It’s been twenty years or so since I was last in Belfast – at least there long enough to have a look around. Whatever happened in the intervening period – perhaps my perspective has change – it’s a far more beautiful city than I remembered.
The night views over the Lagan are impressive. And some of the buildings have been beautifully restored. More, however, are but remnants of their former glory, in a sad state of disrepair. One wonders what might become of them. The old Crumlin Road Jail is a case in point. The Courthouse that sits across the road from it is in ruin. It would make a fine hotel or, as someone suggested, a great casino. But the stricter element in the city isn’t ready for such debauchery.
The Courthouse was designed by Charles Lanyon (who also had a hand in Queen’s University) and built for meagre monies (£16800) back in 1850. It closed in 1998 and the two-acre site was sold for £1 (and no, that’s not a typo). Plans for a 161-room hotel approved in 2007 are now on hold. Two fires in the meantime caused further structural damage and last year, talks of Belfast City Council are considering it for European Peace IV Capital Funding with which they plan to renovate the courthouse as ‘a shared history Belfast Story museum, built heritage centre and destination point for the North Belfast cultural corridor’. Who knows what will happen … or when.
Seeing Queen’s University was a highlight. Its alumni include Nobel Laureate and poet Seamus Heaney, actors Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea, and the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. Founded in 1810, it’s one of the ten oldest university in the United Kingdom. It was chartered as Queen’s College Belfast in 1845 along with Queen’s College in Cork and in Galway to make up Queen’s University of Ireland which was set up to encourage education for Catholics and Presbyterians as a counterpart to Trinity College in Dublin (which was then Anglican). It’s an international institution with about 1400 international students from over 100 countries. Architecturally, more than 100 of its 250+ buildings are of note, the main one being the Lanyon Building, modelled on Magdalene College in Oxford (always a favourite of mine, mainly because it’s pronounced Maudlin).
Belfast City Hall is another gem, dating back to 1906. This Renaissance-style building took just eight years to build and came in at about half a million pounds. Free public tours are available (just one of many reasons to make a return trip to the city).
The Orange Hall on Clifton Street has seen better days. Its cornerstone was laid in 1883 and it took two years to build. Today, it’s still used as the starting place for parades and is still being attacked. The last attempt was in May this year when a 13-year-old boy tried to petrol bomb it. I had thought, in my innocence, that the Orange Order was a purely Northern Ireland thing, but I was wrong. The Protestant fraternity has a global membership with autonomous Grand Lodges in Scotland, England, the USA, West Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Who’d have thought?
The Europa hotel, which turned 40 back in 2011, is said to be the most bombed hotel in the Europe (or the world, depending on what you read) having been hit 28 (or 33 or 5, again depending on what you read) different times during the Troubles. But it never closed it’s doors. [James Leavey has an interesting post full of anecdotes about the hotel on the FORCES International site.] Its next-door neighbour, the Opera House, was hit three times. Its curtain first went up in December 1895 and it’s still going up today. I’d like to have been there the night General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshall Montgomery were in the audience in 1945.
Perhaps one of the most imposing buildings in the city, though, is the Assembly Building, which opened in 1905. Looking for all the world like a baronial castle in Scotland, it has its own 40-metre-high clock town with a bell that peals 12 times. For years the headquarters and General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, it went ‘commercial’ in 1992 and is now a major conference centre.
As I write this week from the shadow of the United Nations in Geneva, I’m grateful that Ireland as an island can still surprise and amaze me. While Belfast, like many cities, has it murky side, its trendy side, and its commercial quarter, it still has some of the most jawdroppingly gorgeous buildings I’ve seen. It’s a city with heart, tenacity, and style. And one I’ll be back to see again.