A group of volunteers in a small County Armagh village have said that the community spirit in the area will be “lost” if funds can’t be obtained to restore the iconic listed building that they have traditionally used to host their activities.
This is despite the fact that the building was only renovated less than ten years ago – at a cost of £300,000 – with the property having since fallen into a state of disrepair through no fault of the community.
The old schoolhouse in Milford, which underwent a major facelift in 2013, suffered rapid decline in the years following its renovation, so much so that the facility has been unusable for a number of years.
On entering the building, one would scarcely believe that it has only been ten years since the facility received the huge refurbishment.
When Armagh I visited the property last week, we were met with uneven flooring, clutter and even had to step on a wooden plank on entering to avoid falling through the welcome mat.
Mould and fungus adorned many of the walls of the building, with the flooring ripped up in one room and kitchen appliances sinking into the floor in another.
In a day not long gone by, this building played host to many activities and community events. Today, the dilapidation and mould means the property is no longer fit for purpose.
Kevin Powell, the chairman of Milford Community Development Association (MCDA), says that the Milford community is “at a crossroads,” with the resurrection of the facilities being paramount to maintaining the community spirit that the village enjoys.
MCDA has been providing community facilities since 1997 and in that time has built a sense of community belonging for the families of Milford and the surrounding areas.
They hope to make an application to the Heritage Lottery in May for funds to bring the building back into shape.
“If this grant doesn’t happen, I don’t what it means for the community of Milford,” he said.
The former Milford school – which closed its doors in 1983 – had undergone the refurbishment in 2013 to provide a modern community facility for villagers.
Built in 1861 by Robert Garmany (RG) McCrum, who was responsible for building the linen village of Milford, it had remained as a school up until it witnessed a drop in attendance.
Following the school’s closure, it was taken over and used as a parish hall under the ownership of Aghavilly Parish.
The building was then acquired shortly after the formation of the Milford Community Development Association and used as a community hall in the 1990s.
It became unfit for purpose and the MCDA applied to SOAR for a major grant to renovate the building into a state-of-the-art community facility.
While the bulk of funding was provided by SOAR, other funding contributors were Armagh City and District Council and local business owners, Gerard and Mairead Mackle.
The building was stripped out, the walls were insulated and a new build was added to the side, providing a new toilet block, storage space and kitchen.
It was officially opened in October 2013.
Kevin says that when the initial renovations were completed, the community was left with a virtually new building, with things “taking off” from then.
The facilities played host to many different groups and activities, such as; Irish dancing, bowling, an autism support group, a baby and toddler group, keep fit classes, coffee mornings and big breakfasts.
“There was a programme running virtually every evening in the hall,” Kevin said. “There was even a wee café, The Scholar’s Retreat, which opened in 2015.”
However, only six months after the renovations, in the Spring of 2014, the cracks began to show.
Fungi started appearing above and under the skirting boards, which resulted in a major infestation of wet rot in all of the wooden flooring and walls in the building. The floors then began to soften and tilt, so much so that the rooms quickly became no-go zones.
“A dark mould appeared above the skirting board and I thought that a wipe down and a bit of ventilation would cure it, but obviously it didn’t,” Kevin explained.
Kevin says that a fundamental problem is that the building was not damp-proofed. Initially, the draught and ventilation kept the damp at bay, but when the building was renovated and insulated, the ventilation was shut off.
“We tried our best. We had different people out, we did temporary fixes and when the floor started to sink in places we put new flooring in. Within six months, the new flooring was starting to go itself. That’s how aggressive the damp was in the building.
“Between bad workmanship, bad planning and bad spec, the whole building suffered as a result of all of those things. The only people then who really suffered on behalf of that was the community.
“The new building brought new people, new events and new ideas. It brought a whole plethora of things to the village that weren’t there prior to this. It fostered a great community spirit and that’s lost now without the community centre.”
The building had to be shut once again in 2019 and with it, went a vital asset to the small rural community. Kevin however, says that they have by no means given up, with events still in the pipeline.
With these events however, the community is at the mercy of the elements, with the fact there is no other space available in the neighbourhood for community events.
While the restoration of the schoolhouse is a matter of priority for Milford village, Kevin admits that to bring it back to its former glory will take “a lot of expense”.
He says: “We’ll make the application to the Heritage Lottery in May, but if that doesn’t happen. I fear for the village itself. It could well become a forgotten village.
“It’s just very sad. There was a while that the building was open and you’d walk in any time of day and there were people coming and going. There was a buzz.
“We still have that community spirit that built Milford village way back over 100 years ago. We still have that in our DNA.
“If we don’t get our funding, we have no community.”
A JustGiving page has been set up to raise vital funds for the restoration of the listed property. Click Here
Read more: £300k transformation for old Milford schoolhouse