History

Ulster Hall

The Ulster Hall is one of the oldest purpose-built concert halls in the British Isles.


Opened on 12 May 1862 the hall has weathered political upheaval, the Belfast Blitz, threats of demolition, jiving American soldiers and pogo-ing punks.


Its walls have absorbed the voices of Charles Dickens, Mick Jagger and Ian Paisley.


Fondly known as the Grand Dame of Bedford Street, the Ulster Hall turned 150 years old in 2012.



Photo: The Ulster Hall, 2009

Introduction

The Ulster Hall, photographed in 2009. The hall marked its 150th anniversary in 2012. Ulster Hall

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More information about: Ulster Hall

Creation

In the mid-1800s Belfast was a prosperous industrial city in need of an entertainment venue befitting boom times. Existing halls were not only scarce but also small and the demand for a limited amount of tickets pushed prices beyond the reach of most residents. Local businessmen, who had benefited handsomely from the industrial revolution, recognised the problem and in 1859 formed the Ulster Hall Company. The company sold shares of £2 to raise funds for a new concert hall. The idea proved so popular that before the shares had been publicly announced almost half had already been sold.

The newly formed Ulster Hall Company Ltd. published its intentions in February of 1859:

"The object of this Company is to erect in Belfast a spacious Hall, with the necessary minor apartments, affording accommodation for between 2,000 and 3,000 persons, and suitable for Concerts, Lectures, Exhibitions of Art, Balls, Dinners and all other public purposes to which such buildings are generally applied. It is proposed to erect in the Hall a large Organ, by the aid of which Grand Musical Festivals and Cheap Popular Concerts may be given. The inconvenience arising from the want of such a structure has directly affected every member of the community, especially the working classes [who] are virtually excluded from every entertainment which could improve or elevate their moral and intellectual character." [Belfast News Letter, 9 February 1859]

The grand opening

Handel's Messiah heralded the opening of the Ulster Hall. Two concerts were organised by the Classical Harmonists Society over 12 and 13 May 1862.

Such was the importance of the occasion, the Society was informed in 1861 that Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort and the Prince of Wales would attend. Sadly Prince Albert died that year and the visit did not take place.

There was still huge enthusiasm for the event. Special trains were put on to transport people from country areas and strict instructions were issued to those arriving by carriage. Set-down and collection arrangements (according to class) were calculated with military precision by the Ulster Hall Management Committee. Those who may have considered jumping the queue were warned, "all carriages must keep in line; and any carriage breaking out of the line will be sent back by the police to the rear of the line."

In his rapturous description of the opening concert the Belfast News Letter's reviewer said:

"While Belfast is a busy mart of industry, the monotonous hum of the spinning-jenny and the continuous clack of the power-loom can be hushed to silence, in order that the rich and the poor, the manufacturer and the sons and daughters of toil, may meet together beneath the arched roof of the new Hall, to listen to sweeter sounds and more melodious strains than machinery can produce, and to spend there a few short hours of relaxation, pleasure, and enjoyment." [Belfast News Letter, 13 May 1862]

Mulholland Grand Organ

The organ that should have graced the Ulster Hall now sits in St. Paul's Cathedral in London as the Ulster Hall Company was outbid on this, their organ of choice, and so the hall was completed without one. When news reached the public, an anonymous donor arranged for a new organ to be built.

He was later revealed to be Andrew Mulholland, pioneer of the Belfast linen industry and a former mayor of the city. The organ became known as the Mulholland Grand Organ and is now recognised as one of the best working examples of a classic English pipe organ.

Mulholland's wish was "to give an opportunity to the working classes to hear from time to time the best music from a truly splendid instrument, at such a rate as would enable the humblest artisan to enjoy advantages which even the opulent could rarely purchase until now."

Politics

Today the Ulster Hall welcomes all of Northern Ireland’s major political parties, but while unionism was the dominant political force in Belfast, the hall was claimed for this cause only.

In 1934 the Ulster Protestant League, on objecting to a meeting booked by the Catholic Truth Society, claimed the venue was "sacred to every protestant heart."

This passion goes back to 1885 when British Prime Minister William Gladstone introduced the Home Rule Bill to create an all-Ireland parliament with limited powers. Fierce opposition followed from those who wanted to continue the union with Britain unchanged. The Ulster Hall became the focus for this unionist resistance to the Home Rule Bill and in February 1886, the building hosted a Monster Meeting of Conservatives and Orangemen. The audience was brought to thunderous applause as Lord Randolph Churchill coined what would become the anti-Home Rule campaign's most famous slogan, "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right."

The unionists' battle against Home Rule culminated in Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant. Signatories to this document pledged themselves: "To stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom."

Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and champion of the Covenant, held a rally in the Ulster Hall on 27 September 1912. This was the eve of Ulster Day when hundreds of thousands of men, led by Lord Carson, would sign the Covenant in Belfast's City Hall. Women filed through the doors of the nearby Ulster Hall to sign a declaration supporting it.

Another significant event for unionism came in 1986 when the loyalist Ulster Resistance was launched in the hall. This paramilitary movement was established in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement (which gave the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland's government).

The hall continued to be mainly associated with unionist gatherings, which frequently culminated in a rendition of God Save the Queen. In 2002 Sinn Fein staged a rally at which 2,000 joined together to sing The Soldier's Song, the national anthem of Ireland.

Saved by the war

By the mid-1930s, the Ulster Hall had fallen into disrepair. It was owned by Belfast Corporation by this time and the policy was to repair only what was needed to maintain basic safety. In 1937, it was in serious threat of demolition.

When World War Two broke out in 1939, the hall was granted a reprieve and became a place of amusement for local and American servicemen. It was renamed the Ulster Dance Hall.

The Mulholland Grand Organ was put to good use providing entertainment for troops. Two or three dances were held most weeks during the war and a shipment of American oak planking arrived in Belfast to refurbish the dance floor during this time.

After the war, the fate of the hall was still in question. Originally designed as a venue for operas and concertos, it was struggling to attract suitable artists. In 1948, the hall only received offers from wrestling, boxing and other sporting promoters. By the 1950s, the cry was again for demolition. It was considered dirty, dingy, dull and almost a century out of date. The eventual decision was to redecorate and modernise rather than demolish and in 1957 the hall was completely refurbished. In a nod to the rising hemlines of the day, the balcony railings were covered in at the request of those fashionable women worried about glances cast up from below.

Popular music

The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Blondie and Bjork are some of the international acts to have graced the Ulster Hall stage. Local artists Ash, Van Morrison and Snow Patrol have also played there en route to global superstardom.

Led Zeppelin first performed Stairway to Heaven at the Ulster Hall on 5 March 1971. The Clash almost played here - their 1977 gig was cancelled at the last minute which led to the 'Battle of Bedford Street', as angry fans clashed with riot police.

Sport

The hall has hosted many sporting battles - local snooker aces Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor competing for the Irish Professional Championship and boxer Barry McGuigan securing Ulster, British and European titles. McGuigan has fond memories of the hall: "I loved boxing there because it was so atmospheric and because of its long narrow shape and where the ring was placed, it almost felt like the fans in the balcony were in the ring with me."

A new era

The front of the hall was damaged in1992 when an Irish Republican Army bomb exploded in Bedford Street. Its front windows were boarded up until Belfast City Council's most recent refurbishment scheme, which culminated in a grand opening on 6 March 2009.

Costing £8.5 million and lasting two years, the work included refitting and redecorating the Grand Hall. This involved recreating the original metal balcony balustrade and chandeliers, installing new removable downstairs seating, a moveable stage extension and a high-specification sound system. The architects also decorated the hall in the colours originally intended by the designer, William Joseph Barre, which could not be afforded in 1862.

A five-storey extension at the rear of the building houses modern dressing rooms, education suites and meeting rooms. The hall is now the permanent home of the Ulster Orchestra.

When the hall re-opened in 2009 the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Tom Hartley, declared:

"The Ulster Hall has been part of the lifeblood of this great city for almost 150 years, and reflects the diversity of Belfast's life and politics. While this capital project has transformed the building into a modern, customer friendly multi-purpose building, great care has been taken to both retain its unique character and to preserve its status as one of the true landmark buildings of Belfast."