History and Cultural Background

The Preservation of Cockle Row

Cockle Row cottages remain as a signature icon of old Groomsport. They were probably built from local stone in the 1700’s as houses for the local fishermen. Constructed with their long axis at right-angles to the beach to present the minimum surface area to the bitter Northerly and North-easterly winds in winter, they remind us of a way of life that most of us no longer experience at first hand. Half-doors, open fires, thatched roofs, thick solid walls, small single-glazed windows and stone or dirt floors have become a thing of the past round here.

Main Street / Harbour Road junction c.1965

The part of the village shown in the photograph (on left) is now recognized as part of an “Area of Village Character” by the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (2015). The importance of this village to the cultural history of Ireland has not always been recognised by those in authority. We only need to look back to the relatively recent past, to appreciate the damage done by the myopic and poorly informed approach of the local authority, to the preservation of vernacular architecture in this area.

In the mid 1960’s for example, there were two houses on Main Street, opposite the Presbyterian Church. These were occupied by the Stewart and Mackintosh families. There were also 5 cottages, all derelict except one, which was occupied by Mrs Summers.

The nine cottages on the Western edge of the bay, along the road to the Watch House, were demolished (rather than being preserved) in 1963. These dwellings although primitive, represented the typical house type found in most coastal villages at that time and to a large measure defined the character of the village of Groomsport. Local people were, to say the least, shocked to see, what they perceived to be the destruction of the village  heritage. There seemed little that they could do in the face of the relentless march of progress and the rush to modernise, initiated by the local Council.

Finally, in 1968 / 69, with demolition equipment already on site, locals realised that the last remaining cottages, down by the water’s edge were to be flattened. This street was known as “Cockle Row”. The last occupant of one of these cottages was Tilly Baron. She had already been re-housed into 25 Main Street by this time so the houses were in fact unoccupied and in what could only be described as poor order.

It was decided that “enough was enough” and affirmative action needed to be taken. The Presbyterian minister of the day – the Rev Dr David Irwin and his wife Maureen, organised a protest at very short notice. A group of local people, with no regard for their personal safety, placed themselves between the demolition machinery and the cottages of Cockle Row and defied the authorities to attempt to move closer to the cottages. A potentially very dangerous standoff was averted by the responsible actions of the machinery operators – or rather responsible inactions! They refused to move their equipment and a “gentleman’s agreement” was reached with the Council delaying the demolition. This allowed time for the Arts Council and others involved in preservation, to produce an injunction and eventually a Preservation Order. Bangor Art Club became involved and used the cottages as their base for some time.

You can see an interview (recorded on 21st August 2017) with David and Maureen here.

Today, you can enjoy the charms of the remaining Cockle Row cottages, thanks to the far-sighted activities of some local people.

Aspect One

Ron Irvine – the artist

Groomsport harbour and its environs are recognized as an “Area of Village Character” by the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (2015). The area owes much of its character to the stone built pier and nearby 18th century cottages known as Cockle Row.

It would be a mistake however to assume that this vernacular architecture was always appreciated by the authorities. Indeed the last of  the cottages were about to be demolished by the local council in the early 1970’s and were only rescued by the efforts of Bangor Art Club.

One of the founding members of the Bangor Art Club was Ron Irvine. He lived on the Groomsport Road near Dufferin Villas. He worked as an Art teacher, first in Belfast Boys Model School (in the 1960’s) and later in Bangor Girls High School. Born in Newtownards, he would have been very familiar with the Groomsport area. Living in Ballyholme, allowed him and his family to enjoy the pleasure of exploring Balymacormick point and the rocky path through Groomsport and on to Briggs Rock and Orlock.

In 1971 Bangor Borough Council commissioned him to create a piece of public art to enhance the grass area at Groomsport harbour. Ron wanted to create a piece that would endure the harsh seaside elements so he made it in concrete. He wanted people to gain an appreciation of the place by interpreting the work as they saw fit. His creation embodied the tactile, auditory and visual pleasure he had derived from Groomsport.

Ron had not worked in concrete before so this job was a real challenge and indeed he re-made it several times before he was satisfied. To allow free interpretation, he named it “Aspect One”

Everyone was meant  to sit on it, climb up it, jump off it, do none of these – whatever “turned them on”! You can see Ron relaxing on Aspect One in the photograph.

This extract from an email from Ron Irvine’s daughter in 2016 explains…

“Ron loved Groomsport and the wildness of the shoreline.  We often walked from Bangor to Groomsport as a family, and when designing it Ron decided that the sculpture shouldn’t be something that people just looked at, but something to be enjoyed, like the shore and therefore it
was important to him that everyone felt they could scramble over, play around and sit on the sculpture.  Given the exposed position he made it out of concrete, wanting it to last and to reflect the ruggedness of the surrounding shore line.  Concrete is a difficult material to work with, and it therefore took a long time to construct, particularly as Ron was a bit of a perfectionist.  During the building process he was asked many times what it was called.  In truth, I don’t think he ever
intended to name it, wanting it to be whatever people saw, letting their imagination run free.  There were many names, from the islands of the British Isles to my personal favourite Yogi Bear and Bobo.”