Belfast Telegraph

Bill Wolsey's transformation of Belfast's oldest building among winners at heritage 'Oscars' night


Midas touch businessman Bill Wolsey has won the ex-Factor - a competition recognising people who have breathed new life into old buildings in Northern Ireland.

Bill, the entrepreneur behind a sprawling pub and hotel empire that includes like the Merchant and Bullitt hotels, was honoured by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) last night for transforming one of Belfast's oldest buildings in the Cathedral Quarter into the Dirty Onion pub and restaurant.

Other winners of the UAHS 'Oscars' included people associated with a historic windmill, a forgotten island with a First World War link, and a group who are trying to promote the Belfast Hills. The Heritage Angel awards were handed out at a glittering ceremony at another architectural gem - the Grand Opera House. Twelve projects had been shortlisted across four different categories.

The UAHS says the aim of the awards is to celebrate the unsung heroes of local heritage; individuals, or groups, who have rescued an historic building, or place. A spokesman said: "The Angel Awards are not just about heritage recording, rescue and restoration, but about the people that make heritage projects happen, showcasing what is possible when people take an interest in and get involved with the care and consideration of our heritage."

Entries came from a range of diverse heritage initiatives across Northern Ireland. The shortlist included private owners, volunteers, community groups, commercial owners, apprentices, craftsmen and young people.

Similar awards are presented every year in England and Scotland, with funding from a foundation set up by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But this is the first time the competition has been organised in Northern Ireland by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.

A student who picked up a Heritage Angel award for an exciting archaeological project in Belfast was rewarded for refusing to throw in the trowel.

For no matter how bad the weather was, or how big the setbacks became, Tom Meharg just kept on digging, ensuring that the award for the Best Contribution to a Heritage Project by Young People went to the Belfast Hills Partnership.

Over 400 enthusiastic young people took part in an archaeological dig on Divis Mountain over a two-week period. The work was concentrated on a stone enclosure originally thought to be an early Christian cashel.

After the excavation was completed, it was revealed that no Christian remains had been uncovered. But that wasn't the end of the story.

Archaeologists examined Neolithic remains and early-Victorian artefacts which had been found by the dig's participants and realised that the site was much older than originally anticipated and also had a period of more recent use.

The UAHS says the community dig owed much of its success to Meharg, an archaeology student.

It said: "He volunteered to work on the project and share his knowledge and expertise with participating groups. Tom often had to be reminded that he needed to take a break, as he was so busy on site helping everyone else."

Tom says: "I just fell in love with doing this kind of work. It's really interesting to hear the stories that people have when they come to visit us. We brought schoolkids to Divis and gave them the chance to dig in their landscape."

Bill Wolsey has helped change the face and the fabric of Belfast. His far-sighted ambition has turned historic buildings of the past into pubs and hotels for the future.

The upmarket Merchant Hotel is the jewel in the crown of his Beannchor empire. And, recently, the trendy Bullitt Hotel spectacularly raised the bar on Belfast's ever-improving hospitality standards. Bill's new award is for his Dirty Onion pub/restaurant in the thriving Cathedral Quarter. The transformation of an old warehouse took the prize for the Best Rescue of an Historic Building.

In its day the Grade B-listed warehouse - the oldest intact timber-framed building in the city - traded everything from linen and whiskey to fish and tea. The building had lain empty for years, as successive owners pondered what to do with it.

Wolsey says his vision was always to revive it as a social hub. And so the Dirty Onion was unpeeled to create what the UAHS says is "one of the most beautiful and authentic bars in Ireland". The citation says: "The heritage value of the building was seen to be the perfect draw. The project involved removing unsympathetic additions to expose its original beams, treating the wood to protect it. Modern interventions were slotted in with minimal damage to the rear of the remaining historic structure."

Bill says: "I could see immediately that this old building had 300 years of stories within it. Tourists absolutely love it. In the Troubles we lost some amazing buildings and to bring one back to life is something worth doing on so many levels."

Bill says he's proud of the Dirty Onion, but more importantly the people of Belfast that share that pride in the building.

Restoring Ulster's most famous old windmill was anything but plain 'sailing'. But the work, carried out by the conservation team on the Ballycopeland structure outside Millisle has now made it a one-off in the world.

It was already known that Ballycopeland was the last remaining windmill in Northern Ireland with its original internal mechanism still intact, along with the complex of buildings associated with it. They include the miller's cottage, kiln, drying floor and kilnman's house.

The UAHS say: "The project involved completing specialist conservation works and, therefore, required specialist craft workmanship in the fields of conservation, blacksmithing and joinery.

"The three craftsmen - Chris Balmer, George Irwin and Kieran Loughran - were responsible for a range of restoration tasks, including removing the sails and fantail and constructing the new sails to a historically accurate design.

"They also repaired the roller reefing system, making Ballycopeland windmill the only remaining windmill in the world that still has this patented system in working order, raising the site to international significance."

Chris says the two-year job involved a lot of hard graft.

"A rod that runs through the whole windshaft, from the sails right through the mill to the back to the gantry, had been, unfortunately, very badly bent and we had to use jacking systems and a lot of strength to pull it out."

Maybelline Gormley, the archaeologist at the Historic Environment Division, says the public were able to follow the work at Ballycopeland at close quarters, adding: "We held a number of conservation open days for people to tour the tower and find out about some of the exciting discoveries we were making."

The keen local historians who won a Heritage Angel award last night are still trying to unravel the mystery of hauntingly beautiful Cleenish Island on Upper Lough Erne.

The remote Fermanagh island was home to a remarkable resettlement programme for servicemen after the First World War.

Eleven soldiers, who returned from the horrors of battle to Fermanagh, were given holdings on Cleenish, ranging between 26 and 42 acres, with a stone-built farmhouse. But Cleenish had no infrastructure and was only accessible by boat.

The homes for heroes were all eventually abandoned and today only the ruins remain, hiding the secrets of their former residents.

Bellanaleck Local History Group set about trying to find answers to the question of why the obviously unsuitable Cleenish was picked for the project in the first place. Visits to the island were arranged and meetings with the descendants of the 11 men were set up.

A host of poignant human stories were unearthed. But still the search for official explanations about the choice of Cleenish goes on.

Marion Maxwell, from the Bellanaleck group, says they were all gripped by the experiences of the ex-servicemen.

She adds: "An exciting moment was when we found a petition signed by all 11 men, appealing for help. By 1926 they were all running into great difficulties on the island."

The winners...

Best Rescue of an Historic Building

Bill Wolsey for the Dirty Onion

Best Contribution to a Heritage Project by Young People

Tom Meharg for the Divis Mountain Community Dig

Best Craftsmanship or Apprentice on a Heritage Rescue or Repair Project

Chris Balmer, George Irwin and Kieran Loughran for Ballycopeland windmill

Best Rescue, Recording or Interpretation of an Historic Place

Bellanaleck Local History Group for a First World War project in Co Fermanagh

Public Vote Winner

Sebastian Graham for mapping the mills of Northern Ireland

Lifetime Achievement Award

Dr Fred Hamond, industrial archaeologist

Belfast Telegraph


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