150 Years of the Ulster Hall

Andrew Johnston looks back on a century and a half of music and memories with Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns and punk legend Jake Burns

Dublin has the Olympia. Glasgow has the Barrowlands. But older than both of them and arguably even more legendary is Belfast’s Ulster Hall.

Designed by William J Barre (also responsible for the Albert Clock), built in 1859 and opened on May 12, 1862, the grade B1-listed building has survived two world wars, 30 years of civil unrest and several Motörhead gigs.

Indeed, 'the Grand Dame of Bedford Street' is one of the longest-standing purpose-built concert halls anywhere in the UK or Ireland. Bradford’s St George’s Hall, opened in 1853, can claim to be older, but even such venerable institutions as the Royal Albert Hall in London, inaugurated in 1871, and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, dating from 1914, are relative newbies.

To celebrate the Ulster Hall’s 'sesquicentenary' (you heard it here first!), Belfast City Council has lined up a month-long festival reflecting on the venue’s past, present and future.

A programme of live music, films, talks and exhibitions, many of which are free, will give the public a chance to savour and enjoy a building that has been part of Belfast’s cultural landscape since long before the Waterfront or Odyssey were twinkles in their respective architects’ eyes.

Highlights include the Great Northern Songbook, a gala concert celebrating 150 years of Northern Ireland tunesmiths, as well as a range of events commemorating the part the likes of Ruby Murray, Charles Dickens, boxing, politics and the Mulholland Grand Organ – one of the oldest examples of a functioning classic English pipe organ – have played in the Ulster Hall’s history.

In a nod to the venue’s punk heritage, on May 31 the Ulster Hall will also screen the world premiere of Good Vibrations, the new film about Northern Ireland punk pioneer Terri Hooley, which was co-written by celebrated Belfast novelist, Glenn Patterson.

Over its century and a half, everyone from Dickens to James Joyce has given readings at the Ulster Hall, and it has played host to sporting events and political rallies from across the spectrum. Not many venues can claim to have had both Ulster Resistance and Sinn Féin address an audience there. During World War II, the Ulster Hall was even used as a dance hall to entertain American troops stationed in Northern Ireland.

But it’s for the who’s-who of musical artists that have trod her boards that the Ulster Hall is perhaps most famous. The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and U2 and our own chart-topping rockers Ash are just some of the multitude of acts to have played there en route to global superstardom.

Led Zeppelin first performed ‘Stairway to Heaven’ at the Ulster Hall, on March 5, 1971. There too, AC/DC and Metallica played what would prove to be amongst their final shows with late vocalist Bon Scott and bassist Cliff Burton respectively, in August 1979 and September 1986.

The Ulster Hall is also famous for a gig that didn't happen. The Clash almost played there on October 20, 1977, but the scheduled concert was cancelled by Belfast City Council, sparking riots and – apocryphally at least – inspiring hundreds of young Ulster punks to form bands, including the members of Stiff Little Fingers.

SLF themselves are no strangers to the Ulster Hall, having played there numerous times since 1978, even name-checking the venue on their 1988 live album, No Sleep ‘til Belfast. The building certainly holds a special place in frontman Jake Burns’s heart.

‘The first time I ever went to the Ulster Hall – in fact, my first ever live gig, apart from local bands – was to see Rory Gallagher around 1974,’ he recalls, wistfully. ‘I had actually tried to go to the famous Led Zeppelin show there earlier, but my dad thought I was too young. Then the 70s deprived us all of bands playing in town. Until punk happened, apart from Rory’s yearly visits, I think Lindisfarne were the only other band I saw there.’

As punk rock helped normalise Northern Ireland’s nightlife, Burns enjoyed live gigs at the Ulster Hall with increasing regularity. ‘I saw the Stranglers, Elvis Costello and the Boomtown Rats there,’ he adds, ‘and once, very drunkenly, the Three Degrees – don’t ask! I’m sure there were more, and yes, I was outside the night the Clash didn’t play.’

SLF notched up their first show at the venue in 1978, third on the bill to Eddie and the Hot Rods and the Radio Stars. It was the night that the producer Ed Hollis saw the young Belfast band and was so impressed he offered to take them to London to record with him.

‘We headlined the hall about a year and a half later, after 'Inflammable Material' had become a hit,’ smiles Burns. ‘Obviously, growing up in Belfast as a music fan, to play the Ulster Hall was one of the main items on your bucket list. To have played there so many times is a huge honour.’

SLF paid their most recent visit to the Ulster Hall in November 2011, to perform at the Northern Ireland Music Awards show. ‘The fact that it’s our hometown gig makes it special,’ Burns says. ‘Although I always get exceptionally nervous playing in Belfast, I get more so at the Ulster Hall.

'It seemed like the Holy Grail of venues to me as a boy, and I still pinch myself every time I walk on that stage. Every show we play in Belfast is special, but as great as the Mandela Hall, the Empire and anywhere else we’ve played has been, there’s an edge, an atmosphere to the Ulster Hall that’s hard to beat. I mean, I may have inadvertently trod on a piece of wood that Charles Dickens trod on! Now, that’s special.’

Other local heroes to have made the stage their own include Snow Patrol, Ash and Therapy?. ‘Loads of great memories,’ enthuses Therapy? singer-guitarist Andy Cairns.

‘Siouxsie and the Banshees in October 1980, opening with a frantic – and very loud – cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, Charlie Harper of the UK Subs being dragged off stage by the crowd and going AWOL, Phil Oakey from the Human League in tears when he saw the love in the room from the crowd on the Dare tour, and seeing the Manic Street Preachers do a breathless set on the day they got their first number one with 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next'.’

Cairns and Therapy? first played at the venue not as a support act but as headliners in December 1992. ‘I was unbearably overexcited at that gig,’ the frontman recalls. ‘I’d seen so many bands there that I couldn’t quite comprehend that soon I’d be on the stage looking out into the crowd and not the other way round.

'One of my favourite things about Ulster Hall gigs was getting to the front and watching the LED displays on the bands’ amps, heart racing in anticipation. Every time we play the Ulster Hall, at some time in the afternoon before doors open, I put my arms over the rail and look up at the stage. The Ulster Hall will always be special to me. Between the ages of 14 to 21, it’s where I saw so many concerts and it’s part of my musical DNA.’

As for this writer, I had the privilege of playing the Ulster Hall on March 9, 2007, when my former band the Dangerfields opened for SLF on their 30th anniversary tour. It was as thrilling as I had always dreamed it would be, even though my first time attempting to attend the venue had been disastrous.

Back in September 1988, I had my Slayer ticket stolen outside the show at knifepoint, by a man in a jacket with the legend ‘F**K YA DEATH’ painted on the back. He told me that he had just got out of jail. As a kid of 15 from the sticks, I was in no position to put up a fight, so I handed it over and hurried home with my long-sleeve Nuclear Assault top between my legs.

Still, it didn’t put me off going back, and over the years I have enjoyed many great nights at the Ulster Hall. Transvision Vamp was my first, in November 1989, then EMF, the Cult, Sepultura, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Lemonheads, Megadeth, Anthrax, Motörhead… The list goes on, and will go on. When all else has turned to dust, the Ulster Hall will reverberate with a century and a half of music and memories.