In 1862, the United States was riven by a bloody civil war, Ireland was still reeling from the effects of a devastating series of famines, and London was celebrating the world ascendancy of Great Britain in all things industrial at a huge International Exhibition.
That same year, Belfast saw the unveiling of the largest public hall in Ireland at that time and what has turned out to be one of its most enduring landmarks — one since inextricably associated with the arts, religion and politics of this region.
On Monday May 12, 1862, the Ulster Hall opened its doors. Expecting a traffic jam, the authorities had some days earlier advertised a plan to cope with the first, second and third-class ticket holders arriving by carriage. Readers were cautioned that: “All carriages must keep in line; and any carriage breaking out of line will be sent back by the Police to the rear of the line”.
In the hall itself, an audience of 1,800 people assembled to view the new ornamented splendours of Mr Barre’s architecture, and listen to a 200-strong chorus and orchestra, all lit by the 750 gas jets of 12 ‘sun-lights’ placed in the ceiling.
“At a quarter past eight o’clock precisely, Mr Geo. B Allen, MusBacOxon, assumed the conductor’s baton ... the oratorio selected was Handel’s great masterpiece, ‘The Messiah’, which was performed under the auspices of the Classical Harmonists. The Chorus... was thoroughly efficient; and the orchestra, led by Mr H Loveday, and containing several performers of some celebrity, proved all that could be desired.”
The journalist covering the grand occasion for The Belfast News Letter was particularly impressed by the hall’s acoustics. “We have no hesitation in asserting that the Ulster [Hall] stands unexcelled, and all but unrivalled, as an edifice for the production of musical works... the hall is a great and unmingled success, and the public, no less than the proprietors, may feel the utmost gratification at a result at once so pleasant and so rare.”
The same Ulster Hall reopens tonight. Unlike the original venture, which was owned by an entirely commercial company, the hall’s refurbishment has been funded by Belfast City Council, the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Heritage Lottery and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
The main tenant will be the Ulster Orchestra whose administration will take over the rebuilt rear of the hall. The orchestra will at last have a space viable for both performance and rehearsal.
The new access envisaged by the Ulster Orchestra for the space opens up opportunities to have monthly lunchtime orchestral concerts, public attendance at rehearsals and a series of special school concerts.
Among the challenges will be juggling the hall bookings which inexplicably remain under the direction of the City Council; new seating is restricted now to 1,000 and it remains to be seen if box-office income can support the orchestra’s plans.
At a time of general gloom, however, the reopening is a sign of optimism in the future.