On Saturday 10 June crowds gathered at McNeillstown Independent Orange Hall to enjoy and day of glorious sunshine and the Reopening of the Hall. The historic building which was erected in 1909 and first opened in 1910 has been at the heart of the local community ever since. In recent years a group of members and volunteers came together to breathe new life into the rural Orange Hall and give it new purpose and a new place in the community. It was decided that as a heritage building itself with a rich history and as a centre for culture and music over the years it would be perfect as a local community heritage hub.
This means that as well as its ongoing roles as a meeting place for local Orange lodges and a Black encampment the hall would also provide museum and interpretative space for the local community. Its purpose build micro-museum space will feature a permanent exhibition explaining the history of the local lodge and local Orange heritage generally. It can also be used by other local community groups which share its ethos and passion for local loyal orders, military and community heritage. It will provide a space for people to learn and discuss the past and undertake training and development.
The recent phase of renovation has been funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs under their Rural Hall Refurbishment Scheme with match funding raised by the Hall Management Committee. The result has been the hall has been doubled in size, with a kitchen, office/meeting room, and both make and female accessible toilets. The entire building has been rewired to current standards with full fire system, burglar alarm and CCTV as well as and integrated audio-visual and sound system. The state of the art facility still manages to retain many of its original features, such as the big open fire it was always famous for. Visitors said “It was always as warm as the welcome at McNeillstown!” Here as with the original sash windows the original materials were lovingly restored, with the exposed brick of the fireplace preserved and set in contrast to the rich black local slate surround.
Windows which had been blocked up for almost a century due to attacks on the building have been reopened and secured. The lodge behind the hall McNeillstown True Blues Independent LOL No. 46 has seen new members join and lapsed members return as the new hall has brought new life to the lodge. The hall has also welcomed John Calvin ILOL No 60 for its meetings and the local Ancient & Illustrious Order of Knights of Malta Encampment David’s Chosen Few No. 21 has also moved into the new hall. With a Drumming Club and local history group joining the users there is a bright future for a hall that could so easily have went into decline and dereliction.
The Reopening event on Saturday afternoon saw Imperial and County Grand Lodge Officers of the Independent Loyal Orange Institution lead a parade, joined with members of local lodges including District officers from Portglenone District No.7. It was encouraging and a sign of the future that members of McNeillstown LOL No. 1071 joined with the Independent brethren as both McNeillstowns are celebrating the Bicentenary of the first lodge warrant this year. With banners glinting in the summer sun a parade was led by Bushside Independent Flute Band and was watched as it made it way along the length of the Blackstone Road from One McNeillstown Orange Hall to another.
The Reopening Ceremony included a cutting of the ribbon by the oldest member of the lodge Albert Wilkinson and by the youngest member who had joined just that morning Steven Park. Then a commemorative plaque was unveiled by Imperial Grand Master Rt. For. Br. James Anderson who spoke of the pride the Institution had in seeing a hall repurposed and reopened and the flag kept flying. He spoke of the dedication and hard work of the lodge especially as the deadline loomed.
The Hall was then dedicated to the Glory of God by Rev. John Martin, Minister of Culinary and Swatragh, himself an Orange Chaplain. In a powerful address he spoke of the Christian qualifications of an Orangeman and of the religious liberty which was won for us. He praised the unity amongst the brethren of both Orders and dedicated the hall with prayer. The proceedings were brought to a close by Deputy Imperial Grand Master Mervyn Storey who spoke of the rich Orange heritage which we are rightly proud of and how it stands for faith and freedom and in contrast to the commemoration of murderers by Irish Republicanism that same weekend in South Armagh.
Members of the lodge spoke on the history of the hall originally opened by a local businessman,  politician and churchman Sir William Baxter J.P. who said he wished the hall to be a “Centre of Loyalty, Light and Leadership for the local area’. Those aspirations were re-echoed on Saturday and the lodge and hall rededicated themselves to the vision of ‘Faith, Freedom and the Future.’ After the speeches the audience was treated to a sit down tea and an afternoon of family fun and exploring the hall followed. For children a range of games and amusements had been provided in the field opposite, kindly supplied by Andy Lamont.
The weekend of events was brought to a close by an Orange Service in Sunday night at 8pm take by Bro. Mervyn Storey. As the hall now looks forward to its next 100 years we hope to have a full programme of events and activities throughout the year. Anyone interesting in finding out more, getting involved or joining the lodge or other organisations which meet in the hall why not email us – mcneillstown@gmail.com.