Page last updated at 07:26 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Revamped Ulster Hall unveiled

Ulster Hall
The Ulster Hall, which was built in 1862, has been undergoing a multi-million pound renovation

By Chris Page
BBC News

Charles Dickens, Led Zeppelin and the Dalai Lama do not have a huge amount in common.

But they all have a link with one of Belfast's best known buildings

The list of world-famous people from the spheres of music, politics and literature who have appeared at the Ulster Hall is impressively long.

No venue in the city has such an illustrious history - and now it is set for the twenty-first century after a two-year refurbishment.

The re-opening of the hall on Friday has triggered much reminiscing from both the superstar acts who performed there, and the fan who watched them.

But big names graced the Ulster Hall stage long before anyone still alive today was even thought of.

The foundation stone for the building was laid in 1859 and it opened three years later.

In January 1869 Charles Dickens read from A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers.

Hysteria

A News Letter correspondent who was at the event reported: "From what we heard, we regretted that we did not hear more.

"The charm of the entertainment was in the living presence of the creator of so many 'nimble, fiery and delectable shapes'."

The legendary Victorian actor Henry Irving also performed at the Hall in the late 19th century - as did the opera singers Jenny Lind and Enrico Caruso.

In 1902 the council bought the building, and has remained the owner ever since.

During World War II, it was used as a dance hall to entertain the thousands of American troops stationed in Northern Ireland.

The birth of rock'n'roll saw the hall enter a new phase.

Ulster Hall
The work to bring the hall back to its former glory began in 2007

It had probably never seen screaming fans pass out with excitement during its first 100 years.

But that changed with the first visit of the Rolling Stones in 1964 - when the hysteria proved too much for some teenage girls.

And it was another massive band which gave the Ulster Hall its place in rock history.

Led Zeppelin staged a concert in March 1971 - and chose that gig to perform their iconic song, Stairway to Heaven, for the first time.

And many of the other true greats of modern rock included the Ulster Hall on their tours - The Who, U2, AC/DC, Coldplay and Pink Floyd have all performed there.

Aside from music, significant sporting events have taken place at the Ulster Hall too.

Boxing titles have regularly been decided there - Barry McGuigan won the European Featherweight Championship at the Hall in 1983.

Politics

And ever since it opened, the Ulster Hall has staged political rallies for whatever cause caught the public's attention.

Lord Randolph Churchill and Sir Edward Carson led demonstrations against Home Rule during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1986 the loyalist Ulster Resistance was launched at the Hall in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The Hall was mainly associated with unionist gatherings, which frequently culminated in a rendition of God Save the Queen - but in 2002, Sinn Fein staged a rally at which 2,000 joined together to sing The Soldiers' Song.

But as Northern Ireland put its turbulent political past behind it, Belfast City Council decided to give the Ulster Hall and several other buildings a much-needed makeover.

In total, 7.4m has been spent on this particular restoration over the past two years.

It is hoped the long-awaited grand opening, featuring the Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic Choir, will see the re-emergence of the Ulster Hall as a prestige venue restored to its former glory.

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