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Visiting the Harbour Commissioners' Office, Belfast, Northern Ireland: a grand, 19th century vision
A prominent building for prominent people
A visitor coming across this fine, sedate building in Belfast, Northern Ireland might well wonder if it is the urban residence of some Duke or Earl, or else the seat of a head of government.
Well, no. It is an office building for Harbour Commissioners. You see, in the 19th century, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners were seen as rather grand people.
Even today, the role of the Harbour Commissioners is rather greater than people unfamiliar with their job title might assume. The Commissioners even have their own police force: Belfast Harbour Police. If not 'a state within a state', yet the Commissioners are still people with — shall we say? — rather a lot of clout.
The Harbour Office, as it is sometimes called, was built in part between 1847 and 1854; a subsequent portion was finished in 1895. The architects were, for the earlier portion, George Smith and, for the later part, William Henry Lynn.
The building is a noted example of Italian palazzo style. (In my view, the style serves to reinforce the building as the apparent seat of considerable, temporal power or status.) Among particular features for which the building is distinguished is its marble mosaic flooring.
It may be remembered that Belfast was where the ill-fated Titanic was built, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. Shipbuilders Harland and Wolff have been a long established local employer.
However, among vessels which berth at Belfast, ferries to Scotland have long replaced the great ocean-going liners of the past. Furthermore, the days of volume passenger sea travel are largely over. The oil company looking to build a new tanker is more likely to go overseas than to Belfast.
Thus, shipbuilding in Belfast has been somewhat eclipsed by the activities of other great yards. Belfast's great harbour is still very much alive, but visitors to the Harbour Commissioners' Office will be struck more by memories and architectural splendour.
Also worth seeing
How to get there: Continental Airlines flies from New York Newark to Belfast International Airport, at Aldergrove, where car rental is available. Please note that facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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