The Duncairn Arts Centre – formerly Duncairn Presbyterian Church – is located on the Antrim Road. This week’s blog looks at the history of the building and the influence of one of its most prominent parishioners Thomas Sinclair, author of the Ulster Covenant.
The Duncairn Centre is comprised of three separate buildings – a former Presbyterian church, schoolroom and manse – which were constructed in 1861-2. Presbyterianism, a Protestant religious sect, was revived in Ulster during the late 1850s when ‘mass conversions’ swept the province. Prior to this, North Belfast Presbyterians worshipped ‘in a private house in Hardinge Street’ and later schoolrooms in ‘Lepper Street or Pinkerton’s Row’ rented by the Sinclair family. The strength of the Presbyterian revival was such that, by 1860, Thomas Sinclair ‘came to the conclusion that a church for these people was required’. Initial groundworks were completed at a site on Pinkerton’s Row in the New Lodge area. The project was quickly abandoned as it was realised that the proposed site ‘would only secure an attendance of the poorer classes’ whereas ‘rich and poor could be united’ at a location on the Antrim Road.
Thomas Sinclair, a prominent Belfast Presbyterian and businessman, donated £3,000 towards the construction of the church and raised a further ‘£1,000 from relatives and acquaintances’. Architectural plans for the church, schoolroom and manse were drawn up by W.J. Barr, designer of the Albert Clock and Ulster Hall, and constructed ‘of the best Scrabo stone, rough and dressed’. The church building is dominated by a ‘tapering spire’ of ‘some 120 feet’ containing ‘a very excellent bell’ which, at the time, ‘was the first and only one in all the Presbyterian churches in Belfast’. 620 people, seated in wooden pews, faced a ‘neat, low and wide pulpit’ from where the Minister preached.
The Sinclair family financed a number of church-building initiatives during the Presbyterian revival in Ulster, including the Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church and Conlig Presbyterian Church. The Sinclairs were shipowners and amassed considerable wealth through their company, J. & T. Sinclair, based at Tomb Street, Belfast. Thomas Sinclair, born 1838, was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Queen’s University Belfast. He was a ‘leading layman’ in the Presbyterian Church and was ordained as an elder at Duncairn Presbyterian at the age of twenty-eight. He was also a keen sportsman and ‘introduced golf from Scotland into Ulster in 1881’.
Thomas Sinclair was devout to both Presbyterianism and Unionism. His conviction about the merits of Irish Unionism saw him break away from the British Liberal Party, whose leader, William Gladstone, converted to the Home Rule cause in 1885. Sinclair and other like-minded Ulster Liberals went on to form the Ulster Liberal Unionist Party. The issue of Home Rule – a measure to reintroduce a parliament in Dublin – was ‘the single most dominant issue of Irish political life’ from the 1870s until the partition of Ireland in 1920.
Thomas Sinclair’s political activism culminated in writing the text of the Ulster Covenant, which was signed by almost 500,000 men and women in September 1912. The Covenant asserted the right of Ulster, ‘using all means which may be found necessary’, to remain within the United Kingdom. The veiled threat of violence was rendered in sharper focus by the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and importation of arms into Larne. Despite the immense propaganda value of the Ulster Covenant, Sinclair, notes historian Graham Walker, has ‘suffered from comparative neglect’ in historical writing. His obscurity was partly rectified through the installation of a blue plaque on the wall of Sinclair Seamen’s Church, unveiled by First Minister Arlene Foster in 2016.
Thomas Sinclair’s death in February 1914 was marked by a special service at Duncairn Presbyterian which attracted ‘a very large attendance’. The Sinclair connection to the church was reaffirmed the following year with the opening of ‘urgently needed’ church halls, named Sinclair Memorial Hall in memory of Thomas Sinclair.
Duncairn Presbyterian Church closed in 1995 and lay vacant for over fifteen years. The 174 Trust assumed ownership of the building and was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2011 to refurbish and re-purpose the space as an arts and culture venue. The Duncairn Centre for Arts and Culture opened in 2014. The Centre offers a wide variety of workshops, classes, live music and cultural events throughout the year. More information can be found at: https://www.theduncairn.com/
 Graham Walker, ‘Thomas Sinclair: Presbyterian Liberal Unionist’ in Richard English and Graham Walker (eds)., Unionism in modern Ireland: new perspectives on politics and culture (Dublin, 1996), p. 20.
 Belfast News-Letter, 8 September 1862.
 Walker, ‘Thomas Sinclair’, p. 19.
 Belfast News-Letter, 16 February 1914.
 Belfast News-Letter, 1 May 1915.