Maurice McAleese in his book Golden Strands gives us a flavour of the entertainment heritage of Portrush. He reports, “The summer of 1913 certainly seems to have been particularly successful from the point of view of entertainment. In no previous year has there been such a galaxy of attractions in Portrush. What with two picture houses, a variety theatre, a dance hall, band performances galore, not to speak of the amusements on the East Strand, the town is happily equipped. There is a seemingly endless variety of itinerant street musicians.”
Portrush has a strong musical and entertainment tradition, dating from the music hall variety concerts at the turn of the century to the annual pipe band competitions in the Recreation Grounds and the more recent Atlantic Sessions which bring music to every pub and café in the area.
Portrush Pipe Band, which sadly is no more, drew traditional tunes from Scotland and England as well as Ireland. Ballywillan Flute Band introduced many youngsters to music and local hostelries have always hosted traditional sessions. More recently a traditional music school, North Coast Trad, has made its home in Portrush.
There have always been ample outlets for local talent. Ballywillan Drama Group have been putting on a post-Christmas show since 1952 and, with the Portrush Music Society, they have a long, proud heritage. Both groups present annual shows which are greatly appreciated and supported by the local and wider community. Portrush Theatre Company have recently continued the Pantomime tradition which is going from strength to strength. A Film Society shows monthly ‘art house’ films in the Play House, once one of the two cinemas in the town. For many years our town hall has hosted both the Summer Theatre where local drama groups perform to well-filled audiences, and the Portrush Irish Dancing Festival where young people compete and display their skills.
Firework displays in the Recreation Grounds also have a long tradition extending back to the post-war years. These were often preceded by a musical entertainment from marching bands, military tattoos being very popular. The Arcadia Ballroom was a popular venue for showbands in the big band era. It welcomed dancers from all over the province and many hearts were won and lost in its environs.
No list of entertainments would be complete without a mention of Barry’s Amusements, which replaced The Winter Gardens and Pleasure Grounds so popular at the turn of the last century. Portrush has always been a popular destination for Sunday School excursions. A dozen or more special trains might arrive on one day from all over N. Ireland. For children it would have been a highlight of their year and for many, Barry’s provided accommodation for refreshments behind their main building where their Big Dipper now stands.
Situated as it is on the peninsula, Portrush has a strong history of water sports. Some of the founders of Irish surfing began their careers here and the Portrush Yacht Club encouraged many young wind-surfers and sailors in the days before every child had a wet suit. Diving displays at the Blue Pool and in the harbour were popular until modern health and safety regulations made safety a priority. Today there are three surf schools, a kayaking club and a thriving Coasteering business.
Fishing provided a livelihood for many in the town before it became a leisure activity. Today small boats fish inshore and larger ones go further afield after bigger monsters of the deep. However, it was not all about water sports – Portrush boasted successful hockey and football clubs and golf needs a section all to itself.
The town has a golfing heritage second to none from its establishment in 1888 and the visit of Old Tom Morris in 1889 when he advised on the first 18 hole layout for the Golf Course. Over the next 130 years Royal Portrush hosted more than fifty British and Irish National Championships. In 1951 the Club hosted the Open Golf Championship for the first time outside England and Scotland. The Open returned in 2019 with a record attendance of 237,750. Many famous golfers have played Royal Portrush and amongst the esteemed local lady golfers were two early winners of the Ladies British Amateur Championship May Hezlet (1899,1902 and 1907) and Rhona Adair (1900 and 1903). In more recent times local men Fred Daly (Open Champion 1951) Graeme McDowell (US Open Champion 2010) and Darren Clarke (Open Champion 2011) all became Major Champions.