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County Down
Gillespie and St Mary's.JPG
The Square
Location: 54°32’38"N, 5°44’6"W
Population: 8,933  (2001)
Post town: Newtownards
Postcode: BT23
Dialling code: 028
Local Government
Council: Ards and North Down

Comber is a small town in County Down. It lies 5 miles south of Newtownards, at the northern end of Strangford Lough. It had a population of 8,933 people in the 2001 census. It is known for Comber Whiskey which was last distilled in 1953.


The confluence of two rivers, which gave the town its name, is that of the Glen River and the Enler River which meet here. Local belief has it that there has been a church here since the time of St Patrick, while a Cistercian abbey was founded around 1200 on the site of the present Church of Ireland church, a site likely chosen to take advantage of the good access to Strangford Lough. After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1541, the abbey fell into ruins and its stone has since been used in other buildings.

During the influx of Scots in the early 1600s, part of the Plantation of Ulster), a settlement grew up at Comber, although it was focused about a mile further south than at present, in the townland of Cattogs, and there is evidence that the settlement was a port used by traders and fishermen. By the 1700s, however, the focus of the town had moved to the area of the present main Square and Comber became established as an industrial centre with several mills.

The Andrews family made Comber a centre of both linen production and grain processing by the second half of the 1700s. Whiskey distilling was a prominent industry by the mid 1800s, the most prominent of the distillers being John Miller, uncle of William James (Lord) Pirrie and Eliza (wife of Thomas Andrews Snr.). One member of the Andrews family, Thomas, rose to fame as designer of the ill-fated RMS Titanic, although he tragically lost his life when the ship sank in 1912. By 1841 the town had 1,400 inhabitants. The 20th century saw Comber lose much of its industry but re-establish itself as a commuter town for the Belfast urban area, swelling in population from 4,000 in 1961 to 8,933 according to the 2001 Census.

About the town

St Mary's Church of Ireland
Interior of St. Mary's

In Comber's Square, you cannot fail to see the statue of Major General Rollo Gillespie. Gillespie was a local war hero from the 19th century, famous for his heroic exploits in India. It was constructed under the oversight of John Fraser, the first County Surveyor of Down, and was unveiled on 24 June 1845 (St. John's Day). Fifty lodges of the Masonic Order were present, in what is believed to be the biggest Masonic gathering in Irish history. It was calculated that 25,000 to 30,000 people crowded into the town to witness the ceremony. The column is 55 feet high. At the foot of the column are many Masonic symbols and his famous last words "One shot more for the honour of Down".

The Enler River in Comber has also flooded many times in past years. As a result, the Comber flood wall was built along the river through the town which has held the water back since.

Traditionally Comber was mostly a town of local shops and family run businesses, however a recent increase in more well known shops has taken place.

Comber has also started to become increasingly popular with visitors and tourists and this has led to art galleries as well as numerous cafes proving to be very successful in the town.


The townlands of the Comber area have names mostly anciently derived form the Galeic language. A list of townlands within Comber’s urban area, alongside their likely etymologies is:[1]

Ballyaltikilligan Baile Ailt Uí Ghiollagáin: "townland of O'Gilligan's glen" or Baile Ailt Cille Aodháin: "townland of the glen of Aodan's church")
Ballyhenry Minor Baile Héinrí or Baile Éinrí: "Henry's townland")
Ballymagaughey Baile Mhig Eacháin: "MacGaughey's townland")
Carnasure or Carnesure Ceathrú na Siúr: "quarterland of the sisters")

Arund the town

The Comber Greenway is a 7-mile traffic-free section of the National Cycle Network, in development along the old Belfast-Comber railway line. The cycle path starts on Dee Street in Belfast and finishes at Comber. Now completed the Greenway provides an eco-friendly cycle path with views of Stormont and Scrabo Tower. This attracts many cyclists into the town which helps benefit the local economy. The current route of the Greenway was originally used as the route for the Belfast and County Down Railway. The railway was in use from 1850's to 1950 when it was permanently retired. Throughout the 1950s the track was lifted in stages and infrastructure, including bridges, removed.

Castle Espie is a wetland reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) on the banks of Strangford Lough, three miles south of Comber, County Down, Northern Ireland. It is part of the Strangford Lough Ramsar Site. It provides an early wintering site for almost the entire Nearctic population of Pale-bellied Brent Geese. The Castle which gave the reserve its name no longer exists. Castle Espie was officially opened as a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre by Lady Scott on 4 May 1990. The site had previously been a limestone quarry, and also had a brickworks, pottery and lime kilns for producing lime from limestone, as well as part of a farm.

In September 2007, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant of £2.96 million towards a major wetland restoration project at Castle Espie, the largest investment in biodiversity in Northern Ireland. At the heart of the project, costing £4m in all, will be the restoration and improvement of intertidal and freshwater habitats along the shores of Strangford Lough to encourage more species and greater numbers of waterbirds to feed, roost or breed at Castle Espie, as well as restoring important habitats. A new ecologically sustainable visitor centre would also be constructed,and other improvements would be carried out to hides and observatories.


Motor racing

From 1928 to 1936, the RAC Tourist Trophy (TT) motorcar races took place on a (closed) road circuit encompassing Newtownards, Comber and Dundonald in County Down, run in a clockwise direction. The pits were still visible up until the 1960s. Industrialist and pioneer of the modern agricultural tractor, Harry Ferguson, was instrumental in setting up the race, which was known as the Ards TT.

At the time it was Ulster’s premier sporting event, regularly attracting crowds in excess of a quarter of a million people. Although it was a speed event, the entries were handicapped in order to allow cars of very different sizes and capabilities to race against each other on supposedly even terms over 30 laps (35 laps from 1933) of the 13.7 mile circuit. On 5 September 1936, in wet conditions, local driver Jack Chambers lost control of his Riley and crashed into the crowd, killing eight spectators. This tragedy brought an end to nine years of racing over the Ards road circuit.[2]

Other sport

  • Cricket: North Down Cricket Club
  • Football: Comber Recreation FC
  • Hockey: North Down Hockey Club

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Comber)