St. Anne’s Cathedral: A Civic Space

Belfast was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888. The city’s rapid commercial expansion and population increase, fuelled by industrial growth, transformed the town into a regional capital. Belfast’s leaders sought the construction of a cathedral to project this new-found civic grandeur. A funding campaign was launched in 1895 and the committee engaged the services of Thomas Drew, who trained under Charles Lanyon, to draft architectural plans.

Funding appeals regularly appeared in Belfast newspapers in the late 1890s. One such advertisement in the Belfast News-Letter reminded readers that ‘in all Ireland Belfast is the only place where a new church on a really great scale is required … [Belfast] has many churches, yet not one fitted by its dignity and position to form a great centre for union and worship’. Belfast, the advertisement argued, required ‘a conspicuous monument marking the twentieth century’.[1]

Crowds gathered outside the final service held in the parish church of St. Anne’s which was replaced by the Cathedral. Source:

By 1899, sufficient funds had been secured to commence the first phase of building works. The site of St Anne’s Parish Church, built in 1776, was selected. The decision to demolish the old church to make way for the cathedral was met with some vocal opposition. At a last-ditch public meeting in May 1899, one speaker argued that the proposed location in Donegall Street ‘where there was nothing but working people, was not a place for a cathedral’.[2] The main nave area of the new cathedral was completed and consecrated in 1904, with the west front, transepts and spire added incrementally over several decades. Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who gifted Belfast three branch libraries, provided match funding for the cathedral’s organ.[3]

St Anne’s Cathedral has functioned as both a place of worship and an arena for civic theatre. The cathedral hosted what was perhaps Belfast’s grandest civic event of the twentieth century – the state funeral and burial of Edward Carson. Carson, the Dublin-born figurehead of Ulster Unionism, died in Kent, England, in October 1935. His coffin was carried from Belfast docks through the streets of Belfast – which had been convulsed by deadly sectarian rioting that July – before an estimated half a million onlookers. The service was relayed via ‘high powered amplifiers’ to large crowds assembled at City Hall and broadcast on BBC Radio.[4] Carson’s remains were interred in a vault constructed underneath the south aisle. Soil ‘from each the six counties and from the grounds of Derry Cathedral’ was scattered on his coffin from a silver bowl gifted by the Stormont Government.[5] He is the only person to be buried within the cathedral. The pomp, ceremony and civic theatre of Carson’s funeral arrangements projected Unionist confidence in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position following decades of uncertainty.

As Belfast’s largest seated civic space until the construction of the Waterfront Hall, St Anne’s has hosted a variety of important events, memorial services and funerals throughout its existence. Part of the cathedral also functions as a war memorial. The west front of the building was completed in 1927 as a tribute to ‘the men who gave their lives for their King and country in the Great War’.[6] As such, St Anne’s has become a focal point for memorial services – including VE Day commemorations. The cathedral itself only narrowly escaped destruction during the Belfast Blitz of April/May 1941 when neighbouring streets were flattened by Luftwaffe bombs.

Large crowds gathered outside St. Anne’s during the funeral service for Journalist Lyra McKee in April 2019.

The building also maintains significant emotional importance for hundreds of Belfast families. Although the cathedral’s civic ritual functions garner the most media attention, it is also the space where weddings, christenings and funerals regularly take place – in addition to weekly religious services for a sizeable congregation. Since Christmas 1976, in a tradition started by The Very Rev. S.B. Crooks, the incumbent Dean of St Anne’s has stood outside the Cathedral to raise funds for local charities. Known as the Black Santa Appeal, this event has raised tens of thousands of pounds over the past four decades.[7]

In more recent decades, St Anne’s Cathedral has been chosen as the venue for memorial services ranging from the British Midland air crash (in 1989) and the funeral service of journalist Lyra McKee (in 2019). These events brought together leaders from across the political spectrum and provided a spiritual space for solemn reflection. Prominent members of the British Royal family have also frequented St Anne’s on numerous occasions – most recently the Duke of York at the memorial service of Sacha Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn, in May 2019. Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, visited the Cathedral during her Golden Jubilee celebrations in May 2002.[8]

Since its opening in 1904 St Anne’s Cathedral has been at the centre of civic and religious life in Belfast. It has played host to key ceremonial events throughout Northern Ireland’s often turbulent history. Alongside the new City Hall, public libraries, municipal parks and museums, St Anne’s Cathedral cemented Belfast’s status as a conurbation worthy of city status and cultivated civic pride among the local population.


[1] Belfast News-Letter, 15 January 1901.

[2] Belfast News-Letter, 25 May 1899.

[3] Belfast News-Letter, 19 May 1906.

[4] Belfast News-Letter, 25 October 1935.

[5] The Irish Independent, 28 October 1935.

[6] Belfast News-Letter, 3 June 1926.



Members Involved

YEAR: 1904

Location: Donegall Street