Belfast’s Symbolic Heart.
It was in 1888 that our city fathers first proposed the idea of a City Hall following the decision by Queen Victoria to grant Belfast City status. Ten years later, construction on the building began under the supervision of architect Sir Alfred Bramwell Thomas, who was only 28 when he designed this majestic building. No expense was spared. You can see the splendour all round you when you enter the Italian marble Entrance hall which is carpeted with a Donegal woven carpet weighing five tons.
The City Hall which dominates the city’s skyline and draws all Belfast towards it, is often referred to as the ‘wedding cake’ and what a happy wedding it is of architecture and commerce. The building was fashioned in the ‘classical renaissance’ style out of Portland stone with its four corner towers and a 173 foot brass dome in the centre.
It all began at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and there she stands in front of the entrance to the building the grounds wondering what do with ‘the Ord’ that is more like a cricket ball. When this place was built in 1906, electricity was a new discovery and something to be glorified in. Look at the electric lights coming down from one of the domes a pendent of jewels throwing light and shadow into the mouldings and plasterwork.
On the ground floor can be seen intricate coloured stain glass windows depicting The Famine, Queen Victoria, William of Orange and the Four Provinces of Ireland. You can’t miss the marvellous Italian wall panels executed in marble. Look closely you will see an image of an angel imprinted on the walls. As well as the angel there is a famous profile of George Bernard Shaw and two little mice, one black the other brown. Keeping a watchful eye over the mice is of course the City Hall cat and in another corner there is the head of a greyhound and a rabbit. Like all the great town halls of Europe all the fine important rooms are on the first floor, for the market was underneath. The architect designed this building on a modular or central climax, all the corridors are a deliberate contrast to the central climax of the whole building, the Rotunda with it‘s three types of glorious marble and the great green coloured Dome, modelled on St.Paul’s cathedral with its whispering gallery rises 173 feet above ground level and you will note all corridors lead to this dramatic climax. The Corridor of Echoes is a narrow corridor which goes round the first arch of the dome. They say if you are talking anywhere in this corridor your voice can be heard throughout it.
The grand marble staircase which visitors marvel at will lead one to the first floor, the ‘first marble’ as it is called here. It has a circular balustrade of marble over which you may look down on the black and white design on the floor of the main hall. The star on this floor is supposed to be dead centre with eye of the dome. On this floor you cannot help admiring the marvellous mural by John Luke showing the history of Belfast. The middle showing the Charter of Belfast being proclaimed in 1613, the right showing shipbuilding, crowning and everything beyond the green fields behind the outline of the idealized Cave Hill. The colour’s are glorious and the pattern of figures a delight. On a tour of the City Hall you will see The Council Chamber, the Lord Mayor’s parlour, the Great hall which was completely destroyed in May 1941 by a German air raid and was rebuilt after World War 11. On the ground floor can be seen the City’s motto on stained glass. PRO TANTO QUID RETRIB UAMUS, translated ‘For so much given what can you give in return’, it sounds like a bit like JF Kennedy’s inauguration Speech!
This noble building has witnessed many major events in Irish history , including the signing of the Ulster Covenant by Sir Edward Carson and a massive 35,000 opposing Home Rule. During the last 30 years the building has also seen bruising encounters and slanging matches between unionists and nationalists in its council chamber when unionist members were incensed in 1983 when Alec Maskey became the first ever Sinn Fein councillor who later with the help of Alliance councellors was voted Lord Mayor.
We should be ever thankful to the thrifty hard working ratepayers of Belfast way back in the early years of the last century who gave us this confident, cheerful ornate building which was described by its architect Sir. Alfred Brumwell Thomas, as a ‘monument to the character of the people of Belfast and of the time in which it was reared”.