Down town — Paul Clements on the delights of historic Downpatrick

A regeneration plan is helping to breathe fresh life into the town after the floods of 2023

The unprecedented floods last November in Downpatrick, Co Down, ripped the business heart out of the town. Market Street and St Patrick’s Avenue suffered the worst damage, with 50 shops swamped after the Quoile River burst its banks. Structural defects, found after the flooding, led to a supermarket store being bulldozed.

Ironically, just six weeks before the deluge, a blueprint had been launched for a new vision – the Living High Streets initiative – to help breathe fresh life into the town. A regeneration group was working with local agencies, traders and community groups to redevelop buildings and animate the streets.

Irish Street, a steep road leading uphill from the confluence of English and Scotch Streets, escaped the flooding and this year is marking its tercentenary. This was originally the ancient Slighe Midluachra route from Tara to Dunseverick on the north coast, with an offshoot into the walled town of Downpatrick, where it arrived at “the gate of Down” by 1287.

In the 18th century it had become known as Irish Street, and a town plan from 1724 shows the houses with narrow plots running down to bogland. At that time, Downpatrick had its first brewery at the southern end of the street, while its linen trade was expanding with a bleach yard.


By the early 19th century, Irish Street was the commercial centre of the thriving town. Near the top, The Shambles, which is derived from the old word for a slaughterhouse, was where street traders set up their wares. A dinner was held in the street in 1829 in honour of Daniel O’Connell in recognition of his successful struggle for Catholic Emancipation after a campaign for electoral reform.

Buildings of different ages climb the hill bestowing it with a hotchpotch of styles. These include Georgian houses as well as other properties with ground floors converted into shops and offices. But some premises on the street today are in a state of disrepair and need a makeover while others are vacant. The former police station which closed in 2015 is a boarded-up eyesore with vegetation sprouting from the guttering and from adjoining derelict buildings.

In a place best known for its connection to St Patrick, it has other stories to tell. Renowned for its markets and fairs, Downpatrick had the advantage of being a borough town where the electors were referred to as “potwallopers”, a curious name given to those with a large enough hearth to boil a cauldron or “wallop a pot”.

The post-flooding focus is to develop a “Downpatrick passport” with 10 things to see and do, and to initiate what tourism gurus call “experiential” days out. It is a town that has always capitalised on its history. Aside from St Patrick, they invoke the past in street names and through outdoor sculpture. De Courcy Place recalls John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman warlord who arrived in Ireland in 1177 building strongholds at several castles and taking the town of Downpatrick – then known as Dún da Lethglas – by surprise. Other names linked with the past include John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who is commemorated in the Wesley Stone near the Cathedral.

Lynn Doyle Place, off Irish Street, is called after a writer who adopted a pseudonym but whose real name was Leslie Alexander Montgomery. Born in Downpatrick in 1873, his father was a grocer and spirit merchant in Irish Street. Doyle attended boarding school in Dundalk, later working in the Northern Banking Company in Belfast before transferring as manager to Skerries.

However, he had another role as a novelist and playwright, describing rural life in his autobiography An Ulster Childhood. Popular stories in his collection Ballygullion, published by the Talbot Press in Dublin, include a caricature of a fictional town named after Slieve Gullion with sketches by the artist William Conor.

Doyle and Conor both enjoy a Dublin claim to fame. In the Palace Bar they appear in a large, framed cartoon featuring more than 40 Irish writers, journalists, editors, and artists who populated the back room. They are part of a drawing, “Dublin Culture”, commissioned by the Irish Times editor RM “Bertie” Smyllie, which decorates the rear wall of the Fleet Street bar that celebrated its bicentenary last autumn. Doyle’s matchmaking comedy, Love and Land, based on his story, The Widow, was produced in London, while other plays were performed by the Ulster Literary Theatre in the Abbey in Dublin in 1932.

Today several sculptures stand in Scotch Street, consisting of three characters and an animal representing The Silent Dog – known as Juno – from Doyle’s book The Ballygullion Bus. Quotations from the author’s work are also carved into paving stones.

The manner in which Doyle invented his pseudonym is intriguing. He had a whimsical fondness for word play and when looking for a pen name to put under his first story, he spotted a can on a shop shelf labelled with the words “Linseed Oil”. And from that moment he adopted the nom de plume Lynn C Doyle.