The Rock Hall has a long and continuous history in providing a venue for parish and community activities. It is the longest surviving hall in Ballyshannon which predates The ’98 Hall, The Masonic Hall, The Abbey Centre and The Marian Hall.
Situated on land once owned by the Dickson estate, it was purchased in 1865 for the parish by Canon Kelaghan P.P. who was the first parish priest of Inismacsaint to reside in Bundoran. Prior to that time the parish priest lived in the Ballyshannon end of the parish.
Local tradition suggests that the area purchased contained three small houses and a ruin which in the early years of purchase were used as a stabling ground for the priest and parishioners’ horses. Around twenty five years after the purchase of the property, Canon McKenna P.P. was approached by local people to build a hall and he instigated the construction of the Rock Hall.
The vicinity around the hall was much different in 1892 than it is today. Across the road was the Fever hospital, a few doors away was the workhouse where inmates were still being admitted and visible from the front of the Rock Hall was the military barracks occupied by the Dorsetshire Regiment where the East Rock houses were later built in 1936.
The Rock Hall was constructed before Finner Camp became the new military barracks in 1896, before the foundation of the local G.A.A. club in 1909 and before the arrival of the De La Salle Brothers in 1912.
The Opening of the Rock Hall 1892
On Monday 25th May 1892, known as Lady’s Day in honour of Our Lady, the Rock Hall was officially opened. The cost of building the hall was shared by voluntary contributions from the people of the parish and also included subscriptions from the Kilbarron parish across the Erne on ‘the far side’ of Ballyshannon. James Monaghan, a well known contractor from West Port, built the hall at a most reasonable cost and also subscribed generously to the building fund. His name can be clearly seen on the tower of St. Joseph’s Church which he constructed in 1886. He also built the Courthouse on the Mall now the Tyrhugh Centre. He was the grandfather of Mary and Paddy Monaghan well known to older residents in Ballyshannon.
The official opening was marked by a concert and the local newspaper “The Donegal Vindicator” printed on East Port described the opening concert as follows:
“The fine new Hall, Rock, Ballyshannon, was opened on Monday, Lady Day, with a very successful concert. Every inch of room was occupied by a most respectable audience. Mr. Starling Philson who organised the concert had advertised a grand Diorama of Irish views but unfortunately the hydrogen gas escaped from the cylinder in transit and he was unable to gratify his audience with a sight of the splendid views.
The concert went ahead despite the leaking gas and was the beginning of a wonderful era of local entertainment in the Rock Hall in the days before cinema and television.
The hall has echoed to the sound of laughter and community endeavour as actors, singers, dancers and athletes developed a parish and community spirit which was a feature of events in the Rock Hall. Fundraising concerts for the Ballyshannon Lace Class, St. Vincent De Paul, Ballyshannon Lawn Tennis Club, The Gaelic League, The G.AA., Ballyshannon Brass and Reed Band and many other organisations helped to raise funds for charitable causes.
In the 1890s the Market House located on Market street ,beside O’Reilly’s fish shop, was the other centre for social events in Ballyshannon.
Drama on the Rock
The drama movement in Ballyshannon can be clearly traced back to the 19th century when Bernard Kelly of the Port, the first nationalist Member of Parliament for South Donegal, was a member of The Ballyshannon Amateur Dramatic Club. Kelly is buried at St. Joseph’s on the Rock, just beside the Rock Hall which was the popular local venue for plays and concerts. John (Pa) McAdam, editor of “The Donegal Vindicator,” produced countless plays in the Rock Hall.
He was responsible for the old Dramatic Club who staged “The Colleen Bawn” and “Ara-na-Pogue” in the Rock Hall around 1904. He was an all round producer who taught the local actors how to talk, walk and more importantly stand still.
In the 1930s The Ballyshannon Players regularly performed plays by George Sheils including a three act comedy called “The New Gossoon”. Audiences got great value for their money in those pre-television days as there were also singers and dancers accompanied by a small orchestra on the programme. The night concluded with The National Anthem.
Promotion of Gaelic Culture
In the early 20th century the Gaelic League was active in promoting the Irish language and culture in Ballyshannon. Classes for junior and senior students were provided by Aodh Ó Diver in the Rock Hall to encourage people to speak Irish.
Dr. Mulhern P.P. gave the Rock Hall free to the Gaelic League for these classes which ran during the school year. Fr. Tierney who was a curate on the Rock from 1911-1917 was actively involved in the promotion of Irish classes; Irish history lectures and in Gaelic games.
The First Cinemas
The Rock Hall as well as being a concert venue in the town was also the location of the town’s first permanent cinema.
Films were shown earlier in venues like the shed in the Market Yard by travelling film companies but the first cinema in town with projection equipment installed was the Rock Hall.
John Sweeny of the Commercial Hotel, Major Myles, Paddy Crose and a few interested business people formed the Ballyshannon Cinema Company.
They brought in an operator from Glasgow and the cinema played to packed houses, for some years.
By the 1930s the four penny matinee on a Sunday was the highlight of the week for young people in Ballyshannon.
The patrons crammed into the hall, sitting on wooden benches, no backs, no arms and noisily greeted their heroes on screen in the ‘talkies’ which had replaced the silent movies.
The arrival of the Erne Hydro-Electric Scheme brought great changes to cinema viewing in the town. By 1946 two new cinemas opened in the town, The Erne Cinema and the Abbey Cinema which nowadays is called The Abbey Centre. Nevertheless the Rock continued for a while as a cinema but its heyday was in establishing cinema in Ballyshannon from the early 20th century.
The Rock Hall was a mecca for variety shows and it would take a book to name all the artistes who provided entertainment for the community. Everyone has their own special memories.
Charlie McGettigan who won the Eurovision Song Contest with Paul Harrington in 1994 rates the Rock Hall as a major influence on his early career.
He was influenced by hearing Cyril Curran and the Assaroe Ceilí Band playing in the Rock Hall and also shared in the fun provided by artistes such as Michael Gillespie, Maureen Kane and Lily Hersey to name but a few. Charlie McGettigan performed for the first time in the Rock Hall with his new Egbert electric guitar in 1963 where he sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”
And the rest is history.
The guardian of the hall who ensured that everything was properly looked after was Terry McDermott with his distinctive walking stick.
His sister Annie looked after the church and Eileen Kennedy continues the family association with the parish as church sexton today.
Renovations to the hall in 1947 were continued over the years and developments in 2014 have resulted in an excellent modern facility which will serve the needs of the community far into the future.