The first hotel in Portrush was The Antrim Arms, on the corner of Main Street and Mark Street, opened in 1837 by Dr. John Boyd of Coleraine. Miss Rebecca Rice, a wealthy resident of the town had previously, since 1822, built “very commodious” villas along the Terrace, behind what is now Causeway Street, which she rented to “several respectable families from counties Londonderry and Antrim” during the bathing season.
The establishment of The Antrim Arms Hotel suited the local landlord, the Earl of Antrim, who desired to develop the town of Portrush. He saw Portrush as being both convenient for visiting the Giant’s Causeway and possessed of its own natural beauty. The hotel, situated on the slim headland terminating in Ramore Head, was a fine belvedere with views to Innishowen and Donegal to the west and the Giant’s Causeway, Islay and the Paps of Jura to the east. It attracted the upper classes of society – “lords, bishops, judges and such-like” according to Edwin Waugh, author of Irish Sketches and Miscellany.
The arrival of the railway in 1855 and the bridging of the River Bann made Portrush part of a unified railway system which connected the main cities and towns of the North of Ireland with connections from Belfast to most parts of Ireland and Great Britain. The Belfast and Northern Counties Railway (BNCR) saw its terminus at Portrush as a potential money-spinner and invested heavily in the town. In 1883 the BNCR formed the Northern Counties Hotel Company Ltd., purchased The Antrim Arms Hotel and began to enlarge and improve it, having first renamed it The Northern Counties Hotel.
A report in the Coleraine Chronicle of 28th June 1884 tells us more:
“The bed-rooms command views inland and seaward—north, south, east, and west—only limited by the horizon; and in this expanse views of exquisite beauty come within the range of vision, the means of enjoying them being only increased by the additions now in course of erection. These consist of a new wing about one hundred feet long and four storeys high. The ground floor will be used as a bar and restaurant, where it is intended to supply dinners, teas. &c.. to occasional visitors. Above these are three floors of bed-rooms, with the usual lavatories, &c.. A new kitchen has been built and fitted up with the most perfect culinary appliances. There is also an extensive range of laundry buildings, with servants’ rooms above. New ranges of stables for twelve horses, coach-houses, &c., are also included: and a large addition has been built to salt water bath-house, and all the old baths taken out and replaced by new zinc baths. A bath-keeper’s residence has also been built. The works are being carried out by Messrs. John Lowry & Son, of Belfast, under the superintendence of Mr. John Lanyon C.E.”
Lanyon’s striking Mansard roof, corbelled cornices and dormer windows produced a most memorable French chateau effect which was enhanced by the elevated location of the hotel. The hotel boasted some 100 bedrooms each with a breathtaking view and gardens and tennis courts led down to the hotel’s Bath-House and the sea. French cuisine was the order of the day, a German band provided musical entertainment and a London hairdresser was in residence. The hotel also housed the Hotel Manager, responsible for all the Railway Company’s hotels, refreshment rooms and “in train” catering. The railway station was about half a mile south of the hotel but hotel porters and horse-drawn conveyances were on hand to provide assistance and transport to and from the hotel. The opening of the County Golf Club in 1888 brought ever more visitors to the town and the railway, having supported the development of the course encouraged golfers to stay in the town with the provision of combined hotel and railway tickets.
The opening of Berkeley Deane Wise’s grand new railway station with its three very long platforms in 1893 provided the means to handle the ever increasing number of travellers. This same gentleman was soon to turn his undoubted talents to further enhancement of the Northern Counties Hotel. In February 1906 the hotel’s ballroom, without doubt its most opulent and famous feature, was unveiled. Sadly Wise himself may not have attended the unveiling as he was known to be seriously ill at this time: he was to pass away in Portrush some three years later.
On Thursday 1st February 1906 the inaugural event in the ballroom was “The County Ball” where gentlemen representing the county families of Londonderry and Antrim issued the invitations. The Coleraine Chronicle of 3rdFebruary 1906 describes the ballroom and the other improvements to the hotel:
“To those acquainted with the extent of the accommodation and convenience provided in the Hotel before the alterations now completed were undertaken the improvements and enlargement must have given something of a surprise. The entrance-hall in the original building has been greatly enlarged, ‘the walls being panelled in oak and the decorations and furnishings of the most attractive description. From the hall the ascent by the great marble stairway leads up to the capacious lobby, which for the occasion of the ball was used as a lounge and buffet… Out of it through massive swing doors, the guests were ushered into the ball-room, the sight of which, in colloquial language, almost ‘take’s one’s breath away’. To use a ‘saving phrase’, it must be seen to be appreciated. Surely its counterpart is not to be found in any other of Ireland’s hotels. The decorations are in white and gold, with great panels in which beautiful scenes have been depicted by the artist’s brush. By day the hall is lit from large circular windows overlooking the harbour. . . By night brilliancy is imparted by two massive brass chandeliers, each scintillating with 20 globes of electric light, which give splendid illumination, and add to the beauty of the ceiling. This is lofty and elaborately decked in panelling of floral design. The floor is, if we may put it in Hibernian style, ‘almost too good to be trodden on’, and for the ball Mr. Cox had a couple of men waxing and polishing during the day until it shone like glass. It is of parquet work, with a handsome design in the centre. At the end, facing the entrance door, is a large and handsome fireplace, with dog-grate of solid brass; but the principal heating is by steam radiators. On the side, facing the windows, is a very neat stage, the walls of which are panelled in sateen, and off which are the ladies’ and gentlemen’s retiring-rooms. Everything has been arranged so that plays, concerts, etc., may be given with every imaginable facility — minimum trouble to the organisers and fairly certain success”.
The ballroom was decorated in Louis XIV style and comprised the major part of a new west wing. It appears that some fifty bedrooms were also added together with a roof-top conservatory at this time. The First World War and economic depression for some years thereafter saw expenditure exceed revenue and some maintenance work being neglected. During the 1930’s major problems were identified with the hot water system being described as unsatisfactory, paintwork was in poor condition as were the hot water sea baths and a faulty power supply system. Notwithstanding these problems the hotel employed a full time orchestra – Sibbald Treacy’s orchestra – for the season from 1933 and installed an indoor heated sea water swimming pool and expanded the dining room into the adjacent Antrim House, which the hotel also owned, in 1934. These between the wars years were difficult for all hospitality businesses but the Northern Counties was not allowed to languish and alongside the material improvements came a range of special events to tempt patrons to the hotel. Saturday evening dances became a regular attraction and occasions such as Easter and the coronation were celebrated in a very grand style.
With the start of the Second World War in 1939 the hotel was let to Campbell College whose own premises in Belfast had been requisitioned by the government for war use. All the grand stylish furniture was stored for the duration of the war. After the war the hotel was redecorated and the furniture returned to its rightful location prior to re-opening. In 1948 the railways of the United Kingdom were nationalized and the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company’s Northern Counties Committee (LMSNCC) found itself divorced from all its established links with railways in Great Britain as it was taken over by a public corporation, the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA), on 1st April 1949. The UTA was charged with providing an integrated system of road and rail transport for Northern Ireland and had little interest in or money for running hotels. There is no evidence that the UTA ever expended substantial funds on the Northern Counties Hotel during its years of ownership. The dawn of the 1960s’ saw a new phenomenon, the foreign holiday: or to be more precise the cheap foreign package holiday guaranteeing “sun, sand & sangria!”. Lack of new investment resulted in the hotel no longer able to maintain its first class status.
The UTA sold the hotel in 1966 to Grand Metropolitan Hotels and later it passed to the Hasting Group. Its penultimate owner was Jack Fawcett, owner of Fawcett’s Royal Hotel next door across Mark Street, who kept it going with conferences, cheap meals for day trippers, discos for students from the nearly New University of Ulster and coach tours patrons who stayed one night on their one or two week tour of the Emerald Isle. When Jack Fawcett retired and sold the hotel great hopes were raised that the new owner would rejuvenate it and bring it back to its former glory. The hotel remained closed and renovation work started.
A fire broke out on the evening of 15th February 1990 which was quickly brought under control and extinguished by the local fire brigade. A second fire in the early hours of Saturday 10th March spread quickly and the building was gutted: only a charred shell remained and this had to be quickly demolished as it was deemed to be unsafe. The Northern Counties Hotel, the glorious heart of Portrush, was no more: only memories remained. The site lay vacant for some years before eventually being purchased by a local company who built a new somewhat smaller hotel on the Main Street side of the site and apartments on the Mark Street side. In April 1994 the former owner of the hotel, having been convicted of arranging to have the hotel set alight by the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force, was jailed for three years. The charges against him included conspiracy to defraud General Accident Insurance of £3,000,000. Since then the new hotel has operated under the Comfort Inn and Ramada brand names until its purchase in the second decade of this century by a Londonderry based group who rebranded it The Portrush Atlantic Hotel and under whom it continues to flourish.