Opened in 1871, Ormeau Park in the oldest public park in Belfast. Today, Belfast City Council own and run the large and busy site in South Belfast. It opens from dawn to dusk and contains horticulture, woodland, wildlife, and sports facilities.
Facilities in the modern park include a bandstand, orienteering course, floral displays, and walks. Sporting grounds include basketball, netball, football, tennis, a Parkrun course, and a BMX track.
Roads surrounding the park include the Ormeau Road, Ormeau Embankment, Park Road, and Ravenhill Road. Each road features entrances to the park. The Ormeau Road and Ravenhill Road were once named the Old Ballynafeigh Road and New Ballynafeigh Road.
Home of the Donegall Family
Ormeau Park sits on land once owned by the famous Donegall family of Belfast. In 1807, they moved from their townhouse at Donegall Place to Ormeau Cottage. George Chichester, 2nd Marquess of Donegall extended the cottage and lived there until his death in 1844. Belfast Corporation, a forerunner of today’s city council purchased the estate from the family who had run into debt by 1869. Two years later, they opened the park to the public. The event included a parade from Carlisle Circus through the city and culminated with speeches in the park.
Design of the park layout came from a successful 24-year-old architect Timothy Hevey. His design for the 100 acre site won out of all the public submissions. Today, the park still follows most of Hevey’s design. A 9-hole golf course, and playing fields are newer additions to the park and the embankment road now separates the park and the Lagan river. The first park boundary extended beyond its current layout. Parkland ran as far as South Parade and the old stone wall is still visible along the backs of houses there.
The embankment was first built through Annadale, Stranmillis, and Ormeau in 1924. A weir was added just before the war in 1937. The council’s aim was to narrow the river and reduce the silting in the Lagan. The river washed red clay and silt into the Lagan Estuary. Much of the Ormeau area as well as other parts of Belfast are built from familiar red brick. Many of the air raid shelter across the city were manufactured from the same.
Ormeau Park through the years
The park sees use from many different organisations including the first meeting of the Ulster Vanguard in 1972. The Orange Order, revival meetings and music festivals such as ViTal and Belsonic have also made use of the land. Between 1882 and 1886, Ormeau Park was the home of Glentoran Football Club. A large boating lake once stood where the Ozone sports facility and tennis stand. Anecdotes suggest demolished air raid shelters from the area helped to fill in the lake when it fell out of use.
The golf course at Ormeau Park is one of the oldest in Ireland, dating back to 1893. It has played host to many personalities of the game, including famous Northern Irish player Fred Daly. He is best remembered for his victory in the 1947 British Open.
Ormeau in the 1940s
In the 1940s, the Ormeau Road was an up and coming area. The Apollo Cinema stood next to the embankment beside the Ormeau Bridge. This area is still one that thrives on local businesses. In 1943, the road leading up to park included fleshers, drapers, shoemakers, hairdressers, and grocers. It also featured the grocery and pharmacy departments of the Belfast Co-Operative Society. The area also housed the Ava Pharmacy and surgeons such as Mr John Boyd in no. 281 and Dr CW Musgrave in no. 297.
On the opposite side of the road to the park is the iconic Ormeau Bakery building. Now residential apartments, it was once the largest independent bakery in Ireland. Established in 1875 by Robert Wilson, it revolutionised the manufacture and distribution of bread. It opened for business in 1890 and was bought out and sold soon after its 125th anniversary. In the pre-war years, the Ormo bread fleet was recognisable throughout Belfast due to their electric-powered vans. Rows of them lined up in the park was a familiar sight.
Across from the bakery is Cooke Centenary Presbyterian Church. Reverend C Cordner MA was minister here during the Second World War. The building is unique in the area, if not in Belfast, as it has no street number. The address is simply Ormeau Park.
The US Army in Ormeau Park
During World War Two, Ormeau Park was a hive of activity. Many buildings on the surrounding streets were used by the authorities. 17 Park Road was an Auxiliary Fire Service Station by 1943. Around the corner, a NAAFI operated at 252 Ravenhill Road.
The Ravenhill Road side of the park was in a state of flux at the time due to the redevelopment of the area. The 1943 Belfast Street Directory lists Her Majesty’s Government as the occupiers of 246, 254, 258, 328, 348, and 352. The same publication has 260-274 listed as vacant ground and 278-312, 326, 338, and 358-376 as areas under development. In the midst of the chaos, stood the Elim Tabernacle looking out towards the park from no. 276 Ravenhill Road. Their Pastor at the time was one Paster J Kennedy.
Much of the upheaval in the area was due to the arrival of the American military in 1942 and 1943. Park Ranger Thomas Arnold no doubt had his hands full.
Wartime memories of Ormeau
Before the troops’ arrival, parks like the one on the Ormeau Road offered a quiet space away from the horrors of war in Northern Ireland. Residents of the nearby area remember the silence in Ormeau Park after the Belfast Blitz. Streets in the surrounding area filled with rubble, still smoked as barrage balloons went up.
With the arrival of the Yanks, that quiet was disturbed. The American forces camped in and around the park and vehicles were assembled, parked, and driven around the roads. The park was used as a vehicle depot between October and December 1943 and parts were closed to the public. Residents remembered seeing Jeeps, trucks, and half-tracks parked on the golf course as the Americans prepared for the Normandy landings.
Today, little evidence remains of the US Army, the Auxiliary Fire Service, or the air raid shelters around Ormeau Park. If you have any information or memories from the time, we would love to hear them.