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Queen’s University Belfast – Take a Tour
If you are visiting Belfast City, your visit will not be complete unless you visit Queen’s University. It was founded back in 1845 and has survived and flourished as an educational institution with a good reputation throughout the world.
Queen’s University has a coat of arms which includes a crown in the center after its founder, Queen Victoria. Above that is the textbook, to the left is the red hand symbolizing the province of Ulster, to the right is the seahorse representing the city of Belfast, and in the lower quadrant is the harp representing Ireland.
It has been known as:
- Queen’s College 1845-1881
- Royal University 1881-1908
- Queen’s University 1908 onwards
Queen’s University is just ten minutes’ walk from Belfast City Center on University Road and is close to the Botanic Gardens. It is well signposted from the city center so should be easy to find. If you prefer a taxi, it’s only a few minutes drive away. When you arrive, go to the front of the university as I have shown in the picture above. On your right you will see a small terrace of brown brick houses which back in 1845 marked the end of the Belfast City boundary.
Still looking to your right you will see the terrace of University Square which was built in a Georgian style as a speculative venture between 1849 and 1872. The staff could not afford these houses except for one person, the first College Bursar, Alexander Dickey, who, as it happened, was also a greengrocer. The University owns all of these now and are, in my opinion, the best example of Georgian Belfast terrace housing.
If you turn around from here and look across the road, you’ll see the Students’ Union, which was opened in 1966, just three years before the Troubles started, and has all the architectural features (or lack thereof) of that era. To the left of that is Elmwood Hall, which was once a church and on its front is a war memorial to the Queen’s men and women who died in both world wars. This was unveiled by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1924.
On the left again is Sir William Whitla Hall, designed by John McCreagh, which began construction in 1939 and was completed in 1946. It breaks with the tradition of Tudor Gothic on which the rest of the university is based. It is time to turn around now and see the university front again. Look straight through the gates and you’ll see the original college, designed by Sir Charles Lanyon in 1849. Lanyon is probably the most famous architect in Belfast and also designed 38 churches, the Custom’s House, the Queen’s Bridge and the Antrim Coast Road. What a pedigree!
He was a property speculator and also became Lord Mayor of Belfast. In my opinion Queen’s University is his crowning achievement and if you look closely you will notice the spiers, the gargoyles, the flat arches, all done in red brick. This was a popular style in the mid-19th century and was popularized by Barry and Pugin, who completed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Lanyon reportedly used the Founder’s Tower at Magdalen College in Oxford as his inspiration for building Queens. Originally there were classrooms to the left, the president’s office was in the tower itself, the great hall is on your right, and the tower beyond was the house of the vice president of the college.
Go through the gates and now move into the university where you will be greeted by the entrance hall. You should now be standing on a mosaic floor which shows the arms of the province of Ulster, quartered with the royal arms of Queen Victoria.. This red hand theme, the symbol of the province of Ulster, is a trend that continues throughout the university. Go through the doors and right in front of you you will see a statue of Galileo designed by Pio Fedi. Sir William Whitla brought this statue back from Italy and gave it to the university.
In the picture on the left, look over the statue of Galileo and you will see a beautiful stained glass window. This was designed in 1939 by JENuttgens, but was not built until after the Second World War. Once again the red hand is present here as well as the other symbols of Queen’s University.
To your left as you have just entered is the Queen’s Visitor Center and at the entrance you will find a plaque in honor of Edwin Godkin. He left Queens without a degree and became a war correspondent in the Crimean War. He eventually emigrated to the United States and founded “The Nation,” which he edited for 35 years. Go through this door and turn right and follow the stairs to the landing. To your right is the Canada Room, which was once used for lectures and as the Museum of Zoology before it became offices and was then redesigned by Robert McKinstry in 1986. The room is paneled in Canadian maple and decorated with Canada’s coats of arms.
You can now go through the double doors into the Academic Council room and into what was once a lecture hall. This gives you an idea of the full height of the building and you can see the famous Lanyon roof trusses. Head back out to the landing now and through the double doors that should be facing you. This is the Kunsthallen, where a curator should be present to explain the latest exhibition. Go back downstairs and re-enter the entrance hall. Now follow the signs to Store Sal.
Please watch the video above which gives you some interesting information about the Great Hall. This hall was used as a refectory and examination hall. Notice the portrait of the man in the overcoat, red scarf and hat known as “Dickie Hunter” before you leave. He was a lecturer in anatomy and secretary to the university, and his hobbies were organizing Christmas circuses in Belfast City and acting as ringmaster. His strange pose is probably best explained when he studied art in Paris. Now go back through the entrance doors and turn left to go outside and into a square. Here you can see the back of the original college with some later additions.
You stand in the cloisters and just behind you, up on the chimney breast, you can see the cipher “VR” (Victoria Regina) with the date 1848. Opposite you can see the famous window in the chimney where Thomas Andrews and a distinguished chemist had his fume hood. In the middle of the cloistered facade is the clock. It was not Lanyon’s intention to create a square, and this only happened during a rebuilding program from 1910-1912. Look to the right and you will see the School of Physics, with another fine tower which was designed by William Henry Lynn in 1911. Directly opposite is the library tower built in 1952 and next to it is the Peter Froggatt Education Centre. If you now walk across the quadrangle and through the 1952 arch, the university library is right in front of you, also designed by Lynn. You will notice a change in architectural style here, and this influence is due to John Ruskin and the “Ruskinian Gothic” style.
The library was expanded in 1911 and has actually been remodeled several times. The once open space of the library has now given way to stacks of books. The library, as you can imagine, is constantly in use and a guide is required if you wish to visit. Walk through the archway between the library buildings and you will see the full scale of University Square with its huge bay windows. Go back through the arches and when you turn left you will come to the Music School. Going back as far as 1895, a medical school with a university was bolted on. The then medical students raised money and built the original male Students’ Union, which is the central part of this magnificent block. It has been extended twice in 1911 and then in 1933. It is now known as the Harty Room and has, in my opinion, the finest hammer beam roof in Ireland.
Step inside and enjoy by turning right and walking up to McMordie Hall, once a debating chamber with stained glass windows. This is not always open and you may need to ask reception for access. Once you’ve finished, head down the ramp and then visit the Seamus Heaney Library, which stands on the site of what used to be the old drill hall. Turn right there and go up the stairs and you can visit the old Physics Tower on your left. It is an unusual piece of architecture and above the arch you will see the old Royal University coat of arms, carved by Morris Harding in 1948, along with shamrocks, leeks, roses and thistles carved on the vaults. You will also see the arms of Lord Kelvin and the Earl of Rosse and on the other side of the archway the arms of Sir Isaac Newton and the Earls of Cork and Orrey.
Your tour ends here when you return to the university entrance. Hopefully this tour will have given you a sense of those who have passed through its halls and a sense of the knowledge that has been created and learned over the years. We on Belfast City Blogwould thoroughly recommend this tour.
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