A celebration of 50 years of pre-schools in the Larne area

Mrs Mary Murray (left) and staff of Linn Playgroup welcome new leader Mrs Freda Purcell. In centre is Mrs Margaret Morrow MBE (about 1977). INLT 01-607-CON
Mrs Mary Murray (left) and staff of Linn Playgroup welcome new leader Mrs Freda Purcell. In centre is Mrs Margaret Morrow MBE (about 1977). INLT 01-607-CON

pre-school provision is recognised by many Larne parents as an important stage in their children’s development.

The facilities available throughout the borough today, however, have their roots in a very different era. The playgroup movement in Larne, in fact, began 50 years ago and since then generations of children have benefitted from the dedication of leaders and volunteers involved in this valuable work across the community.

In the early 1960s across the UK there was an absence of pre-school provision and limited childcare facilities, but increasing demand from parents. The pre-school movement - and with it, the principle of parental involvement – began in 1961 with the formation of a group in London, after a letter seeking to gauge the interest of parents in such a provision was published in The Guardian newspaper.

Mrs Margaret Morrow formed the first playgroup in Northern Ireland in her home in Drains Bay in 1962. The fees were four guineas for 10 weeks.

The following year, Mrs Morrow, assisted by Mrs Margaret Boyle, opened a playgroup in the McGarel Room of the Town Hall, where more children could benefit by being together. This was known as the Thorndale Playgroup.

A year later, the playgroup moved to Craigyhill Community Centre and was renamed Linn Playgroup. Mrs Mary Murray was the dedicated leader of the group for many years, followed by Mrs Freda Purcell.

Mrs Morrow later became organiser of playgroups for the NSPCC and held various offices in the Northern Ireland Pre-School Playgroup Association (NIPPA). She was awarded the MBE in 1977 for services to the pre-school playgroup movement. In that year nursery education was available to fewer than one in 10 of the country’s three to five-year-olds.

As the news of the success of the first playgroups spread, another group was formed in 1968 by Mrs Eleanor Simms in Larne Town Hall. In 1972 the group moved to Tower Road where, under the inspired leadership of Mrs Doreen Johnston and Mrs Joan Elliott, it became well-known as the McNeill Hall Pre-School Playgroup.

The McNeill Hall group continued at Tower Road until the construction of the new leisure centre commenced, but as no provision had been made in the new building for pre-school children it had to move to Curran Road. It became the Curran Playgroup with leader Mrs Denise Falconer and received some Government funding.

With recent upgrading and further Government support, the group, now renamed Harbour Bears, continues to play a vital role in the Larne community under the enthusiastic leadership of Mrs Fiona McKinley, supported by a dedicated staff and committee.

Cairncastle Playgroup, founded in 1974 by Mrs Susan Leysham and Mrs Mary Steele, and continued with great success over the years with Mrs Anita Maxwell, Mrs Mary Rainey, Mrs Iris Hagan and Mrs Pat Hunter. It closed at the end of the summer term in June 2012 and will be long remembered with gratitude by the many children who have passed through its doors.

Ballycarry Playgroup was started in 1970 by Mrs Anne McConkey in the manse with the help of Mrs Isobel Nelson. In 1972, the playgroup moved to the Old Presbyterian Church hall and continued with leader Mrs Valerie Beattie followed by Mrs Shirley Gilbert.

Mrs Gladys Glass formed the Greenland Pre-School Playgroup to cater for children in the Seacourt and Ferris Park areas about 1981. She was assisted by Mrs Sharon Mateer and Mrs Doreen Henderson.

NIPPA was formed in 1965, with a Co Antrim branch setting up in 1968.

New playgroups continued to form in the mid 1970s and by 1977 there were 14 pre-school playgroups from Cairncastle to Greenisland. Training courses were set up at Larne Technical College, Rupert Stanley College and the Open University with support from health visitors and speech therapists.

Mrs Irene McCarlie, President of the McNeill Playgroup, also became Chairman of the Larne/Carrickfergus branch, which assisted in the formation of new playgroups and helped to pioneer the work of the playgroup movement. The main aims of the branch were to help support and set up new groups, to encourage training courses, to act as a link between Government departments and to encourage parent involvement.

Mrs McCarlie said that much gratitude is owed to those dedicated to the playgroup movement.

“There were many enthusiastic staff and committees, who in those early days, had the vision and gave so freely of their time, and with little Government support, to ensure that the under fives in Northern Ireland had some pre-school provision,” she said.