Ulster Hall designed by William J. Barre. 1862. Bedford Street, Belfast, Ulster, Northern Ireland. Photograph and text by Philip V. Allingham 2006. This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.

Against a field of forty-one other architectural firms, in 1860 the young architect W. J. Barre won the competition to design the Ulster Hall. Today, the building is beautifully restored, but when C. E. B. Brett wrote Buildings of Belfast: 1700-1914 (1967) its grey stucco appeared "rather lumpish and elephantine" p. 32). The building had originally been surmounted a coat-of-arms supported by the stag and wolfhound of Ulster, but this ornamentation the city corporation had removed in 1959. Brett describes the interior of the Ulster Hall thus:

The hall itself is vast, airy and dignified, though it lacks the sparkle Barre envisaged. Corners and ceiling are alike coved--the latter also coffered, and painted blue with cream beams and red spots. There is a fine alderman-bellied balcony on pineapple-pie pillars. At the keys of the round-headed windows are twenty wiskered worthies; there are arches, scene from Belfast history (and mythology) painted by W. J. Carey in 1903. (p. 32)

Originally designed to accommodate balls, the old hall has seen gospel preachers, boxing matches (notably by John L. Sullivan in the 1880s) and wrestling bouts, orchestral concerts and literary performances (notably that by Charles Dickens), and political meetings. During the Home Rule crisis of 1912, Sir Winston Churchill, then a Liberal, was scheduled to speak on behalf of Home Rule in the Ulster Hall, but was prevented from doing so by belligerent Unionists, whose refusal to leave the building prompted Churchill to shift the location of his rally to Celtic Park.

The Dickensian connection is worth noting, since Belfast marked the last stop on Dickens's farewell reading tour of the United Kingdom. Although the Ulster Hall had not been built when he first visited the town in 1858, he delivered his celebrated public readings in the new entertainment venue in 1867 and in 1869. As a result of his first visit, he developed friendships with local politician and merchant James Emerson Tennent, and with the owner and editor of the The Northern Whig newpaper, Francis Dalziel Finlay.

Other Views


Brett, C. E. B. Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967.

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Last modified 13 September 2007