By Steven Moore
The first show actually held at Balmoral took place from Wednesday to Friday, June 17-19, 1896.
The green field site had been acquired by the North-East Agricultural Society of Ireland – to be renamed the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society in 1903 – two years previously.
The Northern Whig, while mindful that heavy rain would “render the ground underfoot particularly unpleasant,” was impressed with the preparations.
It reported on the eve of the show: “It is astonishing what an amount of progress has been made since Friday last in the task of getting things ship-shape and Bristol fashion.
“But, as we have previously pointed out, the condition of the place on this occasion must not be taken as conveying more than the merest indication of what it will be when finished.
“People must not expect to find those thirty acres nattily laid out with velvet sward and level roadway and with tastefully finished buildings dotted over its broad expense.
“They must only expect to see this tie the grim bones – the grisly skeleton that will tell of strength and energy and power in the finished organism.
“It is no use sighing for what cannot be helped; but one is almost forced to regret that the Society has not just another six weeks at their disposal to complete their work of creation as admirably as they have begun and thus far have carried it on.
“Notwithstanding its incompleteness, the new showground will be a tremendous improvement upon the cramped and unsuitable space of the markets.
“And, provided that people understand fully that it is a work which requires time to bring it to perfection, the show itself will be full of hope and promise for the future.”
The same theme was taken up a few days latter in the newspaper’s editorial column, which immediately saw the potential of the show growing into something truly special.
It recorded: “Although the North-East Agricultural Society since its formation, over forty years ago, has no doubt utilised to very full advantage the material at hand for its annual exhibitions, it can hardly be said that the event during recent times at least has increased in importance in anything like a proportionate degree with the growth of the city, or indeed been worthy of the prosperous district of country which the show represents.
“Yesterday, however, saw a new and very important departure, which the inhabitants of Belfast and the North-East will agree is in the right direction.
“The show for the first time in its history was opened yesterday in the Society’s own premises at Balmoral, where grounds have been obtained in every way suitable to the purposes for which they will henceforth be used.
“The great horse show in Dublin, assisted as it is by State funds, is perhaps a high ideal to set before the North-East Society, but its present ambition to obtain for Belfast and the important district of which it is the centre a first-class horse show is clearly not unattainable if we may draw conclusions from the encouragement already shown to its efforts in this direction.
“The entries this year have very substantially increased, and in the horse department alone there are almost five hundred entries, whereas last year there were barely two hundred.
“The decision of the Society therefore to hold two exhibitions annually – one devoted exclusively to horses – will be regarded as a wise one. This step is certain to increase in the North-East the interest in horsebreeding which the Royal Dublin Society has done so much to encourage in other parts of Ireland.
“The show which opened yesterday is a very decided improvement on those of previous years, and the Society, it is to be hoped, will receive that support in the future which the highly praiseworthy task it has undertaken so eminently deserves.”