The new City Hall in Belfast opened to the public in August 1906. Queen Victoria had granted city status in 1888 and the building reflected the new, prosperous status. Designed by Alfred Brumwell Thomas, the Baroque Revival style building is made of Portland stone. At the time, it cost £369,000. That is the equivalent of £128,000,000 today.
Standing on the site of the old White Linen Hall in Donegall Square, the City Hall has been a focal point of Belfast life ever since. It has withstood recent conflict, political turmoil, and even the Belfast Blitz of 1941.
The American GIs at City Hall
Less than two years after the Luftwaffe bombed the Great Hall, Belfast City Hall welcomed a fine parade. Held on 25th January 1943, it featured British and American troops marking the anniversary of the American GIs arrival in Ulster.
On Victory in Europe Day in 1945, thousands of people rushed to Belfast’s City Hall to celebrate and listen to the speech from Winston Churchill. Young women sat in nearby windowsills to watch the soldiers dance in the streets.
A few months later, on 24th August 1945, the City Hall in Belfast was once again a site of celebration. General Dwight D Eisenhower was the guest of honour. The American general received the Freedom of the City and an honorary degree from Queen’s University. A crowd of thousands attended, waving American flags and throwing confetti. As the cavalcade travelled towards Donegall Square, the band struck up the Star-Spangled Banner.
Eisenhower speaks in Belfast
Among the platform party were Sir James Grigg, Secretary of State for War, Lord Abercorn, Governor of Northern Ireland, and Northern Irish Prime Minister Sir Thomas Dixon. Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh and Town Clerk John Dunlop lead the ceremony.
Few Ulster men, and no-one from another land, have established a stronger hold upon the admiration of the people of Northern Ireland than you, and the victories achieved by the Allied armies in Europe are in themselves eloquent testimony of your gifts as a great commander.
Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh, 24th August 1945.
General Eisenhower spoke of the “ties of affection” between the people of Northern Ireland and the US military.
The sojourn of our forces in Northern Ireland will remain a cherished memory in the hearts of many Americans. You received us into your community and into your homes with a generosity which was evident and sincere. You put us at our ease, gave us your friendship. For all this we are deeply appreciative.
General Dwight D Eisenhower, 24th August 1945.
City and County Borough of Belfast presentation to General Dwight D Eisenhower of certificate of his election and admission as an honorary burgess of the city of Belfast.
Belfast City and County Borough presentation – 24th August 1945.
This was not the general’s first visit to Belfast, Co. Antrim. Photos from the Belfast Telegraph collection show Eisenhower inspecting RAF personnel in front of City Hall. Eisenhower, known to friends and family as Ike would return to Belfast City Hall. By his second visit in August 1962, he was a former President of the United States.
As well as signing the visitor’s book in 1945, the Supreme Commander also autographed a portrait. DUP Lord Mayor Christopher Stalford unearthed this framed piece of history in 2017. The picture with its handwritten note to McCullagh expressing Eisenhower’s gratitude had lain undiscovered in the basement of City Hall for years.
Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was another dignitary who visited Belfast’s City Hall in 1945. He was greeted by Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh.
Remembering the Belfast Blitz
In April 2011, a 1932 Merryweather fire engine from Dundalk stood in front of Belfast’s City Hall. The engine was a survivor of the Belfast Blitz, one which had come to Belfast to fight the spreading inferno. The occasion was the 70th anniversary of the Blitz. The Great Banqueting Hall at Belfast City Hall fell victim to Nazi bombs that hit the roof. Rebuilding and restoration saw the hall return to its former glory.
Around fifty veterans of World War Two attended a civic lunch in City Hall on 2nd September 2015. The event marked the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.
In 2016, a series of events took place at Belfast City Hall to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Blitz. Dr Brian Barton read from his book ‘The Belfast Blitz: The City In The War Years’. Outside, searchlights and sirens once again filled the skies over Donegall Square. The names of the 900 killed showed on the electronic screen in the City Hall grounds.
In the City Hall grounds today
On visiting Belfast City Hall today, you can view Northern Ireland’s main war memorial. Wreaths are laid each Remembrance Sunday at the Garden of Remembrance and Cenotaph. A Portland stone and bronze monument, erected in the grounds in 1999, commemorates James Magennis VC. The Belfast man was the only Irish recipient of the Victoria Cross during World War Two.
Nearby, a Mourne granite column remembers the American Expeditionary Force. Many of them stayed near Belfast before departing for Normandy in 1944. The stone pillar bears the crests of the US Army, US Marines, US Navy, and the Belfast Coat of Arms. President Bill Clinton rededicated the monument as part of his visit in 1995.
In this 50th anniversary year of the end of World War II, many Americans still remember the warmth the people of Northern Ireland showed them when the army was stationed here under General Eisenhower. The people of Belfast named General Eisenhower an honorary burgess of the city. He viewed that honor, and I quote, “as a token of our common purpose to work together for a better world.” That mission endures today. We remain Americans and as people of Northern Ireland, partners for security, partners for prosperity and, most important, partners for peace.
President Bill Clinton speaking at Belfast City Hall – 30th November 1995.
Tours and Exhibitions
A guided tour of Belfast City Hall is recommended as there are as many artefacts inside as out. A Civil Defence flag accompanies a plaque bearing the names of 34 members of the Belfast Civil Defence Service. They lost their lives during the Blitz in April and May 1941.
Other memorials include a stained-glass window commemorating the North Irish Horse Regiment. Also remembered are employees of the Belfast Corporation killed between 1939 and 1945. The Belfast Corporation was a forerunner of the City Council.
On the walls of the City Hall hangs a painting entitled ‘A Night Attack On Enemy Shipping’. It features a Halifax plane of RAF 502 Squadron in Skaggerak. It was presented to the council on the 50th anniversary of the mobilisation of RAF 502 (Ulster) Squadron.
Beginning in 2017, Belfast City Hall has launched a new public exhibition showing many of these artefacts and other items from the City Hall’s long and varied history.