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16 October 2014
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point six: customs house square
Customs House and steps

Battling 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.

Listen to an audio guide to this section of the walk

Only London and Liverpool collected more duty from their port than Belfast did.

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.

On to the Four Corners at Waring Street and Bridge Street where harpists gathered, radicals debated and newspapermen got a great scoop.

  The Walk

Map of Belfast Belfast City Hall Cornmarket
intro part 1 part 2

St Georges
Donegal Quay
Queen's Bridge
PART 3 part 4 part 5

Customs House
Four Corners
Writer's Square
part 6 part 7 part 8

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