Craigavon Dreams

I’m really sorry I missed this when it came out, as it would have made the following post a lot more informed.

BBC NI TV Portal – Lost City of Craigavon

“As a child I didn’t notice the failure of Craigavon. The new city was an enormous playground of hidden cycle paths, roads that ended suddenly in the middle of nowhere and futuristic buildings standing empty in an artificial landscape. It had a magical quality.” says Newton Emerson.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone in the green fields of North Armagh for what was planned as a great new city that would transform the industrial and social landscape of Northern Ireland. The new city of Craigavon was conceived as an answer to overcrowding and industrial decline in Belfast. More importantly it was to be Prime Minister Terence O’Neill’s vision of a ‘modern’ Northern Ireland, an ecumenical worker’s paradise warmed by the white heat of technology.

Forty years on, the futuristic city of Craigavon has publicly wilted between the growing towns of Lurgan and Portadown. The planners dream of a bold new way of life has disappeared.

Newton Emerson’s recollections of Craigavon coincide pretty well with my own. To me, Craigavon is a place of mystery. It says on my passport that I was born in Craigavon, but I don’t really have a good idea in my head of what Craigavon is.

This morning I was playing Earth Wind and Fire while the nipper was eating his breakfast. When Fantasy came on:

I had a bit of a flashback to making my way around Craigavon Shopping Centre in the late 1970s and hearing the song playing on the PA. I am probably superimposing adult experiences onto what I was thinking at the time, but I recall a moment in which the confident thrust of progress that comes across in both the lyrics and the groove seemed a perfect fit to the space-age surroundings.

Because as far as I was concerned, Craigavon Shopping Centre was the pinnacle of modernity as I knew it. If you are more accustomed to going to shops in a place with surroundings like this:

(Photo courtesy of 1970’s Armagh Memories Facebook group)

then Craigavon Shopping Centre was like something out of Buck Rogers.

I have been trying in vain to locate a photo of what it looked like originally. Here is a recent photo:

© Copyright HENRY CLARK and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Unfortunately, the building has been extended and the original white rectengular-tiled facade with ‘craigavon shopping centre’ in massive orange lower case letters across the front (in Helvetica, perhaps) has been removed, and the new facade just makes it look like, well, a shopping centre. But the iconic masts on the top are still there, at least in this photo. I remember my uncle visiting San Francisco and coming back with photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. It reminded me a bit of Craigavon Shopping Centre.

It was a source of confusion for me throughout the 1980s as to whether there was such a thing as Craigavon Centre, which I would often see signs for, or whether Craigavon Centre simply referred to the shopping centre. And if there was indeed such a thing, had I ever seen it? The shopping centre is now called Rushmere, which makes it sound like it’s in Ipswich. But its website declares it to be Rushmere The Centre of Craigavon.

Since I was used to the clutter of a small market town with roadblocks and police checkpoints, there was something exhilarating about walking out the front door of the shopping centre, feeling the sense of space and possibility, seeing this across the way:

Marlborough House, Central Way, Craigavon
Central and local government offices for the southern region.

© Copyright P Flannagan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Of course, I had no idea what people did in this building. I imagined it had something to do with building space rockets. True story: when an affluent neighbour of mine showed me the photo of the giant golf-ball structure in the EPCOT center in Disneyworld, I told him it reminded me of that building in Craigavon.

The scene of my earliest memory is Craigavon Area Hospital, where I was brought aged 2 to see my newborn sister. I can’t recall anything of the building itself that day, only the cot and the paper bag of sweets I was holding in my hand. But a later memory, from when I was three, was being brought to the casualty department to get an x-ray on my arm, and they used plastic yellow blocks to hold my arm in place while they conducted the x-ray. Those yellow blocks still glow in my memory, like components of a world far removed from my own. When my own son was born in Holles Street in Dublin in 2007, my dad, looking at the ramshackle conditions in which the baby was spending his first days, remarked that the place I had been born more than 30 years previous was a far better place. He was right.


6 Responses to “Craigavon Dreams”

  1. 1 wolfhound July 18, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    My neighbour told his wife….Margaret, if they ever come to take me to Craigavon Hospital.. shoot me ” The whole project was a disaster from start to finish. To entice people from Belfast they offered a relocation payment. Once the payment had been pocketed back they went to Belfast ! Then they famously closed the play areas…. what became known as “the swings ” which added some sectarian spice to the mix. People like the excoriable David Calvert played on peoples fears and people working for the Portadown Times who’d bought houses there and regretted it wrote puff pieces to try and get the prices back up to where they’d been when they’d bought. Heard this one before have you ?
    It was called dumbbell development because Lurgan and Portadown already existed and Craigavon was the ribbon infill. The bell part is now redundant.

  2. 2 Hugh Green July 20, 2010 at 7:08 am

    You mean Craigavon had a downside? But it had an artificial ski slope and a leisure centre!

    I spent a summer once working in Lurgan, Portadown and Craigavon. By the end of it I still wasn’t too sure where Craigavon began and ended.

  3. 3 Hugh Green July 20, 2010 at 7:09 am

    BTW what sort of stuff did David Calvert get up to?

    • 4 wolfhound July 21, 2010 at 2:06 am

      Calvert led the DUP charge at the time – 1974 – was my time there… and by there I mean working for the local rag. He was big during the Ulster Workers Strike. He organised who got to stay open, who had to close. From this a lot of businesses prospered and changed hands. He would have been an associate of the old style Paisleyites like Murdock who blew up the electric pylons in Loughgall although he’d have been cute enough not to have had an actual hand in it. He was reputed to have been ditched by a catholic girlfriend early in his sad and bitter life which may or may not account for his bitterness ! Pip ! Pip !

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