While Belfast City Hall may not be the physical heart of the city, it certainly embodies its spiritual heart. Although we’ve been in and around the building on each past visit to Belfast, we’d never taken a public tour until last weekend.
It was well worth the 45 minutes to learn about the history of the city, the building and the city’s governance structure, which features 60 councilors for a population of 330,000. There is also a new multi-room exhibit on Belfast that you can view.
Center of it all
The city’s core bus network consists of 12 lines that begin and end around Belfast City Hall, so pretty much wherever you go, you’ll glimpse the imposing, yet welcoming Baroque Revival building completed in 1906. Before 1888, Belfast was a town, but it was declared a city in that year by Queen Victoria.
Of course, the burgeoning city needed a new building, so the city fathers knocked down the White Linen Hall and built this new edifice for 360,000 pounds. The building features five domes, the tallest rising 173 feet. The largest dome is at the center of the building, with an opulent grand staircase leading dignitaries and visitors to the upper floor.
We got a glimpse at the deputy mayor’s office, the robing room where councilors formerly donned robes for meetings and the council meeting chambers. By the way, councilors still wear robes on special occasions, although members of the Sinn Fein party generally refrain.
During a council meeting, which takes place on the first working day of the month, the lord mayor sits on one short end of the room on a dais, with risers on both long sides with tables and comfortable chairs for the councilors, who are arranged according to political party. The press corps occupy tables in the middle, with spaces for dignitaries on the fourth wall. Members of the public sit one floor above the council chambers on the long interior side of the room. The council chambers and three large meeting rooms are paneled with Irish oak carved by Harland & Wolff artisans.
Our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide gave those who wanted an opportunity to try on a councilor robe and to sit in the lord mayor’s chair.
Lord mayors and memorials
The largest meeting room, the Great Hall, was destroyed in the Belfast Blitz in 4 May 1941, a German attack that killed 1,000 in Belfast. The hall was rebuilt in 1953 and features seven original stained glass windows that were moved to the country before the war began. During the tour, we saw workers either setting up rooms or tearing them down, evidence of how much use the city hall receives.
Each lord mayor, elected from among the councilors, now serves a single one-year term, and after it has his (or her) picture painted in a style and by an artist of his choosing. Those portraits are moved once a year to make way for that year’s mayor.
You’ll find a number of statues and memorials on the grounds, including the Titanic Memorial remembering those who lost their lives in the 1912 sinking. There’s also a memorial to Sir Edward Harland, who once headed Harland & Wolff and served as Belfast mayor in 1885-1886.
Unlike many civic buildings, Belfast City Hall is open nearly every day for tours, and the building and grounds are in use almost daily for public events. I’m sure those who frequent its halls lose sight of how impressive the building is. The exterior features Portland stone, while the interior is adorned with Italian marble.
And, if an impressive interior and expansive grounds aren’t enough, Belfast City Hall features an outdoor lighting system that can illuminate the building in a literal rainbow of colors.