Park Lodge – A ‘Lost Mansion’ and its Eccentric Builder
The Lost Mansions
For lots of us growing up in Belfast we take the names of districts and areas for granted yet many of these streets, parks, schools and so on, were named after the grand houses that once stood in these areas.
Park Lodge was one of the first mansions to be constructed on the thoroughfare we know today as the Antrim Road.
The land was purchased in the 1860’s by the builder Captain William McAteer. It was a very picturesque location on the lower slopes of the Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast Lough.
A Napoleonic Influence
Captain McAteer was a keen traveller and had just completed a round-the-world trip. During his voyage he had visited the island of St Helena, where the deposed ‘Corsican upstart’ Napoleon had spent his exile. McAteer was obviously impressed, because it is said that he modelled his new home on Longwood House – Napoleon’s final residence in St Helena.
McAteer’s villa, built in 1867, was originally called St Helena’s. Unusually, perched on its central square tower was a wooden carving of Napoleon! This life-size figure was said to be carved by William McAteer himself, and was a great attraction in the area.
“…for in its early days a wooden effigy of Bonaparte proudly surmounted the tower of Park Lodge, and as a conspicuous landmark was a source of admiration to the boys of a former generation, who to gratify their curiosity thought nothing of walking the three and a half miles from Belfast to gaze in wonder upon the figure of the man who once had Europe at his feet, but whose further ambitions were frustrated by his conqueror at Waterloo. Those were the days when walking was not a lost art”.Belfast Telegraph 31st January 1934
Park Lodge and its Environs
McAteer’s stately house with its double-aspect and front balcony was one of the most impressive homes in the district. It sat in four acres of wooded garden, within which were outhouses, glasshouses and a variety of fruit trees.
McAteer also built other prestigious houses in this ‘up-and-coming area’ – Altmore, Bella Vista and Chelsea.
The Amphibious Craft
Captain McAteer appears to have been something of a ‘character’. He had both an inventive streak and an aptitude for engineering. He devised various contraptions, but probably his most famous was his amphibious boat.
“He was ahead of his times in many respects. He was the inventor of a combined land and water conveyance – an ‘amphibious boat’ – whose appearance created no small sensation in the streets of Belfast in the late ‘60’s”Belfast Telegraph 31st January 1934
On the day of its launch, the car/boat with its engine and steering wheel for driving and rudder and paddles for sailing, made its way along the Antrim Road. A man walked in front waving a red flag to warn other road-users of its approach. A large crowd gathered to witness the event and followed behind.
Despite a brief collision with a lamp-post at the corner of Donegall Street and York Street, the amphibious craft was said to have been launched at the Twin Islands. Unfortunately, the news reports do not contain photographs or report if the launch was successful!
Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery!
It is said that a wealthy young gentleman and his fiancée were having a ‘promenade’ along this scenic part of the Antrim Road, when he asked her which style of house she preferred from those around them.
After careful scrutiny of her surroundings the lady choose Park Lodge.
Hence a duplicate ‘Park Lodge’ residence was constructed in the Clogher Valley not far from Fivemiletown for the young couple to start their married lives together.
Subsequently, Mr Edward Birney, the famous boot manufacturer, took up residence at Park Lodge. He was one of the few prosperous Catholic businessmen in Belfast at the time and was a pal of Barney Hughes. Birney had a shoe-making factory in Church Street and shops in North Street, Ann Street and Bridge End.
Edward lived in Park Lodge for about 30 years with his wife and 3 children. He was widowed on 25th July 1899 when his wife Dorothea died. He passed away on 4th July 1911 aged 72. His daughter Lavinia was with him, as was his son Frederick who had arrived from his home in Spokane, Washington State, USA. Edward Birney was buried in St Mary’s Graveyard, Greencastle.
In 1911, Park Lodge was described in the census records as a 1st class house. It had 15 front windows, a slate roof and 23 rooms. Outdoors it had a stable, a fowl house, a coach house and a harness room.
In 1912, Park Lodge became the home of Judge Craig, a stalwart of the Protestant ascendancy in the north of Ireland. The youngest son of Thomas Craig, a mill-owner from Strabane, he was educated at Raphoe Royal School and Queens College, before entering the Bar.
He served as Crown Prosecutor in Counties Louth and Monaghan before his appointment as Recorder and County Court Judge of Belfast.
In 1920 Craig left Ireland for retirement in Brighton, England due to ill-health.
“Of the publicly expressed sympathy and regret at his retirement last autumn the speeches in support of the resolutions passed in the City Council Chamber and the Belfast Presbytery re-echoed the sentiments uttered at the time of his appointment as to legal qualifications and devotion to duty”Belfast Telegraph 22nd January 1920
The Baird Family and the Belfast Telegraph
Subsequently this prestigious residence was bought by the Baird family, owners of the Belfast Telegraph. This newspaper had been launched on 1st September 1870 by brothers William Savage Baird and George Courtney Baird from Randalstown in County Antrim.
We are told the first edition covered the story of the Franco-Prussian war, the news of a fire in Great Patrick Street and the inquest of a young man who had died after being trapped in machinery at a brick factory on the Ormeau Road. The early newspaper editions cost a halfpenny.
The paper flourished and the business moved from Arthur Street to Royal Avenue on 28th June 1886. Originally the ground floor of the Belfast Telegraph building was home to a range of small businesses.
The Baird’s also published the Ireland’s Saturday Night, the Larne Times, the Weekly Belfast Telegraph and the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph.
The Baird family are interred in the family plot at Shankill Graveyard.
World War 2 and Beyond
During WW2, Park Lodge was used as an ARP Station. This is where the ‘Air Raid Precautions‘ wardens would sound the siren alerting the local populace to approaching enemy aircraft.
The ARP wardens signal would indicate the need to evacuate homes immediately and follow the associated air raid precautions employed during the Blitz.
Later it was used as a welfare centre for orphaned children.
Park Lodge Today
In 1958, the run-down property was purchased by the Christian Brothers. In September of the same year St Patricks Boys School opened its doors to 150 pupils.
Since then the historic old building has been demolished and a new primary school erected in its place. This well-thought off school, is named Our Lady of Lourdes, but to locals it is, and always will be, Park Lodge.
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