Thursday, September 10, 2015

European Heritage Open Days 2014 | Belfast | Part VI: First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street


I had left it pretty late on the Sunday afternoon before I got out to see May Street Presbyterian Church, and then lingered there quite some time. But, scanning the EHOD brochure, I saw that the First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street was still open and nearby … I could make it! Like St Mark’s, Dundela, I’d been in this building only once before, many years ago for another EHOD event. It was time to renew an old acquaintance!

This beautiful building was initially constructed between 1781 and 1783 to the design of Roger Mulholland. Thus, it is the oldest surviving place of worship in Belfast. The front façade was extended in 1833 and the rear was extended in 1906-7. The latter additions were to the design of Belfast architecture firm, Young & Mackenzie. From the outside, it appears that the main body of the church is circular in plan, but it is only when you go inside you find that Mulholland’s design was elliptical. The predominant theme is one of gentle, sinuous curves. Not only is it incredibly welcoming, it is particularly tactile, just begging the visitor to reach out and touch the finely crafted woodwork and sit in the beautiful pews. The congregation here has included the Harland family of Belfast ship builders, and Thomas Andrews managing director at Harland and Wolff.

My usual way of signing off these posts remains unchanged: I really hope you like my photographs and my text, but I mostly hope that the posts convey a little inspiration to come to Belfast and see these beautiful buildings for yourselves, or just explore the archaeological, historical, and architectural gems wherever you are!

As this is my last in this series of blogs, I'd like to thank you, the reader, for your interest and support. I'd particularly like to thank all those who volunteered as guides, facilitators, curators, and tea-makers, to help bring all of these beautiful, important buildings to life and assist in presenting them to the public that may not usually get the opportunity to see inside.

Panoramic overview of the interior, looking towards the entrance
View from the body of the church towards the pulpit

View towards the pulpit, Paterson monument visible on left
The pulpit
Interior
Steps leading up to the pulpit
View towards the pulpit from the south
Rear portion of balcony
Carved detail
Memorial to Robert Paterson (1802-1872)
Monument to Robert Patterson (1802-1872), one of the founders of the Belfast Natural History Society, as well as member of the  Belfast Literary Society, the Royal Irish Academy, the British Association, and the Royal Society. He gained a formidable reputation as a naturalist and cultivated relationships with several leading figures of his day, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Bell, Edward Forbes, William Yarrell and Charles Lucien Bonaparte. Interestingly, despite all his achievements, it is his work as author of the book ‘Zoology for Schools’ that the memorial chooses to highlight.

Panoramic overview of interior
Monument to William Tennent (1759-1832)
Memorial for William Tennent (1759-1832). In part, the inscription reads: ‘He employed the leisure won from an arduous mercantile career in the cultivation of science and letters. A consistent advocate of free inquiry and rational liberty he was moderate in times of popular excitement and firm when exposed to the reaction of power. Useful though unassuming among his fellow townsmen he found his chief happiness in the affection of his family and friends’. The life of Tennent, his family, and his place in the industrial history of Empire are the topic of The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World. Politics, Culture and Society, c.1801-1832 by Jonathan Jeffrey Wright. Wright notes that ‘What distinguishes William Tennent's memorial, however, is its scale: in contrast to the sober plaques that surround it, it incorporates an elaborate sculpture in which Tennent is depicted reposing, book in hand, under a tree, while, in the rear, two men are busily engaged unloading sacks of merchandise from  a ship’. Wright goes on: Seemingly straightforward, this inscription was composed after much debate by Tennent's family and offers what is, in effect, an equivoval and, in places, sanitized biography.' The references to ‘times of popular excitement’ constitute veiled references to his role as a founder of the United Irishmen, being taken prisoner after the failed 1798 rebellion, and remaining a life-long supporter of Catholic emancipation. The particularly contentious line is the assentation that he ‘found his chief happiness in the affection of his family and friends’ as his family consisted of one legitimate child and a further 11 illegitimate offspring – all of whom he acknowledged and provided for. Wright argues that, once decoded, Tennent’s memorial commemorates a much more complex person than would first appear. Beyond this, it also demonstrates the social flexibility of Georgian Belfast where a person of humble origins, with radical political views and a substantial (and public) collection of illegitimate children, could be accepted within the upper echelons of society.

Panoramic overview from the pulpit ... I could get used to this view ...
Stained glass memorial window for Eliza Riddel (1831-1924) and Isabella Riddel (1836-1918)
In doing a little research for this post, I found it spectacularly easy to find information on William Tennent and his large, unconventional family, along with Robert Patterson and all of his achievements in the field of Zoology. On the other hand, although I knew bits and pieces of their story (augmented by the excellent guide on the day) I could find nothing about Eliza and Isabella Riddel on the internet. I was mentally composing some lines about how the histories of women are less revered, respected, and researched than those of men … that was right up until I realised that I’d drastically misspelled their surname … dd not bb. Misspelling corrected, it was suddenly much easier to discover information about the Sisters Riddel [here | here]. The dedication on the window reads: ‘To the glory of god and in loving memory of Eliza Riddel who died in 1924 and of her sister Isabella Riddel who died in 1918, of Beechmount Belfast.’ The Riddell sisters inherited a large amount of money from their family’s hardware business, which they went on to invest in a wide variety of philanthropic ventures. These included medical causes like the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Belfast Hospital for Sick Children; and religious groups including the Belfast Midnight Mission and the Domestic Mission for the Poor of Belfast, the latter run from the First Presbyterian Church. However, their crowning achievement is generally thought to be their 1913 endowment of Riddel Hall, accommodation for female students at Queen’s University Belfast, along with a fund to assist needy students. While the building was converted into administrative offices in 1975, the endowment fund still exists and continues to provide assistance to those in need. I’m probably being vastly oversensitive, but one of the current uses of Riddel Hall is as the home of the William J Clinton Leadership Institute … it just seems somewhat incongruous and ironic that a building provided by two important benefactors of women’s education should be associated with a US president most clearly ensconced in the public memory for being fellated in the White House by an intern. But maybe that’s just me …

Northern side of church interior
Detail of tiling in hallway
Memorial to parishioners killed in WWI
Exterior view 
Exterior view 
All going well, this blog series should finish just in time for the start of EHOD 2015. You can get your brochure here ... where will you discover this year?

3D Images