The Ulster Hall is a concert hall and Grade-A listed building in the centre of Belfast. Known as 'The Grand Old Dame', it has stood proud on Bedford Street, welcoming crowds to concerts, boxing matches, recitals, and political events since its opening night on 12th May 1862. Designed by William J. Barre in 1859, the venue was a popular spot for morale-boosting events throughout the Second World War.
On 13th May 1862, the Belfast News-Letter described the newly opened hall as:
A place the rich and the poor, the manufacturer and the sons and daughters of toil, may meet together beneath the arched roof of the new hall, to listen to sweeter sounds and more melodious strains than machinery can produce.
During the Second World War, manufacturing in the city saw a rise in output from the shipyard, aircraft factories, mills, and workshops. Events at The Ulster Hall grew in popularity as locals appreciated the distractions of dance bands, performers, and folk singers like Delia Murphy.
Delia Murphy performed at The Ulster Hall on the evening of 15th April 1941. That night, waves of Luftwaffe bombers attacked the city in what became known as the Easter Raid of the Belfast Blitz. The show was a ceilidh organised by St. Malachy’s Gaelic Athletic Club in the city. Hundreds of people packed into the venue, with some crammed into the standing room at the back, and others sitting on the floor.
At around 1130hrs, Murphy finished what should have been her last song of the evening. As the crowd cheered and applauded, an A.R.P. Warden warned that Luftwaffe bombers were over the Co. Down coast. No one was to leave until an all-clear sounded. Inside the venue, soldiers took position by the doors. The ‘Grand Old Dame’ of Bedford Street would make for a sturdy air raid shelter.
Some people insisted on leaving The Ulster Hall. Most, however, remained where they were, hoping the thick stone walls and arched roof would offer protection. Among those who stayed with Rita Brown, who, at the age of 91 years old in 2011, gave an interview to Irish broadcaster RTÉ.
Also in 2011, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, Leo Wilson spoke to the Belfast Telegraph and the Somme Historical Association. He was one of many hundreds packed into The Ulster Hall on 15th April 1941. Then aged 18 years old, he and fellow concert goer Harry Kavanagh made friends with one of the venue’s firewatchers. Along with their new friend the teenagers made their way to the roof of the Bedford Street building from where they witnessed the destruction of huge swathes of the city.
The planes were buzzing round like nobody’s business. We looked over towards east Belfast and it was like Dante’s inferno. The whole place seemed to be blazing away. There didn’t seem to be any place that wasn’t on fire. Heavy smoke and bombs falling. Then, we looked towards the north of the city and York Street must have been pounded to dust because it was in flames too. And, we looked to the west where we lived and we could see the big spires of St Peter’s Cathedral outlined against a background of smoke and flames and planes. It might sound harsh and selfish but when we saw St Peter’s outlined against a background of flames we realised there were no flames in front of it and we lived in that parish. That afforded us some feeling of relief.
Delia Murphy continued to sing throughout the raid. She finished only when the explosions faded. She remained calm and saved lives, convincing people to stay inside. The crowd sang and danced through the night until almost 0500hrs. This was Belfast’s “Blitz Spirit” moment. As the crowds left for home, they saw horrific sights greeting them. Some returned to homes in places like Percy Street finding friends and family killed in the shelters.
Happier times would follow for The Ulster Hall. The arrival of the United States Army in 1942 brought a new crowd of eager concertgoers and dancers to Bedford Street. American boots jitterbugged many nights away with great gusto. On one occasion, such was the dancing, the floor in the venue gave way. Realising the value of the hall to keeping up morale, the American Embassy paid for a brand new solid oak replacement.
That floor lasted around 40 more years until it once again gave way as a crowd pounded along to Dexys Midnight Runners’ ‘Come On Eileen’ in the early 1980s. Throughout the years, The Ulster Hall has witnessed many iconic moments with acts including Rory Gallagher, The Clash, Led Zeppelin, and Snow Patrol. But none have lingered so long in the memory or saved so many lives as Delia Murphy in April 1941.