Celebrating Belfast Castle’s 90th birthday - Anne Hailes

Belfast Castle is one of the city’s jewels

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Castle on the hill Belfast castle at the foot of Cave Hill in North Belfast .Picture by Hugh Russell
Belfast Castle at the foot of Cave Hill in north Belfast was gifted to the city 90 years ago (SYSTEM)

“Hug the teapot” was Gerard’s advice. How right he was, on a cold and blustery day, what better way to warm yourself inside and out. Beside me a family from Italy are enjoying themselves in the Tavern Cafe; even on a bleak day Belfast Castle offers a warm welcome.

And no wonder, with its impressive architecture and tall turrets, it’s been called a Disneyesque fairytale castle. You can just imagine Rapunzel letting down her hair from the visitors’ centre above to the manicured garden below.

Ninety years ago, the Donegall family gifted the 700 acre estate and the sandstone building, reflecting Balmoral Castle in Scotland, to the city of Belfast. Today it’s one of the jewels in the Belfast City Council crown and the love of operations manager Cathryn McOscar and her small team.

Although she has been working at Belfast Castle for 27 years this must surely be a special year and certainly a hectic one.

She’s overseeing a jigsaw at the moment, with multiple plans coming together for birthday celebrations. As we talked the floor was being laid in the Cellar Restaurant ready for the opening last Wednesday and introducing CRG, the new caterers, while outside scarlet tulips and rich red and cream rhododendrons filled the air with scent.

A Place Of Memories

Thousands of visitors each year love to talk of their own personal history, remembering a mum and dad who danced in the ballroom in the 1960s, relations who had family billeted in the castle when it was a naval base during the war, and who knows what the two cannons the front door stand for...

A major venue for weddings and social events, it’s where I launched my book, a car park on the slopes of the wooded Cave Hill was a choice place, when a young man could borrow his father’s car, he took his girl friend there for some alone time. I even had a proposal of marriage when I was 22 but it meant moving to Australia so I graciously declined.

Today it’s one of the jewels in the Belfast City Council crown and the love of operations manager Cathryn McOscar and her small team
Today it’s one of the jewels in the Belfast City Council crown and the love of operations manager Cathryn McOscar and her small team

Stretching from the castle grounds down to the Antrim Road, it must have been spectacular in its day, with walks through the woodland, colourful beds and even a large vegetable garden. Cathryn is working on the idea of planting a special tree on the anniversary of the day the castle was handed over.

Although there is no more room at the moment there has been a lovely tradition where people could plant a tree in memory of a loved one. Two ladies had a sapling planted some time ago and arranged a second one more recently. They were sure of what they wanted, as Cathryn said: “The trees had to be close enough so that the roots would eventually intertwine in the belief that they would talk to each other.”

It’s always been a place of intrigue and romance. Couples who danced together in the 1950s are invited to a 90th birthday tea dance in October, but before that, this month will be ‘Music in the Park’, also a dawn chorus dander, and on May 19 a visit from internationally renowned Little Amal, a 12ft puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian child.

Something For Everyone

It’s a spectacular diary of events over the next few months.

“In June we have the Big 90th lunch - bring a picnic or join the barbecue, and it will be a lot of fun. We have yoga in the gardens and young racers will enjoy the Cannon Run Supercars at noon on Thursday July 18, and for historians there’s a talk about the American bomber plane that crashed on the Cavehill during World War Two,” says Cathryn. Arts, heritage, music, so much during the summer all to attract people from around the world to make memories at the castle.

The building is fully accessible for wheelchairs, for Braille users and those with autism. The restaurant is open seven days a week from 12 noon to 7pm and on Saturday and Friday last orders are at 8pm. The coffee shop is open from 10am until 5pm every day.

The restaurant seats about 50 diners and on a good day the doors open to the lawns and diners can sit at tables outside in the sun. Inside the castle rooms are constantly busy with functions.

All roads will lead to the sweeping driveway fringed with massive trees and flowering bushes during a summer of excitement. May the rain gods be kind.