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Portaferry's landmark temple to the arts still keeping the faith as it helps regenerate town

 

By Ivan Little

A £1.5m revamp has seen one of Ireland's oldest Presbyterian churches become a unique venue for religion and culture.

It's more like Santorini than Strangford Lough. For on an idyllic sunny spring afternoon, the unexpected sight of the Greek-style building rising up in the distance above Portaferry is the first thing that catches the eye of the traveller as the ferry glides its way across the notorious waters of the Narrows.

And on further examination up close in Portaferry, the imposing edifice is an even bigger surprise, with its portico of six Greek Doric columns, standing incongruously amidst the more traditional architecture in and around the square of the pretty Co Down town.

But this is a Presbyterian church. Or rather, it was a church. But now it's a church AND a refurbished arts and heritage centre, which has enjoyed the patronage of Prince Charles, who opened it, and of stars like actor Simon Callow who have performed on its newly-designed stage, which still doubles up as a religious platform at the centre of services on a Sunday.

The £1.5m transformation of one of Ireland's oldest Presbyterian churches, which was falling apart with problems in the roof, the wiring - just about everywhere in fact - has been nothing short of a miracle.

Preserving history was almost as important as preserving the church. It opened in 1841, the third place of worship on the site, and which Belfast architect John Miller modelled on the ruined Temple of Nemesis in Greece. But down the years, and in particular in more recent decades, time took its toll on Portaferry Presbyterian Church and the future looked bleak as numbers fell and crises piled up.

Ten years ago, however, members of the ever-dwindling congregation set up a group called the Friends of Portaferry Presbyterian Church (FPPC) to carry out what they thought would be relatively minor repairs.

However, the scale of what would be needed to save the building was way beyond what anyone had imagined.

And for the FPPC, their thoughts turned to what appeared to be the stuff of fantasy… revamping the crumbling church into a dual-purpose building where arts and heritage lovers could have as much of a home as the Presbyterians.

Hard graft was obviously needed but the FPPC also had to employ judicious fundraising to garner cash from more than 20 charities and statutory bodies, and even more importantly, to get around traditional Presbyterian reluctance to accept money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with its gambling connotations.

It took several years to find a solution to the hearts and minds issues to progress the arts centre for the Ards, and that involved ceding ownership of the building to the FPPC. That was the trigger for the Heritage Lottery Fund and other benefactors' cash to flow. And with the extra assistance of a crowd-funding programme in the background, the long-delayed work on the mammoth make-over finally began in August 2014. And it proved to be what one might call a helluva job.

New heating, lighting and windows were installed along with state-of-the-art audio-visual systems, not to mention an extension that included a kitchen and a meeting room in keeping with the style of the old building.

The famous exterior of the church, which had links to the United Irishmen in 1798 through the Rev William Steel Dickson, one of the movement's leaders, received desperately needed repairs, as did the leaking roof. In May last year the aforementioned Prince Charles opened the new non-denominational arts centre, whose name Portico virtually suggested itself.

And the fanatical royal conservationist was in raptures about what he found in Portaferry - "remarkable" he described it, as he was given an enthusiastic welcome in the mainly nationalist town.

After the high-profile festivities, Portico officials got down to the more pressing business of drawing up a series of events to appeal to as many people as possible in Portaferry and farther afield.

One of the programme funders is the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Music concerts staged at the 350-seater Portico have ranged from opera to pop; and there have also been film screenings, heritage exhibitions, talks and workshops. And lots more besides.

The woman in charge of the day-to-day running, programming and fundraising at Portico is Suffolk-born but long-time Co Down resident Verity Peet, who works on a part-time basis as its heritage officer, commuting to work on her bike and the Strangford ferry.

Before the arrival of Portico, classical concerts were presented in the old church from time to time, but former BBC and Channel 4 producer Verity has tried to diversify the offering while remaining sensitive to the fact that the building is still a church.

Among the performers to date have been Callow and fellow actor Adrian Dunbar, singer Brian Kennedy, the Ulster Orchestra, mentalist David Meade and tribute bands like Bjorn Identity and Bee Gees Gold.

However, the most 'out-there' event that Verity has put on so far was an anything but holy show by no-holds-barred comedian Tim McGarry from the Hole In The Wall Gang.

"He went down really well with our very mixed audience," said a relieved Verity, who is also trying to 'sell' Portico as an all-inclusive wedding venue.

"I'm also trying to regenerate the whole of Portaferry to make it attractive for more people to come down here," added Verity, who is hoping to establish an archive of the life and work of playwright Joseph Tomelty, who was from Portaferry and who was also the man behind the scripts for the fondly-remembered BBC radio series T0he McCooeys

Joe's daughter Roma Tomelty (right)is a friend of Portico and of Verity, who wants to stage readings and small-scale productions of plays, something which has been made possible thanks to the moving of the old church organ that used to be embedded in the front of what is now the performance space.

Verity said: "I also want to record video interviews with Roma talking about her family and about the likes of The McCooeys. She was only a child at the time but she remembers hearing her father talking about the radio series. It would be brilliant social history which would be very important for Northern Ireland in 50 years' time."

A digital community archive has been set up at Portico and Verity has been encouraging local people, community groups and sporting organisations to contribute to a lasting legacy of the area.

Portico also has recording and editing facilities for musicians.

But Verity insisted that none of the Portico revolution would have happened without the FPPC, and in particular Queen's University Belfast professor Neil McClure.

She said he was too modest to acknowledge his role but added that he was the driving force who helped put all the rebuilding blocks in place for the church.

A man who clearly doesn't mind getting his hands dirty, Neil spoke to me inside Portico as he took a break from weeding in the arts centre garden outside.

And he revealed his passion for architecture wasn't the only thing that sparked his desire to see the church brought back to its former glories.

"My family on my mother's side were founding members of the church," he explained.

"And as a boy I would have been brought here. It was so sad to see the dire distress that the church was in and we did a conservation report and that showed just how massive a job was required here.

"But now that the work is complete, I think we are all very happy with the way it turned out."

The refurbishment may have been dramatic, but there's still no mistaking that Portico has maintained the distinctive feel and look of a church.

Presbyterians still use it for their services but they're now effectively tenants in Portico, where on the walls in the balcony, which is accessed by a lift, are displays of information and old photographs of the Portaferry area. The strong GAA tradition figures heavily, while on the other side of Portico another, more sombre exhibition pays tribute to local soldiers who died during the Great War.

Verity said audience figures for events in Portico have been encouraging and she added that she was constantly astonished by the number of people who drop in day and daily to look around.

"Most of them were married here and have been returning for a nostalgic visit. It never ceases to amaze me how many weddings there must have been in Portaferry Presbyterian Church," she said.

Many of the visitors pop over from the other side of the lough by ferry but its vagaries have presented difficulties.

At one concert by the Henry Girls from Donegal Portico organisers received a text saying the ferry had been suspended because of fog.

People who had travelled over as foot passengers from Strangford were stranded until other boat owners - and hoteliers - came to their rescue.

Details of forthcoming events at Portico, including Festiv'ards, a four-day classical musical festival in May, can be obtained by visiting www.porticoards.com

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