Bangor’s early history centres around Bangor Abbey which was established by St Comgall in 558. The Abbey was widely recognised as a centre of learning and its importance is highlighted in the Mappa Mundie which showed Bangor as one of only four settlements in the whole of Ireland.
At the time of Comgall’s death in 602 there were 3000 monks under his guidance.
The most famous of these monks was Columbanus who along with 12 colleagues left Bangor in 585 to spread Christianity throughout Western Europe. Columbanus and his followers set up monasteries in many parts of Europe including France, Germany Austria Switzerland and Italy. The Swiss city of St Gallen which was founded on the spot where one of the monks Gall had erected his hermitage. <Christian Heritage>
The monastery at Bangor continued to flourish until the late 8th Century when the Vikings began raiding monasteries along the Irish Coast looking for treasure. They raided Bangor on a number of occasions and finally destroyed the monastery and stole its treasures in 824.Fortunately some of the manuscripts created in Bangor had been taken by missionary monks to the continent to escape the Vikings and have therefore survived.
During the Viking invasions and occupation many monasteries were plundered and monk’s put to the sword. Churches and libraries burnt leading to a decline in Christianity in Ireland.
In 1123 Malachy was appointed Abbot and began to revitalize Bangor’s Christian Heritage. He built the first stone church in Bangor and the remnants can be seen today in Malachy’s wall which runs parallel to Abbey Street. The Abbey was finally dissolved by James I.
In 1605 James I granted lands in North Down to a Scotsman James Hamilton and he was the founder of the present town of Bangor. He began building new houses and introduced a large number of fellow Scots to inhabit them. Bangor became a borough in 1613 and was given status as a port. In 1637 Hamilton built the Customs House and watchtower (now Tower House).Hamilton’s direct line of descent died out in 1670 but in 1710 the heir to Bangor lands Anne Hamilton married Michael Ward of Castle Ward and the Ward family were to play an important role in the expansion and development of Bangor over the next two centuries.
Colonel Robert Ward improved the harbour, erected several cotton mills and promoted the local textile industry. In 1852 his grandson the Hon RE Ward built Bangor Castle which is now the Town Hall.
However Bangor’s time as an industrial town was relatively brief as following a series of the fires in the cotton mills in the 1850’s they were closed down.
Bangor began to find a new role with the coming of the railway in 1865. It began to become established as an important seaside resort and attract many affluent businessmen and professionals from Belfast who were able to enjoy the pleasant environment and commute to work by rail or paddle steamer.
This led to a more than doubling of the population and a building boom of many of the Victorian villas which overlook the seafront today.
RE Ward’s sole heir was his daughter Maude who married Lord Clanmorris from Mayo in 1878. She died in 1941 and is buried in Castle Park. She had ten children including Barry Bingham who won the VC at the Battle of Jutland and his valour was recognised by the presentation of the gun from a German submarine which now sits close to the war Memorial in Ward Park.
The early years of the 20th Century saw many new developments in Bangor. Between 1905 and 1914 the Marine Gardens, Ward Park, Ballyholme Park and Stricklands Glen were acquired for the benefit of residents and tourists. This expansion slowed down following the First World War but developments accelerated again in the 1930’s with the building of the Tonic Cinema, Pickie Pool and Caproni’s Palais De Dance. Unfortunately these buildings have all been demolished but at the time they were widely praised and recognised as state of the art developments.
In the years following the Second World War Bangor continued to grow both as a tourist resort and a dormitory town for Belfast. However by the late sixties Bangor’s role as a tourist attraction changed as many tourists particularly from Scotland and North of England who previously spent a week in Bangor sped off to any cheap package holidays in the sun. In addition with the increase in private cars Northern Ireland tourists came for the day and would no longer stay overnight. As a result, Bangor’s tourist role declined with hundreds of guest houses and hotels closing down.
At the same time Bangor’s population grew rapidly particularly during when the seventies and eighties some fled Belfast to avoid the troubles and by 2011 it had passed 60,000.