Orange Order launches heritage tours in bid to put Portadown on the tourist map
It's a destination you won't find in the glossy holiday brochures but the march is now on to put Portadown on the tourist map, making it a traditional route for visitors to Northern Ireland.
A new cultural and heritage group was launched this week in an Orange hall to bang the drum about Portadown's top attractions and ensure the town's troubled reputation becomes a thing of the past.
A series of tours has been designed to show off the history of Portadown and one of them takes in Drumcree, though walking there, especially along the Garvaghy Road, is somewhat limited. For obvious reasons.
But organisers said they hope that both sides of the community will fall in line behind the tours, including one which will be a procession of sorts around 60 sites of historical interest in the town.
Senior Orangemen have been the driving forces behind the Portadown Heritage Tours. They've been hot under the collarettes for years about the negative publicity which the town has attracted, especially in the wake of the still-unresolved Drumcree marching stalemate which plunged many parts of Northern Ireland into chaos during the '90s.
Hundreds of people attended the launch of the tours in Portadown's refurbished 135-year-old Carleton Street Orange Hall.
The project co-ordinator, Cardwell McClure, said the backing of the Heritage Lottery Fund to the tune of £48,600 had been instrumental in getting the tours off the ground. He said the 18 months of research for the initiative wasn't just centred on the Orange Order but also uncovered information about Portadown's contribution to World War One and its rich industrial and commercial history.
He said many of the prominent entrepreneurs who helped bring prosperity to Portadown were members of the Orange Order. A month-long exhibition of paintings, photographs, banners and other Orange memorabilia has also been mounted in the Carleton Street hall which will be the focus for one of the three heritage tours.
Mr Cardwell said talks would be staged soon between the Carleton Street Development Association and Tourism NI with the intention of getting the Orange Hall included in promotional literature for visitors to the province from across the world.
He also said the association was planning to link up with an envisaged County Armagh Orange Heritage trail in a bid to draw even more tourists to Portadown and to historic places like Dan Winter's Cottage and Sloan's House in Loughgall, as well as Brownlow House in Lurgan.
The DUP's Upper Bann MP, David Simpson, said: "There is a great heritage in Portadown and it needs to heard by all sections of the community."
Heritage tour official John Proctor said much of the history came as a surprise even to local people. And the past, he said, was often painful.
The 90-minute town tour visits Protestant and Catholic churches and schools, together with the sites of Portadown's 'big houses' which were owned by the town's commercial pioneers.
Tourists also hear the history of the unusually-named 'Catch My Pal' Hall in Edward Street. It was run by a temperance movement before being converted into the Savoy cinema.
Nearby are the Carnegie Library, the town hall and the rooms from which renowned artist Sir John Lavery drew his iconic painting of the Twelfth of July parade in Portadown in 1928.
Guides also point out the bottom part of Garvaghy Road but a separate tour has also been set up to take curious visitors to Drumcree Parish Church to see the scene of the stand-offs and trouble in the fields surrounding it. Mr Proctor said: "A lot of people want to see Drumcree. So starting at Carleton Street we drive the outward route to the church and explain the situation which is still ongoing. We come back down the Garvaghy Road …by car."
Portadown may never rival Portrush or Portstewart as a must-see, go-to place but Mr Proctor said he was hopeful that everyone in Portadown from both communities would eventually embrace the tours, adding: "That's happened with the Apprentice Boys in the city of Londonderry. And we will be encouraging all the schools in Portadown to join our tours. The heritage of the town can be taught to everyone. Young people from both sides have very little knowledge of the history of their town.
"And I think our tours could help relationships in Portadown, which really aren't as bad as many people portray them."
- For more information go to www.portadownheritagetours.co.uk