Wellington Hall Dundalk
The Wellington Hall is located in the historic quarter of Dundalk, and this former school represents a significant part of the town’s heritage. It was originally built in 1812 with assistance from the Erasmus Smith Trust as the first public free school for children in Dundalk, almost twenty years prior to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the introduction of the new state-supported National Schools from 1831. Initially the school was known as the Free School, and later as the Wellington Place School or the Wellington School. In 1883 Lord Roden conveyed the site and buildings to the Armagh Diocesan Board of Education, and the school became a national school. The stone plaque still on the façade identifies the building as “St Nicholas National Male and Female Schools”.
William Makepeace Thackeray, the Victorian novelist, visited the school in 1842 in the company of his cousin, the Rev Elias Thackeray, then Rector of Dundalk. The writer was impressed by the school where about 200 children were enrolled, and described his visit in “The Irish Sketch Book 1842”. There were 60 or 70 boys in the large ground floor classroom, a considerable number of girls in the first floor classroom, and in the Infant School 80 small children who sang a hymn for him.
In 1961 St Nicholas’s National School was relocated to new premises in Nicholas Street. The old building, now known as the Wellington Hall, became a resource for the Church of Ireland Parish of St Nicholas and also for the wider community. Over the years the Wellington Hall was used for a variety of parish and community activities.
In 1995 the parish bought the Wellington Hall from the Armagh Diocesan Board of Education. However, the congregation was unable to carry out the significant repairs which were needed at that time, and the buildings gradually fell into such a state of disrepair that the hall was closed for public use throughout 2011.
The Wellington Hall Project (WHP) was launched in 2010, under the direction of the then Rector of Dundalk, the Reverend Sandra Pragnell. A committee was formed of parishioners and users of the hall with the ambitious plan of renovating the building and making the space available once again for community use. As the church congregation is very small, the capacity for fundraising was extremely limited. However, the committee worked hard at seeking grants, organising fundraising events, and raising public awareness of the hall and the renovation project. In 2012 the first phase of the project was completed – the main building was reroofed, the façade was repainted and the interior of the main hall was refurbished. Once again the doors of the Wellington Hall were open for community use. The money spent on this phase of the work was raised entirely by fundraising initiatives and donations from within the parish group and from the wider community.
In 2013 the WHP was awarded a grant from Peace 3 funds to refurbish the first floor of the main hall. When this project was completed, three further meeting rooms became available. By now, refurbishment of the main building and toilet block was complete, and the Wellington Hall was becoming firmly established as a centre for an ever widening variety of community activities.
At the rear of the main building, opening onto Yorke Street, stands the distinctive Infant School, which was built in1820. In 2016 some committee members, along with caretaker Mr Willie Newberry, carried out essential repairs, and refurbished the main classroom on the ground floor, where the children had sung to Thackeray over 170 years earlier. Later that year refurbishment of the Infant School was completed by the Department of Education and Skills in order to facilitate the temporary accommodation of a primary school. The Department also carried out further upgrading of the main building and resurfaced the two school yards.
By early 2017 all work had been completed. Over a period of five years the fabric of all the buildings had been preserved, all roofs had been replaced or repaired, windows repaired, gas fired heating had been installed throughout, plumbing and wiring had been upgraded, and a new fire safety system and broadband installed. The temporary return of primary school pupils to the Wellington Hall in January 2017, after an absence of almost 60 years, brought the buildings back to the purpose for which they had been erected over 200 years previously.
Since early 2013, the Wellington Hall has enjoyed a new lease of life in making space available for a wide variety of commercial and voluntary groups, and continues to contribute significantly to the social and cultural life of Dundalk.