either to the Isle of Man: and indeed, the latter has often provided a place of refuge from the Narrows in times of stress. When Patrick Savage inherited the Portaferry estates in 1666, and found them much encumbered with debts, he was persuaded to go with his family to the Isle of Man, "to live privately, but plentifully, yet much cheaper than at home", while his pushing brother-in-law set the affairs of the estate in order. And when Bernard Brett went bankrupt in 1731, he fled to the Isle of Man to escape his creditors; seven years later, on being pressingly invited by Lord Bangor to return to Strangford, he replied pathetically that, "tho very often without clothes to cover my nakedness and but a Goats Hare Wigg to cover my head", he preferred to stay there.
Though they are in many ways so similar, and so closely knit together, the two villages have very different histories. Both, it is true, presented a hospitable shore to the very earliest waves of prehistoric travellers from the east: there are burial sites at Millin Bay (near Portaferry) and at Audleystown (near Strangford) that seem to mark the landings of primitive colonists more than 3000 years B. C. And ancient tradition has it that St. Patrick landed here, navigating his frail craft through the Narrows to land near Castleward, and to build the first Christian church in Ireland at Saul, five miles from Strangford. There are indeed fragmentary remains of very ancient church foundations to be seen both in Lecale and in the Ards. But a thousand years ago the history of the two diverged.
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STRANGFORD should be, by rights, Strangfjord. Here the Vikings
came from the ninth century onward; at first to raid, and then
to stay. Here they seem to have established a small trading settlement.
The Vikings of Lough Cuan (the ancient name for Strangford Lough)
raided or traded as far afield as Dunseverick Castle on the North
Antrim coast, and Armagh, in the tenth century. Then, as now,
it seems to have been a resort of cheerful drinkers; the bardic
life of Prince Cano, written not later than the eleventh century,
remarks - 'Ale is drunk around Lough Cuan, it is drunk out of
deep horns on Magh Inis by the Ultonians whence laughter arises
to loud exultation.' The settlement survived into medieval times:
Strangford appears as one of the 'Ports of Ulster' in 1281. It
continued to prosper as a trading port, especially with North
Wales; by the end of the eighteenth century Strangford ranked
eighth amongst the ports of Ireland. By the mid nineteenth century,
however, it had been overtaken in prosperity by Portaferry.
The village clusters in a stepped semi-circle around the double cove that constitutes its harbour. As the Admiralty Pilot has it, "Here there is a snug creek with depths of 12 and 24 feet, sheltered by Swan islet, where small vessels can moor in complete security out of the tidal streams. There are two quays and a wharf, about 100 feet long, with a depth of 10 feet alongside, at which small coasters can lie at all states of the tide. "To the south lie the trees of Ferry Quarter. The first tier of buildings around the bay comprises modest cottages, largely pebble-dashed; warehouses; and the half-hidden bulk of Strangford Castle, a three-storeyed 16th century tower-house. The next tier consists of the mainly Georgian houses on the lower side of Castle Street. Above these again are the roofline of the Stella Maris Catholic Church, the tall terraces of upper Castle Street, and the elegant grey facade of Strangford House. The harbour is closed by the waterside gardens, trees and defensive tower of Old Court. Beyond a shallow bay to the north is the broad and wooded demesne of Castle Ward, a large eighteenth century mansion of architectural distinction; and close to the shore, in green clearings amidst the trees, are two more tower-houses - Old Castle Ward, built about 1610, and the fifteenth century Audley's Castle. Two miles south of Strangford, overlooking the Angus Rock and the entrance to the narrows, stands Kilclief castle, tall and foursquare, a tower-house of 1440. Northward, beyond the woods of Castle Ward the Lough opens out into a broad and island-dotted sheet of water; and then turns southward towards the estuary of the Quoile. Here, looking northward up the Lough to Newtownards, stands the sixteenth century Walshestown Castle. Behind the coast lies a pleasant rolling country of grass, woods, small farms and rocky outcrops.
Strangford in 1837 had a population of 583; in the 1966 census its population was 450. At the last count, 24 men and 11 women were unemployed in the district. 36 council houses have been built since the war; Strangford's housing need over the next five years is estimated at a further 34 houses.
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PORTAFERRY, in contrast, consisted of little more than the castle and a few fishermen's cottages until the mid seventeenth century. The village belonged to the Savages, an early family of English settlers who took to Irish ways and held for long to the Catholic religion; they were satirised for it by O'Daly in the reign of Queen Elizabeth: his verse on the Ards was translated by James Clarence Mangan:
Ard-Uladh, vile sink, has been time out of mind,
But a region of famine; on its coasts you will find
Slaying barnacle snails with a mallet, that savage
Old hang-dog-faced hangabone hangman MacSavadge!
But Patrick Savage's brother-in-law, Sir James Montgomery, put the village on a business footing in the 1620s; corn mills, a linen-market, shipyards and quays were developed by the Savage family and their successors the Nugents until, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Portaferry had far outstripped Strangford. For a century or so it was a busy thriving coastal town, full of master mariners, ship-owners, ship-builders, rope-makers, and ships' chandlers. Its fishermen, too, flourished: sand smelt were sold in Belfast as 'Portaferry chicken'. Gradually, as larger steamships came to require deeper harbours, its prosperity has declined; and within living memory the harbour master's duties have dwindled to nothing, and Portaferry is home port now only to a handful of fishing vessels and a crowd of yachts.
Unike Strangford with its compact plan, Portaferry - apart from its central nucleus - stretches sinuously along the shoreline for almost three-quarters of a mile. At the nub of the village are the castle, a three-storey tower-house of the early sixteenth century, and the sloping Square laid out around the central Georgian market-house. Like the Square, the steep streets leading down to the shore consist largely of late Georgian merchants' houses. The waterfront terraces at the north end of the village are homely late Georgian, liberally sprinkled with hospitable public-houses; to the southward there stretches a long curving line of smaller whitewashed and slated cottages. To the north of the village, and around Ballyhenry Point, the road follows the shore below the sloping landscaped demesne of Portaferry House, an imposing mansion of considerable architectural interest dating from about 1820. The views of the Lough shore from the hilly bays north of Portaferry are incomparable. To the south, above the long horizontal line of the shore cottages, rises Windmill Hill, prominently crowned by the masonry of an abandoned windmill of 1771; the pinnacles of Ballyphilip Catholic Church rise from the valley behind to break the skyline. Further down the coast, the ruins of Folly Castle on Bankmore Hill, and the high grassy rath on Tara Hill, stand out above the low green fields and rocky shoreline. Ultimately the Ards peninsula tails gradually away towards the low rocks and outcrops of Ballyquintin Point.
In 1837 Portaferry had a population of 2203; but by 1966, this had fallen to 1426. This fall in population was in large part due to the Great Famine, which struck uncommonly hard in 1847; and in part to emigration. Today the unemployment figures for the district stand at 37 men and 10 women. 184 new houses have been built since the war, and a further housing need over the next 5 years is estimated at approximately 200 dwellings. This need arises more from the legitimate desire for housing conforming to higher modern standards of living than from any actual shortage of existing buildings.
[As with all the UAHS Lists, there follows a detailed examination of individual buildings in and around the two villages.]
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