The town is built on land given to the Adair family by King Charles I in 1626, on the basis that the town hold two annual fairs and a free Saturday market in perpetuity. The Saturday market still runs. The town used to host Ireland’s largest one day agricultural show at the Ballymena Showgrounds. There are still many historic buildings in the town. The Town Hall was built in 1924 on the site of the old Market House. The Town Hall has just recently be refurbished in 2007 at a cost of approx £20 million.
Two miles north of Ballymena in the townland of Kirkinriola, the ancient parish church and graveyard possess several indicators of Early Christian settlement including a souterrain. Also in 1868, a gravedigger found a large stone slab on which was carved a cross with the inscription ord do degen. This refers to Bishop Degen, who lived in Ireland during the 7th century. This stone is now in the porch of the Parish Church of St Patrick, in the Parish of Kilconriola, which is found in Castle Street, Ballymena.
At the end of the 5th century, a church was founded in Connor, 5 miles south of Ballymena. This was followed by a monastery at Templemoyle, Kells. In 831, however, the Norse invaded the Ballymena area, burning the church.
In the 12th century, the Normans conquered much of County Antrim and County Down and created the core of the Earldom of Ulster. During this campaign they built great mounds of earth topped by wooden towers, referred to as mottes, as defensive structures. Harryville's motte-and-bailey is one of the best examples of this type of fortification in Northern Ireland. Some sources, however, credit the Uí Fhloinn with building the mid-Antrim mottes and baileys in imitation of the invaders; the Uí Fhloinn defeated and repelled the Earl of Ulster, John de Courcy, in 1177 and 1178.
In 1315, Edward Bruce (brother of King Robert I of Scotland, known as "Robert Bruce") invaded Ireland. On September 10 1315, at the Battle of Tawnybrack (5 miles south of Ballymena at Kells), Edward conquered the army of Richard De Burgo, the Norman Earl of Ulster.
In 1576, Queen Elizabeth I granted land, including the town of Ballymena, to Sir Thomas Smith. The lands had been forfeited to the crown after Shane O'Neill's resistance in the 1560s. Smith brought English settlers to the area. By 1581, Smith's settlement failed and the lands reverted to the crown.
On May 10 1607, King James I granted the native Irish chief, Ruairí Óg MacQuillan the Ballymena Estate. The estate passed through several owners, eventually passing into the possession of William Adair, a Scottish laird from Kinhilt in southwestern Scotland. The estate was temporarily renamed "Kinhilstown" after the Adair's lands in Scotland. The original castle of Ballymena was built in the early 17th century, situated to take advantage of an ancient ford over the River Braid. In 1626 Charles I confirmed the grant of the Ballymena Estate to William Adair, giving him the right to hold a market at Ballymena on every Saturday.
In 1641, the local Ballymena garrison fought against the rebels but had to retreat to Carrickfergus. Ballymena's first market house (on the site of the present town hall) was built in 1684.
By 1704, the population of Ballymena had reached 800. In 1707, the first Protestant (Church of Ireland) parish church was built. In 1740, the original Ballymena Castle burned down. The Gracehill Moravian settlement was founded in 1765. During the 1798 rebellion, Ballymena was occupied from June 7 to June 9 by a force of around 10,000 United Irishmen, who stormed the Market House (now the Town Hall) killing three of its defenders.
The first modern Roman Catholic Church in Ballymena was consecrated in 1827. By 1834 the population of Ballymena was about 4,000. In 1848 the Belfast and Ballymena Railway was established. In 1865 Robert Alexander Shafto Adair started building Ballymena Castle, a magnificent family residence, in the Demesne. The castle was not completed until 1887.
In 1870 The People's Park, Ballymena was established, now a mature and beautiful setting, which continues to be a very popular park today.
During the later half of the 20th century, Ballymena, like many other once prosperous industrial centres in Northern Ireland, experienced economic change with many of its former factories closing. Ballymena is now becoming a centre of information-based, international corporations and major retail outlets. However unlike other towns it retains a very successful manufacturing industry, with major employers such as Michelin and Gallaher, and the extremely successful local firm Wrightbus.
Early in the 1990s the Royal Irish Regiment whose Regimental Headquarters is at St Patrick's Barracks in the town, was controversially granted the Freedom of the Borough. In March 2000, the actor Liam Neeson, a native of Ballymena, was offered the freedom of the borough by the council, which approved the action by a 12–9 vote. The Democratic Unionist Party objected to the offer and drew attention to his comments from an interview in 1999 with an American political magazine, George. Neeson declined the award, citing tensions, and affirmed he was proud of his connection to the town. Ian Paisley was eventually made a freeman of Ballymena in December 2004 instead.
Ballymena is described by some observers as being at the heart of Northern Ireland's equivalent of the Bible Belt. It should be remembered that this does not necessarily reflect the overall views of the town's population. A notable example of the fundamentalist attitude of some was when DUP councillor Roy Gillespie stopped rock band ELO from playing in the town for fear that it would encourage Satanism among the town's young people. The town has a large Protestant majority.The majority of the Catholic population is situated around the Broughshane and Cushendall Road areas of the town.
Drugs have been a major problem in the town, earning the moniker "the drugs capital of the North". However major steps have been taken in recent times to eradicate this.
For more details see: Northern Ireland Neighbourhood Information Service Northern Ireland Neighbourhood Information Service website.
Ballymena boasts some fine educational establishments, including three Grammar schools, one comprehensive, integrated college and a number of secondary schools.