Union Theological College
By Lisa Johnston, Tour Guide, Belfast City Sightseeing
If I were to tell you that the Union Theological College was originally called the Presbyterian College, you’d probably presume that it was built as a centre for the Presbyterian Church to train its ministers.
And you’d be right.
But what you might not know is that the building was also used as a temporary Parliament Building for the newly-formed country of Northern Ireland back in the early 1920s – but more of that later. Because I’m going to begin by taking you back to the mid and late 1800s which is generally regarded as Belfast’s golden era.
As the city became the most important commercial and manufacturing centre in Ireland this influenced and largely determined its architectural character. Many of the city’s most significant buildings were built during this time to help cope with the huge influx of people moving to live and work in the city.
The Union Theological College was no exception and this magnificent building was opened on 5 December 1853.
By the way, the Union Theological College is just a few minutes’ walk from Stop No 12 on Belfast City Sightseeing’s hop-on hop-off open-top bus tour. So hop-off here and have a look at the outside of this beautiful building for yourself.
The building took three years to complete and although it looks Georgian in style it was actually built during the Victorian era. It was made with local stone from Scrabo quarries in North Down at a cost of £5,000. The four columns at the front are called Tuscan columns. These are simply for show, they’re purely cosmetic and they don’t actually act as a support for the building. At the top of the building you can see a line of decorative urns and underneath them a beautiful crescent-shaped attic window.
All of this was the brainchild of Sir Charles Lanyon, a renowned architect and politician, who’s been described as ‘the greatest single name in the development of Belfast’. He designed a huge number of iconic buildings here in the city including nearby Queen’s University and, in fact, the main building there bears his name and is called the Lanyon Building.
The Union Theological College is decidedly a Lanyon family affair because the North Wing and the Chapel were later added to the building by Sir Charles Lanyon’s son, John, in 1881 who, by that time, had joined his father’s practice.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that the Union Theological College had also been used as a temporary residence by the Northern Ireland Parliament. Northern Ireland is quite a new country. It came into being in 1921 when the island of Ireland was partitioned. It obviously needed a Parliament Building and plans were drawn up and work got underway and Parliament was eventually opened in 1932. So for the first 11 years of Northern Ireland’s history from 1921 until 1932, a temporary home had to be found to accommodate the politicians. The first, for a short time, was at Belfast City Hall and the second, and for the most part, was at the Union Theological College.
The Gamble Library was used by the Chamber of the House of Commons while the Chapel was used by the Senate while Parliament waited for Stormont to be completed. The resulting rent, of course, was a very welcome boost to the coffers of the Presbyterian Church.
Now in those days, ceremonial openings of Parliament were usually very lively. And I can remember my Granda telling me that at one of these openings the Police had to take action to restrain the over-enthusiastic heckling from students and, in fact, arrested one young man who was accused of throwing a bottle at a district inspector. The resourceful youth was freed after he convinced the Police that the bottle had accidentally flown from the Prime Minister’s hip pocket when the latter had bent down to tie his shoe laces!
However, I would take this story with a pinch of salt because my Granda never let the facts get in the way of a good story!
Over the years the Presbyterian College has had a number of name changes including the General Assembly’s College and later the Assembly’s College. It officially became the Union Theological College of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1978 when, by Act of Parliament, it merged with Magee College in Derry.
Today the Union Theological College works in conjunction with the Institute of Theology at Queen’s University and with students of all ages and backgrounds and from all sections of the Northern Ireland community as well as from across the UK and Ireland and from oversees. Many students come to Union, as it’s affectionately known, to train for a specific form of ministry or mission or in order to deepen their understanding of the Christian faith and tradition. Many others come with no vocational aspirations whatsoever but come simply to study theology out of academic interest.
The beautiful Gamble Library was established in 1873 by Caroline Gamble in memory of her husband, the Rev Henry Gamble, and is the largest theological library in the Province with more than 70,000 books.
I think Queen’s Quarter is one of Belfast’s hidden gems and I think it’s only fitting to let Sir Charles Lanyon, the architect of this magnificent building, have the last word. In 1869, fighting to retain his seat in Parliament, he rashly announced in a speech, and I quote: “If I may say so, the large increase in the size of my constituency in Belfast is entirely owing to my exertions”. He was, of course, referring to the number of buildings he designed for the city and not to his night-time activities!
The Union Theological College
108 Botanic Avenue
Please note that the Union Theological College is not open to the public