BELFAST’S BYGONE EASTERS: CAVE HILL PILGRIMAGE, THE BOTANIC GARDENS BALLOON
Ireland's Saturday Night, Saturday 11th April 1936
Belfast’s bygone Easter Mondays! What a glamour there was around those good old days when “talkies,” electric trams, broadcasting and aerodromes were unheard of.
Then it was that the youth and beauty of Belfast, and the old folk too, set out in their hundreds every Easter morn on their annual pilgrimage to the Cave Hill, there to trundle their eggs, dyed yellow with whin blossom or purple with log wood, ‘neath the shadow of Napoleon’s Brow. All over the green slopes there were picnic parties, lovers, old fogies and scores of laughing children thoroughly enjoying themselves. Some were playing ring o’ rosies, some tig, others hide and seek, while the older folk sat around beside their baskets of eggs, ginger pop and good, hefty Ulster sandwiches reliving, no doubt, in the antics of the children their own Easter Mondays of the past on that self same hill in the days before their hair had turned to silver.
There were others who sought seclusion; these were the lovers, to be sure. Snug among the whin bushes they sat, arms encircling waists, looking down at the smoke stacks of the town and the ships in the making at “The Island” far below. Some, perhaps, were trying to pick out their own streets and districts, using church spires and factory chimneys as their guide marks. Many a troth was pledged, many a match made on the hill on those good old Easters of bygone years. When night dropped her purple mantle over the town and the twinkling lights of the street lamps edged the roads with jewels, the revellers, tired but happy, made their way to the town by way of Sheep’s Pad, or that now vanished stairway of ancient railway sleepers, to the Antrim Road.
The Cave Hill pilgrimage did not exhaust by any means the Easter attractions for the industrious folk of Belfast. Hundreds visited every Easter the Old Museum in College Square North, there to see “the mummy” lying in all her serene glory of thousands of years. In the evening there were “Christy’s Minstrels” in the Ulster Hall, lime light views in Victoria Hall and “Dick Turpin’s ride to York” in the circus in Chichester Street. The greatest Easter attraction of all was the annual balloon ascent from the Botanic Gardens. Every Easter for many years the people of the town gathered in thousands with their friends from the country to witness this great event. Everyone was asking during Easter week, “Have you seen the balloon go up,” and who in Belfast in those days hadn’t.
The last ascent was made on Easter Monday, March 26, 1894, at 4.30 p.m., and the intrepid balloonist was the famed Captain Orton, who made the ascent in the Volunteer before 10,000 people.
On the same day Tommy Burns was to dive from 70 feet into a wooden tank. Unfortunately the wooden tank sprang several leaks, and although workmen attempted to plug the holes all the previous night in the morning the tank was still leaking. Not to be outdone, Tommy mounted the ladder to the platform and waited until the water was pumped in. Alas, the water would not rise more than a few feet, and Tommy announced that he would make the dive from 20 feet instead of 70 owing to the shallowness of the water. He did so amid the plaudits of the vast crowd. It was then found that he could not climb the slippery walls of the tank, and so he was forced to swim round and round like a goldfish to keep warm until a ladder was brought from the park-keeper’s lodge. However, the crowd had the good fortune to see Capt. Orton soar high into the heavens from the green amid the flowerbeds and drift away over the town towards Divis.
That was the last display of its kind in the garden. Next Easter the Royal Belfast Botanical and Horticultural Co., Ltd., had sold their interests to the Belfast Corporation for £10,000, but it was not until 1895 that they were actually taken over.