Belfast Orange Hall: ‘the metropolis of Orangeism’
Engraving of Clifton Street Orange Hall, Belfast News-Letter. This side-elevation view was soon obscured by the Carlisle Memorial Church Hall, now the Indian Community Centre, built in 1888.

A familiar feature of the streetscape around Clifton Street is the Belfast Orange Hall. The imposing building was designed to convey the growing prominence of the Orange Order in late-Victorian Belfast, which saw a surge in membership in response to Home Rule anxieties. Reflecting this growth, the Grand Lodge of Belfast sought a large new building ‘in every way worthy of Belfast, the metropolis of Orangeism’.[1] This blog post examines the architectural detail of the building and its social history during the early twentieth century, before turning to the role of Clifton Street Hall in the Orange Order’s annual Twelfth parades.

In January 1883 the Belfast Charitable Society, based at nearby Clifton House, ‘signified their intention to let a considerable portion of the large plot of land between Clifton Street and Regent Street … as a site for a new Orange Hall’.[2] A 999-year lease was granted, with an annual rent of £37 made payable to the Belfast Charitable Society.[3] The Grand Lodge of Belfast engaged the services of architect William Batt, of Royal Avenue, to draft plans for the new hall. The building was constructed by Dixon & Co., Clifton Street, at a cost of £5,500. The front of the hall was to be dominated by a ‘handsome portico of red Dumfries stone’ interspersed with ‘cut stone from the Glebe quarries of Newtownards’.[4] Internally, the hall ‘will contain ten lodge rooms … reading room, library, amusement room and larger hall capable of accommodating 700 persons’.[5]

In an occasion marked with much civic pomp and ceremony, including a large march from Donegall Square to Carlisle Circus, Lady Crichton and Lord Hill laid the foundation stone on 6th October 1883. Sir Stafford Northcote, leader of the Conservative Party, was the honorary guest. In a hollow inside the foundation stone, a glass bottle was deposited ‘containing elaborate parchment’ detailing the day’s ceremonial programme and prominent attendees.[6] After little over a year’s construction, the Clifton Street Orange Hall opened in January 1885.

A further architectural feature was commissioned to commemorate the bicentenary of the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’. An appeal was launched in 1887 for the purpose of ‘erecting a statue of the Prince of Orange upon Clifton Street Orange Hall’.[7] Interestingly, the engraving above appears to have been taken from early architectural plans for the statue as King William III is pictured facing up towards the Crumlin road rather than down towards the city centre. The equestrian statue was designed by Exeter-based sculptor Harry Hems and cast at the foundry of J.W. Singer in Frome, Somerset. The firm’s work also included Lady Justice on top of the Old Bailey and Boudicca, located on the Thames Embankment.[8] The two-ton bronze statue was transported to Bristol docks by road and shipped to Belfast by the steamer Avon, arriving in October 1889. Hems accompanied the statue on its journey and supervised the delicate installation proceedings. It is the only equestrian sculpture of King William III in Ireland.

Clifton Street Orange Hall circa 1970. Security installations to protect the building from arson attacks were later installed. Sadly, most of these features remain in-situ. Copyright of Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Archives.

Dozens of Belfast lodges, many now defunct, have used the hall for meetings and recreational purposes. In January 1933, for example, ‘105 social meetings and 231 business and other meetings’ were held in the hall.[9] Nearing full occupancy, an extension was opened in March 1935 to accommodate extra engagements. In August 1939 the loss of the building was narrowly averted after a fire broke out in the regalia room. The fire brigade ‘succeeded in preventing the fire from spreading to the banner room’ which would have ‘endangered the entire building’.[10]

As the seat of the Grand Lodge of Belfast, the Clifton Street Hall has been at the centre of Orange Order activity in the city. Prominent Unionist Party politicians, including Edward Carson, James Craig and Terence O’Neill, have used the hall as a rallying point for election campaign speeches. These political connections and the symbolism of the hall has rendered the building vulnerable to attacks in recent decades. Protective architectural additions, notably bricked-up front windows and a large steel cage (removed in 2009) helped to safeguard the building during the worst years of the Troubles.

The signature event of the Orange Order is the annual Twelfth of July parade commemorating King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Clifton Street Orange Hall is the rendezvous point for several district lodges which then merge in the city centre for the main march to Barnett Demesne. Each lodge is represented by a hand-painted fabric banner. Belfast Orange banners frequently invoke the theme of noble sacrifice and martyrdom: the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of the Boyne and temperance. These rituals and banner iconography create a ‘wider community of faith’ and reinforce group belonging.[11] Many historic Orange banners can be viewed during tours of the Clifton Street Hall.

The Clifton Street Hall – like the wider Orange Order – has seen a decline in membership during recent decades. Though too large for current meeting requirements, current trustees have taken steps to ensure the building’s long-term survival. The built environment around Clifton Street Orange Hall has changed dramatically since the 1970s, but the building remains a reassuring a reference point and steadfastly used for the purpose for which it was constructed almost 140 years ago.

Footnotes:

[1] Belfast News-Letter, 8 October 1883.

[2] Belfast News-Letter, 22 January 1883.

[3] Belfast News-Letter, 8 October 1883.

[4] Belfast News-Letter, 10 October 1883.

[5] Belfast News-Letter, 8 October 1883.

[6] Belfast News-Letter, 10 October 1883.

[7] Belfast News-Letter, 26 November 1887.

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-48638336

[9] Belfast News-Letter, 10 February 1933.

[10] Belfast News-Letter, 15 August 1939.

[11] Neil Jarman, Displaying faith: Orange, green and trade union banners (Belfast, 1999), p. 8.

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