It's difficult to walk through Belfast's Cornmarket without being accosted by crazed preachers or offended by the dance moves of kids loitering around Dan George's 'Spirit of Belfast' sculpture. But a couple of years ago, ignoring both, I stopped at a building I had passed countless times on journeys around Belfast, and entered a world hitherto closed off from public view.
The facade of Freemason's Hall in Arthur Square (the official name for Cornmarket) is decorated with classic masonic symbols – the compass, the square and the level, for example – but it's only when you venture inside that the ritualistic nature of the building, which was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, becomes evident.
Upstairs, the grand hall is finished with perpetually polished black and white tiles. Large ornate wooden chairs are meticulously placed around the circumference, and the focus is firmly on the Grand Master's chair at the back of the hall. Gavels, staffs and flags feature prominently.
In the hallways there are locked doors aplenty, and an original map of olde Belfast, which attracted the attention of the various tourists in attendance at the time, many of whom – young Spaniards and Germans, mainly – were incredibly excited by the fading draftsmenship. It was interesting too to learn that playwright Sam Cree is listed as a former member.
It was an enlightening experience to be led on a tour through the building's many corridors, and to note its origins in the wake of a recent refurbishment, particularly as it was my first time in a masonic lodge anywhere in Northern Ireland.
I left with a newfound respect for freemasonry, the relative freedom afforded to each branch, for example, and the ideas of fraternity and charity that were and continue to be central to the masonic ethos. A mysterious exclusivity remained, but I was fine with that. There's nothing like a bit of secrecy to fire the imagination.
I would not have ventured beyond the threshold of the Belfast branch at all – rather I would have lowered my gaze and powered on through Cornmarket for fear of catching a god-fearing eye – were it not for European Heritage Open Days.
It is a fantastic idea – the temporary opening of otherwise private buildings of historical significance and country estates for a day or two in September each year – and one that has expanded far beyond capital cities like Belfast in recent years.
In towns and cities across Northern Ireland on September 6 - 9, 2012, many such buildings will fling open their doors for a short time to allow the public to wander around inside and learn more about their local history – and all for free.
This year, workshops, reenactments, performances and family events are listed in the EHOD programme. And a series of events organised in association with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland will bring a welcome artistic streak to proceedings.
Several of those events have already booked out (tickers are allocated on a first come, first served basis – so check out the full programme above and get booking via the link below), like the acclaimed Belfast Bred foodie tour of restaurants, bars, delis and markets by Kabosh Theatre Company.
Nick Livingston, ACNI Director of Strategic Development, commented: 'The European Heritage Open Days continue to grow in popularity and scale each year, and we were delighted when we were asked to develop a new arts element for the 2012 programme.
'For the first time, some of our best local performers and theatre companies will be out on location, helping to bring some of our most important historical buildings to life. All of the performances are free to attend and will no doubt help to bring an additional layer of colour and creativity to this annual celebration of our built and natural heritage.
'The events are booking out quickly, but among the many highlights we have to look forward to are a performance of composer Philip Hammond’s piano piece, Miniatures and Modulations at the Harbour Commissioners Office on Saturday, September 8, and children’s arts workshops at The Playhouse in Derry and Old Gracehill Schoolhouse on the same day.'
Tickets for European Heritage Open Days events can be booked via the Discover Northern Ireland website.