Council sets up team to examine 'reinstatement'

INCREDIBLY, one year has now passed since flames tore through one of Antrim’s most beloved buildings.

In less than seven hours, almost two centuries of local history went up in smoke.

The first flames were spotted licking from the roof of Steeple House at 5.20am on July 2 and within minutes two appliances were roaring to the scene from Antrim Station - later joined by a third from Ballymena and a turntable ladder and aerial hose from Belfast.

Despite the suffocating smoke and searing heat, the firefighters battled to bring the blaze under control - eventually declaring victory shortly after 12 noon.

The fire, they said, was started intentionally. This was a mindless act of arson, and the impact was utterly devastating.

Smoke still chuffed from the eves as the Fire Service withdrew.

The ferocious flames had consumed everything in their path, leaving little more than the four walls.

The ceiling had collapsed and the grand staircase was no more.

The floor had gone too, exposing the cavernous basement beneath.

Walls that had once been adorned by artwork were scorched back to bare stones.

Intricate cornice work that harked back to the grand house’s former glory were lost forever.

Even the colour of the building seemed to have changed in its death throes, the familiar green now sooty and pale.

A regal mansion which had stood for centuries was reduced to a smoldering skeleton .

It was a truly dreadful spectacle, but doubly so for the council staff who had worked there until the move to the new Civic Centre in 2005.

For them, thoughts of the old house are filled with warm memories of the people who once inhabited it - characters like Jack Allen, Paddy Marks, Bobby Loughran, Sam Magee and Ron Woods, often with trademark cigarette in hand.

Now those corridors and offices were gone.

Some immediately called for a rebuild, but this would be a mammoth task.

Indeed, some felt that the more likely outcome was to retreat and then quietly demolish it when the structural integrity worsened. After all, that was what happened to Antrim Castle five decades ago.

But this week the council confirmed that they were still weighing up the options for the Steeple - and a rebuild still seems to be on the table.

“The Council has engaged with its insurers and we have a project team in place to produce a specification for the reinstatement of the building,” said a spokesman.

“Progress has been impacted by COVID-19, but last week specialist heritage architects visited the site to make a technical assessment as part of this project.”

The grand old house, it seems, may rise from the ashes yet.

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