After years of sectarian attacks and loyalist protests Harryville Catholic Church in Ballymena is no more
It survived four decades of sectarian attacks, but now one of Northern Ireland's best known churches has been reduced to rubble.
Demolition work began yesterday at Our Lady's in Harryville – a predominantly loyalist area of Ballymena – bringing its troubled 45-year existence to an end.
The Catholic Church condemned the building to its fate for health and safety reasons.
Our Lady's, the scene of a series of bitter loyalist demonstrations which went on for nearly two years in the 1990s and the target of sectarian vandals since it opened in 1968, had fallen into a state of disrepair.
The landmark building on the Larne Road suffered leaks and structural damage, prompting an estimated £650,000 repair bill which the Church deemed an unjustifiable expense.
It was closed in February 2012, with many parishioners moving to Crebilly, a few miles away on the outskirts of Ballymena.
With the 2007 closure of St Mary's Primary School just up the road, the demolition ends any official Catholic presence in the area.
The land is owned by the Church, which says it has no immediate plans for the site.
SDLP councillor for the area Declan O'Loan, who watched the building come down yesterday, said he did so with a heavy heart.
"It is very sad to see this beautiful modern church being demolished," he said.
"This was a place of great spiritual importance for people and many will have marked key moments in their family lives there.
"But I think most parishioners have recognised that it no longer served a meaningful purpose in the parish after the movement of the Catholic population from Harryville, and that it would not justify the major spend required to fix the building."
Mr O'Loan said "the awful days of the protest against the people going to the church" – which went on for 20 months between 1996 and 1999 – and "the frequent attacks of one sort and another on the church building" would never be forgotten.
It was brought into sharp focus in 1996 when a series of demonstrations began outside its doors in response to nationalist objections to an Orange Order parade in nearby Dunloy.
The protests, which often disrupted Masses and frequently turned into riots, eventually ended after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.
STORY SO FAR
The Church of Our Lady in Harryville was at the epicentre of a loyalist protest which received worldwide media coverage in the late 1990s. The demonstrations were most intense for two years from September 1996 and finished in 1999. Mass was said against a backdrop of shouting, firecrackers and police sirens. The church was also attacked in the run-up to its closure in February 2012.
From the archives: How Harryville made the headlines