Postcard from the past

 

In 1102, the King of Norway, Magnus Barefoot, was beheaded on what's now the 18th hole of the Royal Portrush golf course. The illegitimate daughter of King James II is said to be buried in a local churchyard and in 1710 Portrush was most famous for the "tallest woman in the world". Mary Murphy, who was 7ft tall in her stockings and soles, was reputed to be gorgeous, but she died in Paris as an alcoholic sideshow act.

But perhaps Portrush is best known for the "Portrush kiss". Before tourism began to provide employment in the town in the 19th century, it was a poor fishing hamlet. Boats came up from Co Donegal, collecting the men in all the ports along the way to bring them to Scotland for "tattie hokin" (potato gathering). Portrush was the last stop, so the reluctant men had to fight for a place on the boat. Their women would put cobbles in woollen stockings and beat the men on to the boat - a "Portrush kiss".

Portrush is a natural safe harbour, protected by the skerries - small, rocky islands - near the coast. The area has been fought over for more than 2,000 years by Vikings and kings; Norwegian, Scots, British and Irish. It became staunchly Protestant in 1642, when Monroe burned out the Catholics, and it has a Scottish flavour, with the Scottish flag flown proudly today beside the Union Jack and the red hand of Ulster.

Portrush became a unified town only after 1855, when the Northern Counties Railroad was extended from Coleraine and a golden age of tourism began. In the Victorian era, Portrush was the final word in gentility, as the privileged enjoyed the bracing air, took the waters at nearby Ballintrae and rode what was reputed to be the first hydro-electric tram in the world along the cliffs from Bushmills to the Giant's Causeway. There were ballrooms, bands, entertainments and fancy-dress parades. By 1896 there was a pleasure ground with swingboats and hobby-horses and, by 1904, fancy-dress skating carnivals.

As conditions improved for linen-mill workers, the working class and farming families escaped their workaday lives en masse to holiday in Portrush for "the Twelfth fortnight", when the saying was that "any fool in Belfast is in Portrush and any fool in Portrush is in Belfast". The genteel gravitated to nearby Portstewart and Portballintrae in their coaches. So Portrush got a reputation of attracting the "riff-raff", says historian Bob Curran.

By the early 20th century, Portrush had a reputation as a "glamorous and exotic" destination, which it retained until the 1960s, says Curran: "It was like flying to the south of France is today." There was the excitement of the train journey and the luxury of staying in a B&B (where landladies were kept busy providing three meals a day), but also a feeling of release from living in the confinement of a set of streets in Belfast or a remote farm. Scottish holiday-makers came over on a steamer - and this tradition ended only with the Troubles in the 1960s.

In 1927, Evelyn Chipperfield, a dynamic young woman who'd grown up in Chipperfields Circus as a performer and could do somersaults while playing her violin, decided, with her Italian husband, Frank Trufelli, to establish Barry's Amusements on the west side of the port. In the early days there were elephants, lions, monkeys, a flea circus, acrobats and all sorts of bizarre travelling shows, but gradually the amusement rides took over as the main attraction.

Frank's son, also named Frank Trufelli, still runs Barry's with the help of his daughters, Lisa and Kristina, who continue their grandmother's work by spending 10 hours a day manning Barry's in summer. They even paint the carousel horses themselves.

Today, Barry's is almost all that remains of the old Portrush romance and despite the land being worth tens of millions of euro, Frank Trufelli has refused to sell. He wants to keep the magic. One testimony: in the hotel where we were staying, one US visitor, an emigrant, wrote that after 40 years in the US he had wanted to visit Portrush one last time.

The demise of Portrush began in the 1960s, with the Troubles. Unemployed families were shipped out of troubled areas to live on estates in the town, paid for by social welfare. The B&Bs were given over in winter to student housing, bringing down the tone of the place and turning it into a party town. More recently, super-clubs on the outskirts have made Portrush a mecca for hen and stag parties. Gradually, the glamour has faded and the Xanadu that once existed on the north Co Antrim coast is but a memory.