Notable Visitors

HM Queen Elizabeth II

Possibly Portrush’s most influential visitor was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she visited in HM Royal Yacht Britannia following of a long tradition of warships being welcomed to the port on courtesy visits during the earlier years of the twentieth century by the Royal Navy. Her Majesty visited in 1977 as part of her Silver Jubilee celebratory trip to Northern Ireland and then came later in 2016 as a tour of the Causeway Coast, taking part in a lunch at Royal Portrush Golf Club where “the lunch was attended by 120 guests to celebrate the voluntary and selfless service of citizens in the Borough. She lunched again at Royal Portrush Golf Club in 2019 during a visit to Northern Ireland.

John F Kennedy

Strandmore House had a remarkable visit in August 1940 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (later to become President of the United States,) and his father, Joseph, arrived to visit the house. The owners, Dr & Mrs Bolton, were the Captains of Royal Portrush Golf Club and the Lady’s Branch, as well as Mrs Bolton being a golfer who represented Great Britain and Ireland against America. Dr. Bolton and JFK shared a mutual friend and at the time, Joseph Kennedy was the American Ambassador to Britain and made sure to stop off in Strandmore where his daughter had stayed some years previously. Today site of Strandmore House is now a development of private dwellings.

The Undertones

The Undertones, visited and performed in the Arcadia in Portrush a week before the release of their hit ‘Teenage Kicks’. Many famous and popular bands of the 20th Century performed in Portrush at the Palladium Ballroom (now St. Patrick’s Church Hall), the Arcadia, and the Wintergardens Pavilion in the Pleasure Gardens beside the Railway Station.

Richard Branson

In an unplanned visit in 1987, Richard Branson, the wealthy British businessman, and fellow entrepreneur and adventurer, Per Lindstrand, were brought into Portrush from the Irish Sea by the Royal Navy after their hot air balloon, the ‘Virgin Atlantic Flyer’, became uncontrollable during their attempt at the first trans-Atlantic trip in a hot air balloon. The balloon was approximately 21 storeys high and reached reported speeds of up to 130mph at 27,000 feet. Thankfully, both men survived the experience relatively unscathed, although Lindstrand had to endure two hours in the freezing water.

Sir Edward Carson

In 1912, an historic speech took place in the Pavilion at the Pleasure Grounds where Barry’s is now seen. Sir Edward Carson, who was one of the main leaders for the unionists and a powerful spokesperson and founding member of the Ulster Unionist Party, spoke against the threat of Home Rule in Ireland. 4,000 unionists crowded round to hear him speak in one of the last major events seen by the WIntergardens Pavilion. He is commemorated in the larger-than-life statue erected outside Stormont’s steps during his own lifetime, given a British State funeral and buried in St. Anne’s Cathedral, in Belfast. The statue represents the idea that Northern Ireland was his creation.

Sir James Craig

As a result of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, after the partition of Ireland on 3rd May 1921, Sir James Craig became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Sir James visited Portrush in November 1922 to unveil the Portrush War Memorial, which recognised the tragic sacrifice made by local men during the Great War. After the Second World War, the names of those who lost their lives in that conflict were added.

Michael jordan, Sir Douglas Bader, Carl Frampton, Gareth McAuley, Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Rory McIlroy

Royal Portrush Golf Club has had its fair share of famous visits with Michael Jordan, the US basketball legend, Sir Douglas Bader, the ace World War 2 airman who fought (and golfed) despite having lost his legs in a flying accident prior to the war. The Open 2019 also saw many distinguished guests from Northern Ireland and abroad visit the town, such as Carl Frampton, the boxer, Gareth McAuley, the Northern Irish footballer and the biggest names in golf, such as Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka, Gary Player, Tom Watson and of, course, Northern Irish heroes Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.

Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham

In June 1930, Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, KT, GCB, OM, DSO & Two Bars, visited Portrush as Captain of HMS Rodney – one of the most powerful battleships in the world at that time. As part of a round of social events during this courtesy visit he was invited to officially open and name a new street in Portrush – Rodney Street.

During the Second World War, as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, Cunningham led British naval forces to victory in several critical Mediterranean naval battles. In 1943, Cunningham was promoted to First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, a position he held until his retirement in 1946.

Emperor Pedro II of Brazil

A visit by the monarchy to the beautiful North Antrim coast has always been a special occasion and the arrival of the Emperor and Empress of Brazil on Saturday, 7 July 1877 became another day to remember.

The royal visitors disembarked in Belfast at 3.45am after a rough crossing by steamer from Barrow-in-Furness. The imperial party was on a tour of Europe and Emperor Pedro II had insisted on bringing his large entourage to Ireland to see the famous Giant’s Causeway. The Brazilian consul in Belfast, Mr. Gerald G. Bingham, met them at Donegal Quay and escorted them to a special train which had been provided by the Northern Counties Railway.

The train arrived in Portrush at 7.10am and two open carriages, furnished by the Antrim Arms Hotel, were waiting to take them to the Causeway. On arrival, the Emperor was refreshed by a cup of coffee at Mrs. Kane’s hotel and in return, he presented her with a bunch of grapes!

Boats had been arranged to take the party to the caves but the inclement seas made it too rough to venture off shore. Instead, the visitors spent the next hour and a half enjoying the impressive views of the Causeway stones.

Just like every other tourist, they took home the customary souvenirs. The Emperor bought several boxes of “specimen stones” and he ordered 100 copies of his carte de viste, taken by a local photographer, Daniel McKinlay, as he posed in the spectacular setting of Lord Antrim’s Parlour. The Empress purchased “seaweed ornaments and other little valuables kept solely for tourists”. By mid-morning, the party had returned to Portrush. They declined the offer of lunch at the Antrim Arms Hotel, choosing instead to dine in an elegant waiting room at the station. Most of Portrush had now gathered hoping to see the Brazilian royalty and the Emperor greeted the large crowd before beginning an impromptu walkabout.

The press were as thrilled as the public and later filled their newspaper columns with detailed accounts of the royal visit. The reports were, on the whole, complimentary. Emperor Pedro II was described as “tall and graceful…his eye is quick and the expression of his countenance eloquent and intelligent”.

Even so, the Victorian press were of their time and could possibly be compared to today’s social media in making unsavoury and misogynistic comments. For example, we are told that “ladies, as usual at Portrush, were in the ascendant. The windows in Eglinton Terrace were filled with pretty faces, and the bank on one side and footpaths were thronged with girls and buxom lassies.”

Worse still, it was stated that the Empress was “…very small of statute, stout and heavy and waddles along”. Added to this, she had “a good-natured face, but her figure would hardly commend itself to a Britain. The Emperor, however, cannot be blamed on the score of choice, inasmuch as the lady was selected by proxy, a mode of matrimonial contract hardly popular in this country.”

The Emperor’s secretary, the Chevalier de Macedo, was a great favourite of the journalists and the spectators “from the familiar way with which he jested the juveniles on the road to Springhill, he was supposed by many to be the Emperor himself. He shook hands with several of the little boys and girls…and presented one or two with coins. One young fellow remarked ‘Surely that must be the King’s jester. He’s a rare one – he is!’”

The crowds followed the entourage as they walked through the town and surged forward in a great crush for a final glimpse of the guests as they returned to the station. As the train pulled away, the streets echoed with the noise of hundreds of people giving three cheers as the Emperor raised his hat in salute to Portrush.

John Playfair FRSE FRS

John Playfair FRSE FRS

John Playfair was a Church of Scotland Minister and also a renowned mathematician and professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Born on 10th March 1748 at Benvie, Forfarshire, Scotland he was a friend and supporter of James Hutton, an Edinburgh natural philosopher, who had put forward a theory that some rocks once existed in a molten state. This theory went against the thinking of that time which was based on the work of Abraham Gottlob Werner, a lecturer in the Freiberg Mining Academy. Werner believed that all rocks were formed by crystallization or precipitation from a primeval ocean. His views were revolutionary but influential and he garnered great support from around the world. He and his supporters were known a “Neptunists”, so called because they believed all rocks were formed in the oceans, the realm of the Roman God of the sea, Neptune. Hutton and his supporters became known as “Plutonists” or “Vulcanists”, after the Roman gods of the underworld, Pluto, and of fire, Vulcan respectively.

In 1786 rocks containing ammonites were discovered in Portrush on a section of the eastern side of the Ramore Head peninsula. These dark grey and black rocks were identified by natural philosophers (learned scholars engaged in  the philosophical study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science) as basalts. Neptunists immediately argued that if, as Vulcanists claimed, basalts were solidified lava flows how could living creatures have survived the extreme heat of molten rock, and they appeared to have won the debate. However, soon after Hutton’s death in 1797 John Playfair saw samples of the famous “Portrush Rocks” and having visited the site in 1802 correctly identified the fossil bearing rock as a hornfels, an early Jurassic mudstone baked by its close proximity to a massive sill of molten dolerite immediately beneath. The result was a rock superficially resembling basalt. This view was later upheld by influential observers and has prevailed ever since.

The eastern shore of Ramore Head thus became the last battleground between the Neptunists and the Plutonists with the latter claiming victory. In many respects it can be said that geology as a science was born from that moment of victory. This site in Portrush is one of the most culturally significant places in international geology and has been described as a “pilgrimage” site for geologists due to its historic and unique contributions to science. It is rightly both an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and a National Nature Reserve (NNR).

Sir Charles Lanyon

Sir Charles Lanyon

Sir Charles Lanyon was the renowned architect responsible for the design of Portrush Town Hall. Originally called The Assembly Rooms it opened in 1872 and was greeted with admiration and enthusiasm. Sir Charles was a partner in the firm of distinguished Belfast architects, Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon who were responsible for many fine buildings across the Province including Queen’s University, Belfast, Crumlin Road Gaol & Courthouse, Belfast and Ballymoney Courthouse.

Born in Eastbourne in 1813 to John Jenkinson Lanyon, a purser in the Royal Navy, and Catherine Anne Mortimer, following his education, he became an apprentice civil engineer with Jacob Owen in Portsmouth. When Owen was made senior Engineer and Architect of the Irish Board of Works and moved to Dublin, Lanyon followed. In 1835 he married Owen’s daughter, Elizabeth Helen. They had ten children, including Sir William Owen Lanyon, an army officer and colonial administrator. Charles Lanyon was County Surveyor in Kildare briefly, before moving on to Antrim in 1836. He remained County Surveyor of Antrim until 1860, during which time he was responsible for the now famous Antrim Coast Road and the Frosses tree-lined sections of road.

Elected Mayor of Belfast in 1862, and Conservative MP for the city between 1865 and 1868 he was knighted in 1868 and served on the Select Committee on Scientific Instruction, which laid the groundwork for the Education Act for Universal Education of 1871.

He lost his seat in Westminster, but became a councillor in Belfast Town Council from 1861 to 1871. From 1862 to 1886 he was Belfast Harbour Commissioner. He served as Deputy Lieutenant for County Antrim and was appointed High Sheriff of Antrim in 1876. He was also a Justice of the Peace for many years.

Lanyon lived at ‘The Abbey’ a grand house in Whiteabbey, which eventually became a sanitorium during World War I and is now part of Whiteabbey Hospital. He died there on 31 May 1889 and is buried in Knockbreda Cemetery.