Ranfurly House Arts & Visitor Centre Opens

New £5.5m project incorporates the ancient O'Neill family fortress and puts Dungannon on a par with other cultural hubs

The Hill of the O’Neills, the ancient fortress which gave its name to the town of Dungannon, (Dun, the stronghold of Geannun) and which affords spectacular views over the province of Ulster is now a pleasure park linked to the new Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor centre.

The joined up sites were officially opened on October 24, 2012 when the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness, addressed guests invited by the Lord Mayor Clor Phelim Gildernew and Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council.

Mr Robinson compared the completed project, which cost £5.5m, to other recently developed sites such as Titanic Belfast, the Giants Causeway Visitor’s Centre and Ebrington Barracks in Derry-Londonderry, which are designed to boost the tourist industry in Northern Ireland.

As if to confirm the importance of such ventures, news had just come through that the latest Lonely Planet Best in Travel guide places Derry-Londonderry 4th in its list of the world’s most popular city destinations based on its calendar of events for 2013.

'For 40 years it was known as the birthplace of the Troubles but Londonderry has joined an elite list of the world’s best cities to visit,' said the prestigious travel publication. 'This vibrant historic walled city is undergoing a renaissance.”

Mr McGuiness welcomed the coming together of the Planter and the Gael in the new centre as the O’Neills, ‘goliaths of gaelic history’ are reconciled with the 17th century settlers who displaced them.

Ranfurly House Arts & Visitor Centre

 

The O’Neill chieftains ruled Ulster from their seat on the hill above Dungannon until Hugh O’Neill, the Second Earl of Tyrone, who had led the Irish resistance to Tudor rule in the Province, was replaced by Arthur Chichester and later Thomas Knox Hannington. The ruined towers of his gentleman’s residence are all that now remains of a troubled history.

Ian Frazer, chief executive of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council was responsible for overseeing the project, from its inception in 1986 as part of a town centre refurbishment plan to its realisation. Work began following the evacuation of the hill fortress site by the British Army in 2003.

The former Belfast Bank has been redesigned as a multi-purpose arts and visitor centre. In the entrance hall, an imposing wall hanging incorporates a large red hand, the emblem of the O’Neill’s and of Ulster, and the surnames of Dungannon’s citizens included in the 1901 census.

The building’s three-storey elevation includes a modern extension designed by architect Dawson Stelfox’s firm Consarc. The newly named Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre is an imposing sight at the top of the town square. It provides an intimate Square Box theatre, a café and a visitor’s shop.

An interactive heritage installation devised by the Lurgan-based company G2 tells the story of the Flight of the Earls and the Plantation of Ulster. In its panel of photographs, ‘Our Wall of Fame’ celebrates the success of 18 local personalities including former US President, Ulysses S Grant, William Carleton, Bernadette Devlin and champion golfer Darren Clarke.

Also on display is the centre’s first commissioned art work. A life-size cow, which reflects the importance of cattle as a measure of wealth in Gaelic Ulster, has been made from recycled farm implements by the English artist Harriet Mead. (See main picture.)

On the upper floors are two exhibition spaces and several craft workshops, one of which includes a kiln. The Tower conference room, which looks out on the Hill of O’Neill, may be hired as a wedding venue. Glass doors open onto a terrace and walkway leading directly to the newly landscaped park.

Down in the café, members of the Bardic theatre group dressed in period costume mingled among the guests in the café area. The O’Neills were represented by Professor Owen O’Neill from Trinity College Dublin and Pat O’Neill, a local businessman. Sean O’Neill, secretary of the O’Neill Society, which has members worldwide, told me of their plans for a clan gathering in Dungannon in May 2013.

In the Square Box theatre, radio personality Lynette Fay chaired a panel of invited speakers. Comedian and actor Conor Grimes reflected on Londonderry’s nomination by the Lonely Planet guide and quipped, 'If Derry can do it, anyone can!'

In his appreciation of the way in which the new complex defines Dungannon’s shared history, Grimes also  quoted from John Hewitt’s poem, ‘The Colony’. 'As goat and ox may graze in the same field and each gain something from proximity.'

Celtic Tenors

 

Having grown up in the town, Grimes delights in the fact that the hill, which had been out of bounds for so many years, is now open and accessible to all. Just as there were bards and actors and musicians at the court of The O’Neill, he hopes that local artists will be inspired to create new work there.

Ashleigh Craig, a consultant with Oxford Economics, revealed that 82% of people in Northern Ireland will attend an arts event in 2012. In the same way that the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival has boosted revenue for Belfast traders, Dungannon’s business community stand to benefit financially from their new facility.

I was given a tour of the Hill of O’Neill by its landscape designer, Peter Hutchinson. The new park development ticks boxes for biodiversity, sustainability, access for the less able and heritage preservation.

This hilltop at the very heart of Ulster offers panoramic views over church spires to the drumlins of Tyrone, the Sperrin mountains and the Mournes, and onwards as far as the eye can see to the counties of Cavan and Monaghan, once part of the province. Now it boasts two arena style performance spaces. The larger circular stage can accommodate an open air concert or theatre performance or a marquee.

The Celtic Tenors (pictured above) have already performed there, and what a perfect setting it would make for Brian Friel’s play Making History about Hugh O’Neill, the original ruler of this demesne, his flight with the Earls and his death in exile in Rome. The ruined castle towers are a dramatic focal point for son et lumiere events and serve as a backdrop for the second stage or auditorium.

Sloping terraced walkways, which zig zag down the hillside, have been fitted with ground lights as part of the comprehensive lighting plan for the site. Banks have been planted with wild flowers and grasses. Birch trees will grow tall in the lower woodland areas. Stainless steel garden seats, litter bins and fencing were designed with chain mail or armour in mind. New dry stone walls are protected by wire cladding.

Hutchinson was keen to preserve part of the original fencing erected by the British army and has had existing boundary walls repaired using smart red brick. We discussed the communications mast which towers high above the park.

Many consider it to be a blot on the landscape, but since it is still in use it has not been possible to remove it. Yet Hutchinson argues that it could be an asset. It has a history having been erected by the army; it has height and with properly constructed platforms could become a novel new look out post.

'Remember what they used to say about the Eiffel Tower,' says Hutchinson. 'It was described as pieces of tin bolted together!' And he recommends I read Stephen Bayley’s recently published book Ugly.

I am struck and gratified by the inclusive nature of the programming for the new centre. Conference rooms and exhibition spaces may be hired out to local voluntary groups.

The theatre, which offers seating for 90 people on a first come first served basis, can be adapted to suit specific layout requirements for dance and music events. The current autumn/winter schedule features the local Bardic and Craic theatre groups, the Tyrone bard Patsy O’Hagan and emerging musicians including the group Jackamo and the Belfast-based Zimbabwean band led by Wilson Magwere.

The Mystery of the Men on the Hill, a dramatic Halloween tour of the town and the Hill of the O’Neill by the Bardic Theatre group, runs through to October 31, 2012. The Ranfurly House Arts & Visitor Centre website is currently under construction.

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