Northern Ireland

Time called on Belfast's Orpheus 'ballroom of romance'

The Orpheus built in the 1930s Image copyright Save the Orpheus campaign
Image caption The Orpheus building, completed in the 1932, is due for demolition in 2015

Belfast city centre's last 'ballroom of romance' is about to disappear, leaving only memories of all the dreams realised or hopes dashed across its dance floor.

The 1932 art deco Orpheus building on York Street was one of several venues in Belfast where generations quickstepped to courtship or boogied to bliss.

The music faded away long ago, but now a £250m redevelopment by the University of Ulster, which owns the building, will see the ballroom itself disappear.

Mary O'Donnell and Niall Ward met and fell in love on the dance floor 50 years ago.

The couple have now been married for 47 years and live in Omagh, County Tyrone. They have six children.

They also danced at the Orchid, the Astor and Romanos, all of which have now disappeared.

Image copyright Mary Ward
Image caption Innocent times: Only alcohol-free drinks were sold at the mineral bar

Many love stories like theirs started on the city's dance floors.

Now, Mary is part of a Facebook campaign to save the Orpheus building.

She said: "I'm really annoyed about it. It's such a beautiful building."

The couple appear in pictures taken at the Orpheus ballroom during their early courting days in 1964.

Image copyright Mary Ward
Image caption Dancing duo: Mary and Niall Ward are both annoyed that the ballroom will be lost

One photograph shows them standing at the ballroom's mineral bar. No alcohol was served at the dances.

Mary, now 71, visited the venue regularly in her 20s, with girlfriends from her work in the civil service.

Entry fee to the ballroom was six shillings (30p).

She remembers dancing quicksteps, foxtrots and jives with Niall under the art deco ceiling to the live music.


A spokesperson for the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) said the Orpheus building contained the city centre's only surviving 'ballroom of romance' on the top floor.

Image copyright Mary Ward
Image caption Mary and Niall Ward with friends at the Orpheus

"It also has a fine staircase, timber panelling and stained glass windows.

"Since 2012, the UAHS has sought to highlight the architectural and social worth of the Orpheus building," the spokesperson said.

"We have tried to encourage the university to recognise the need to protect Belfast's fragile built heritage and lead, by way of example, in its sustainable re-use."

The UAHS has tried twice to secure listed status for the building, but the applications were rejected.

It is just outside the Cathedral Quarter Heritage Conservation Area where buildings are protected.

Image copyright Save the Orpheus
Image caption Outside and in: Not many of the building's original features remain

The building was once Belfast's largest department store. The Co-operative Society, which owned and ran it, offered dividends to loyal customers. It also boasted a popular restaurant.

It eventually closed its doors in the mid-1980s and now the building is used by the University of Ulster. The ballroom, on the top floor, has been partitioned into studio space for artists.

While the building has a rich cultural history, many of the original architectural features have been lost.

A rescue package would include replacing the flat roof, the windows and the wiring.

Image copyright Richard Graham
Image caption The ballroom ceiling is now obscured from view by partitions creating artists' workspace

Daniel Smith from the campaign to save the Orpheus building said anything was possible "if the parties are willing to provide funding and vision".

A spokesperson for the University of Ulster said: "The demolition of the Orpheus building is a necessary step in the development of the new Belfast campus which brings a new era and opportunities to our students and to this part of the city.

"The university intends to incorporate some features from the building into the new campus development."

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