If you are visiting the city of Belfast, your visit will not be complete unless you visit Queen’s University. It was founded in 1845 and has survived and flourished as an institution of learning, with a great reputation throughout the world.
Queen’s University has a coat of arms containing a crown in the center in honor of its founder, Queen Victoria. Above is the book of learning, to the left is the red hand which symbolizes the province of Ulster, to the right is the seahorse which represents the city of Belfast and in the lower quadrant is the harp which represents the ‘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 a ten minute walk from Belfast city center on University Road and is close to the Botanic Gardens. It’s well signposted from the city center so should be easy to find. If you prefer a taxi, it takes only a few minutes to get there. When you arrive go in front of the university which I have shown you in the photo above. To your right you will see a small terrace of brown brick houses which in 1845 marked the end of the Belfast city boundary.
Still looking to your right you will see the University Square terrace which was built in the Georgian style as a speculative venture between 1849 and 1872. The staff could not afford these houses except for one person, the college’s first steward, Alexander Dickey, who happened to he was also a greengrocer. The University owns all of these now and is in my opinion the best example of terraced accommodation in Georgian Belfast.
If you turn around from here and look across the street you will see the Student’s Union which opened in 1966, just three years before the Troubles began, and has all the architectural features (or lack thereof) of that era . To the left is Elmwood Hall which was once a church and opposite is a war memorial to the men and women of Queens who died in both world wars. This was unveiled by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1924.
Again to the left 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’s time to go back and see the facade of the University once more. Look straight through the gates and you will see the original college, designed by Sir Charles Lanyon in 1849. Lanyon is probably Belfast’s most famous architect and also designed 38 churches, the Custom’s House, Queen’s Bridge and the Antrim Coast Road. Quite a pedigree!
He was a property speculator and also became the mayor of Belfast. In my opinion Queen’s University is its flagship and if you look closely you will notice the spiers, gargoyles, flattened arches all made of 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, allegedly used the Founder’s Tower at Magdalen College, Oxford as an inspiration to build Queens. Originally there were classrooms to your left, the Office of the President was in the tower proper, the Aula Magna is to your right and the tower beyond was the home of the Vice-President of the College.
Go through the gates and now enter the University where you will be greeted by the entrance hall. You should now be standing on a mosaic floor showing the coat of arms of the Province of Ulster, quartered with Queen Victoria’s royal coat of arms.. This theme of the red hand, symbol of the Province of Ulster, is a trend which persists 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 photo 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 only erected after the Second World War. Here too the red hand is present as well as the other symbols of Queen’s University.
To your left as you enter is the Queen’s Visitor Center and at its entrance you will find a plaque in honor of Edwin Godkin. He left Queens without a college degree and became a war correspondent in the Crimean War. Eventually he 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 a zoology museum, before becoming offices and then being redesigned by Robert McKinstry in 1986. The room is paneled with Canadian maple and decorated with coat of arms of Canada.
You can now pass through the double doors into the Academic Council Room and 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. Now go back to the landing and go through the double doors that should be in front of you. This is the Art Gallery, where a Curator should be present to explain the latest exhibition. Head back downstairs and into the Entrance Hall once more. Now follow the signs for the Great Hall.
Please watch the video above which provides some interesting information about the Great Hall. This hall was used as a refectory and examination room. Before you leave, notice the portrait of the man in an overcoat, red scarf, and hat, known as “Dickie Hunter”. He was an anatomy lecturer and university secretary and his hobby was organizing Christmas circuses in Belfast City and acting as ringmaster. His strange pose is probably best explained while he was studying art in Paris. He now he walks back through the front doors and turns left out and into a quadrangle. Here you can see the back of the original college with some later additions.
You are standing in the cloisters and just behind you, high up on the mantelpiece, you can see the numeral ‘VR’ (Victoria Regina) with the date 1848. Opposite you can see the famous window in the chimney, where Thomas Andrews and a distinguished chemist he had his cape. The clock is located in the center of the cloistered facade. It was not Lanyon’s intention to create a quadrangle and this only occurred during a rebuilding program from 1910 to 1912. Look to your right and you will see the School of Physics, with another fine tower designed by William Henry Lynn in 1911. Directly opposite there is the Library Tower erected in 1952 and next to this is the Peter Froggatt Learning Centre. If you now cross the quadrangle and walk through the 1952 arch, directly in front of you is the University Library also designed by Lynn. You will notice a change in architectural style here and this influence is due to John Ruskin and the “Ruskinesque Gothic” style.
The library was enlarged in 1911 and has in fact been remodeled several times. The once open spaces of the library have now given way to piles of books. The library as you can imagine is in constant use and a guide is needed if you wish to visit. Go through the arch between the library buildings and you will see the whole scale of the University Square with its huge bay windows. Walk back through the arches and when you turn left you will come to the Music School. Going back as far as 1895 there was a medical school with a bolt-on university. The then medical students raised funds and built the original Men’s Student Union, which is the central part of this magnificent block. It was extended twice in 1911 and again in 1933. It is now known as the Harty Room and has in my opinion the most beautiful hammerbeam roof in Ireland.
Enter and enjoy by turning right and walking up to McMordie Hall, which was once a stained glass debating hall. This is not always open and you may need to ask reception for access. Once you’re done, walk down the ramp and you can then visit the Seamus Heaney Library which sits on the site of what was the old practice room. Turn right there and walk up the steps and you can visit the old Physics Tower on your left. It’s an unusual piece of architecture and you’ll see above the arch the old Royal University coat of arms, which was sculpted by Morris Harding in 1948, along with the shamrocks, leeks, roses and thistles carved into the vaults. You’ll also see the arms of Lord Kelvin and the Earl of Rosse and on the opposite side of the arch the arms of Sir Isaac Newton and the Earls of Cork and Orrey.
Your tour ends here as you walk back to the University entrance. I hope this tour has 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 at Belfast city blogi highly recommend this tour.