Portadown is a town in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. The town sits on the River Bann in the north of the county, about 23 miles (37 km) south-west of Belfast. It is in the Craigavon Borough Council area and had a population of about 22,000 at the 2011 Census. For some purposes, Portadown is treated as part of the "Craigavon Urban Area", alongside Craigavon and Lurgan.
Although Portadown can trace its origins to the early 17th century Plantation of Ulster, it was not until the Victorian era and the arrival of the railway that it became a major town. It earned the nickname "hub of the North" due to it being a major railway junction; where the Great Northern Railway's line diverged for Belfast, Dublin, Armagh and Londonderry. In the 19th and 20th centuries Portadown was also a major centre for the production of textiles (mainly linen).
Of its population, about 61% are from a Protestant background and 31% from a Catholic background. Portadown has been the site of the long-running Drumcree dispute, over yearly Orange marches through the mainly Catholic section of town, which has often led to violence. In the 1990s, the dispute intensified and drew worldwide attention to Portadown.
Early history and Plantation of Ulster
The Portadown area had long been populated by Irish Gaels. At the beginning of the 1600s, it lay within the district of Clancann (Clann Chana), which was part of the larger territory of Oneilland (Uí Nialláin). This district was named after the dominant local clan—the McCanns (Mac Cana)—who had been in the area since before the 13th century. The McCanns were then a vassal sept of the O'Neills (Uí Néill). On the eastern banks of the River Bann was the district of Clanbrasil (Clann Bhreasail).
The town's name comes from the Irish Port a' Dúnáin (or, more formally, Port an Dúnáin), meaning the port or landing place of the small stronghold or small fort. This was likely a stronghold or fort of the McCanns.
From 1594 until 1603, the O'Neills and an alliance of other clans fought in the Nine Years' War against the English conquest of Ireland. This ended in defeat for the Irish clans, and much of their land was seized by the English. In 1608, James I of England began the Plantation of Ulster – the organised colonisation of this land by settlers from Great Britain.
In 1610, as part of the Plantation, the lands of Portadown were granted to a William Powell. In 1611, he sold his grant of land to a Reverend Richard Rolleston, who in turn sold it in two portions to Richard Cope and Michael Obins. Obins built a large Elizabethan-style mansion for himself and his family, and a number of houses nearby for English tenants. This mansion was in the area of the present-day Woodside estate, and the People's Park was part of its grounds. Today this park is bounded on either side by Obins Street and Castle Street, both of which are references to "Obin's Castle".
In 1631, Obins was granted a licence for a "fair and market", which led to the building of the first bridge across the River Bann shortly thereafter.
Irish rebellion of 1641
During the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Obins Castle was captured by a force of dispossessed Irish led by the McCanns, the Magennises and the O'Neills. In one of the worst atrocities of the rebellion, in November 1641, Irish rebels forced between 100–300 captured English and Scottish settlers (or 'planters') off the Bann bridge and they either drowned or were shot. This became known as the "Portadown Massacre", and partly precipitated the revenge attacks carried out in Ireland several years later by the forces of Oliver Cromwell.
The Irish Confederate troops abandoned Obins Castle during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and Hamlet Obins (who had survived its capture) repossessed it in 1652. It was then passed to his son Anthony Obins.
In 1741, Anthony Obins was involved with the development of the Newry Canal. He was succeeded by Michael Obins in 1750. It was he who set up a linen market in Portadown in 1762 and this laid the foundations of Portadown's major industry.
Michael Obins died in 1798 and left a son, Michael Eyre Obins, to succeed him. In 1814, Eyre Obins took holy orders and sold the estate to the Sparrow family of Tandragee. George Montagu, 6th Duke of Manchester (known as Viscount Mandeville) married Millicent Sparrow in 1822 and came into possession of the estate. This family's legacy to the town includes street names such as Montagu Street, Millicent Crescent and Mandeville Street, as well as buildings such as the Fergus Hall (formerly the Duke's School and Church Street PS), and the Carlton Home (the Duke's former townhouse, latterly a maternity hospital/nurses accommodation and now private apartments).
The Blacker family, descended from Danes who entered Ireland in the 9th century, founded an estate at Carrick, on the Portadown–Gilford road. The land had been bought by Colonel Valentine Blacker from Sir Anthony Cope of Loughgall. It became known as Carrickblacker, and is now the site of Portadown Golf Club. One of the notables in the Blacker family, Colonel William Blacker, High Sheriff of Armagh took part in the "Battle of the Diamond" and was a founding member of the Orange Order. This, and subsequent events like the setting up of a 'provisional' Grand Lodge in the town after the 'voluntary' dissolution of the Order in 1825, led to the town being known as 'The Orange Citadel' and becoming infamous as a center of sectarian strife for two centuries. Many of the Blacker family were soldiers or churchmen. The family estate was purchased in 1937 by Portadown Golf Club, who demolished Carrickblacker House in 1988 to make way for a new clubhouse.
World War II
A large prisoner-of-war (POW) camp was built at Portadown during World War II. It was at the site of a former sports facility on what was then the western edge of town. This area is now covered by housing from Fitzroy Street and the Brownstown Estates. The camp housed (mostly) German POWs. For a time these POWs were guarded by Welsh servicemen who had been transferred from Germany (known as "Bluecaps") and who were billeted at St Patrick's Hall in Thomas Street. Many of the Welsh soldiers chose to be demobilised to Portadown as they had formed relationships there and this accounts for some of the Welsh surnames in the town.
The local newspaper also carries a story of another POW camp, adjacent to Killicomaine Castle (also known as Irwin's Castle) in what was then known as "Cullen's Lane" but is now called "Princess Way" and part of the Killicomaine estate, built in 1954 and largely contemporary with other estates built by the then Portadown Borough Council and the Northern Ireland Housing Trust (now called the Northern Ireland Housing Executive).
In 2005, a public air-raid shelter was uncovered during excavation works near the riverbank just outside the town centre. One of ten built by the council during World War II, it is one of only two now remaining, the other at the new roundabout on the Gilford Rd, and a rare example of public air raid shelters in Northern Ireland.
In 1969, Northern Ireland was plunged into an ethno-political conflict known as the Troubles. The conflict led to the deaths of 43 people in Portadown, as well as numerous riots and bombings. In 1993 and 1998, two large car bombs devastated the town centre. The town also became segregated – the northwestern part of the town became almost wholly Catholic/Irish nationalist, while the rest of the town became almost wholly Protestant/unionist. A separating barrier ("peace line") was built along Corcrain Road and it remains to this day.
The Troubles intensified the long-running Drumcree marching dispute, over Orange marches through the Catholic part of town. Each July from 1995–2000, the dispute drew worldwide attention as it sparked protests and violence throughout Northern Ireland, prompted a massive police/British Army operation, and threatened to derail the peace process. The Catholic part of Portadown was sealed-off with large steel, concrete and barbed-wire barricades and the situation was likened to a "war zone" and a "siege". Since 2001 things have been relatively calm, but there has been occasional clashes.
Community leaders in Portadown have been involved with the Ulster Project since it began in 1975. The project involves teenagers from both of Northern Ireland's main communities. The goal is to foster goodwill and friendship between them. Each year, a group of teenagers are chosen to travel to the United States, where they stay with an American family for a few weeks.