for hearts, minds and souls
The Customs House is an imposing Victorian building,
designed by the architect Charles Lanyon, made possible and necessary
as Belfast became one of the great industrial and trading centres of
the Victorian United Kingdom.
Only London and Liverpool collected more duty from their port than
In the 19th century, and into the 20th, the steps of the Customs House
were the Speakers Corner of Belfast where orators harangued, exhorted
and cajoled the crowds enjoying the open space of the square.
One, Frank Ballantyne, liked to denounce “ping-pong and other
helleries” but most famously, this where dock labour organiser
Jim Larkin would address crowds of up to 20,000 in the early years of
the 20th century.
Larkin was sent to Belfast, from Liverpool, in January 1907 by the National
Union of Dock Labourers to organise dock workers in the city and he
was very successful.
In May of that year a dispute with one employer escalated and soon the
city was virtually paralysed by strike and lockout.
Protestant workers on the cross-channel dock and Catholic deep-sea dockers
were united in their support for Larkin, as were the carters who hauled
the goods to and from the docks.
Attempts to curb the pickets were foiled when men of the Royal Irish
Constabulary mutinied. An attempt by the employers to create a Protestant
workers only union also failed and the dispute was eventually settled
with a grudging recognition of the dockers’ union and a pay rise
for the carters.
The writer Anthony Trollope worked for the General Post Office in the
Customs House in Belfast for several years. As well as being a novelist,
Trollope was also the inventor of the pillar-box.
Belfast City Council has just completed a programme to restore the square
to its former glory as a leisure space for the city. No orators on the
steps yet, but the square is becoming a regular venue for open-air concerts
and other events.
Across from the Customs House we can see McHugh’s pub and restaurant,
one of the oldest surviving buildings in Belfast, renovated and extended.
The extension took in and brought an end to, one of Belfast’s
most notorious pubs, Dubarry’s, which was once known to seamen
across the world as Belfast waterfront’s busiest house of ill-repute.
to the Four Corners at Waring Street and Bridge Street where harpists
gathered, radicals debated and newspapermen got a great scoop.