Belfast Cathedral stands on the site of the Parish Church of St Anne. There has been worship on the site since 1776.

This is an account of:
 -  the various significant stages in the development of the cathedral as it is today.
 -  the architects who designed and supervised the various parts of the Cathedral.

Belfast's second linen hall was erected on the present cathedral site in Donegall Street.


The Belfast News Letter, reported on May 10, 1774 that 'On Saturday last the Church of this town was thrown down, and on the Monday following the foundations of a new one were begun to be sunk.'

The Church was the old Corporation Church in High Street where St George's now stands.

The linen hall in Donegall Street was demolished to provide a site for the new church, a gift from town landlord, the fifth Earl of Donegall (née Lady Anne Hamilton) by way of a memorial to her. It is for this reason therefore that the Church is dedicated to St Anne, the Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St Anne is most well known as a saint in Brittany and French-speaking Canada.

The architect was Francis Hiorne of Warwick, assisted by Belfast architect Roger Mulholland. While the church was being built the congregation had the use of Second Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street.

The rights of the old Corporation Church were transferred to St Anne's.
The Parish Church of St Anne

1776, Sunday, October 27

'The elegant new Church erected here by the Earl of Donegall was consecrated by the Bishop of Down and Connor' (Dr Traill). (Henry Joy: Historical Collection)

1781, June 24
William Ware inaugurated the new Snetzler organ, a gift from Lord Donegall.

1894, March 7

Those behind the cathedral scheme projected a building capable of holding 3-4000 people: that has not come about.

A bell-tower 210 feet high (more than twice as high as the nave roof) linked to the ambulatory by a cloister and vestibule, the lower storey to be used as a chapter-house, was also designed but has not been built.

The cathedral was to be extended eastwards behind the sanctuary in the form of a chapel capable of holding a couple of hundred worshippers. This has not been realised.

In Dean Crooks period in office, the Cathedral Board wanted to add a light-weight wooden, copper-sheeted spire - a fleche - over the crossing. Due to the site, a traditional stone built spire is impossible to erect. During the Centenary year (2004), a competition was held for young architects throughout Ireland for a light-weight design to complete  a “Spire of Hope”. A suitable design using modern materials was adjudged the winner. It remains to be seen if it will be erected.

1895, April 15

Canon O'Hara, vicar of Belfast, presented the cathedral scheme to the vestry of St Anne's Parish Church.

A Bill establishing the chapter of the new cathedral was adopted by the Diocesan Synod in 1898 and passed by the General Synod April 1899.

Architect Thomas Drew's Romanesque design was adopted. A fund-raising campaign begun. The Cathedral Guild was established.

Building a Cathedral is a dialogue between vision and the realities of increasing costs. Those behind the cathedral scheme foresaw a building capable of holding 3-4000 people: the present building holds about 1,000. A bell-tower 210 feet high (more than twice as high as the nave roof) linked to the ambulatory by a cloister and vestibule, the lower storey to be used as a chapter-house, was also designed but has not been built. The cathedral was to be extended eastwards behind the sanctuary in the form of a chapel capable of holding a couple of hundred worshippers. This too has not been built.

This timeline however is a record of the achievement of people of faith and people of generosity over one hundred years. This is a challenge which passes from one generation to the next.

Work begun on the site in August. Henry Laverty and Sons, contractors.

1899, September 6

The Foundation stone was set by Constance, Countess of Shaftesbury

[Henry O'Hara first dean.]

[1900 Charles F. D'Arcy, dean]

1903, December 27

The last service was held in the old church around which the cathedral had been rising. The congregation used Clarence Place Hall for Sunday worship until the new nave was ready.

[1903 John Joseph Robinson dean]

1904, June 2

The nave of the Cathedral was consecrated. The Sanctuary of the old church was retained. The west front was still unfinished.

Andrew Carnegie offered £800 towards the cost of an organ if that sum could be matched locally.

The new organ was inaugurated at the memorial service for Bishop Welland.

[1911 Charles T.P.Grierson dean]
[1919 Thomas G.G.Collins dean]

The structure of the baptistry was completed.

1925, June 2

The first stone of the west front was laid by the Governor of Northern Ireland, the Duke of Abercorn. The west front was completed as a memorial to the Ulstermen and women who had lost their lives in the First World War and as a thankoffering for victory in that war.

The foundations were also laid for the crypt, crossing and projected central tower. Pillars outlining the choir were built and the spaces between filled by temporary brick walls.

[1926 Henry Robert Brett dean]

1927, June 2

1928, June 2

The Baptistry was dedicated after completion of decoration. The west front was dedicated.

1929, May 9
The marble and wooden floors of the nave were dedicated in memory of Elise Milne Barbour. They were designed by Charles Nicholson.

The Great West Doors made in bronze were installed. They were designed by Charles Nicholson and made by the Tudor Art Company. They were given in memory of James Gallaher.

1932, July 5

The Chapel of the Holy Spirit was dedicated.

[1932 William Shaw Kerr dean]

1955 September 24

The foundation stone of apse and ambulatory was laid by Lord Wakehurst, Governor of Northern Ireland.
[1956 Cuthbert I.Peacock dean]

1959, April 17

The apse and ambulatory were consecrated by Archbishop McCann. New stalls were provided for the choir and chapter.

1969, June 1

The foundation stone of the transepts was set by Lord Brookborough and blessed by Archbishop McCann.

[1970 Samuel B. Crooks dean]

1974, June 20

The south transept was consecrated by Bishop Butler of Connor. The Chapel of Unity was consecrated by Bishop Quinn of Down and Dromore.

1981, June 2

The north transept was consecrated in the presence of HRH Princess Alexandra, and the preacher,  Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury.

1981, June 6

The Chapel of the Royal Irish Rangers was dedicated by Bishop Butler.
[1985 John Shearer dean]

The glass doors at the west front were erected in memory of Bishop William J. McCappin of Connor.

A major restoration was completed. The high-level clerestory windows were re-leaded, the electrical systems were renewed, boundary walls were built around the Cathedral precincts and car parks were laid out. The freeholds of properties in Talbot Street and Academy Street had been acquired in the 1920s with a view to their demolition in order to open up the cathedral site.

[2001 Houston McKelvey dean]

Glass screens were erected at the Chapel of Unity in memory of Dean Shearer

2002 -2003
The Cathedral Centre was developed as a memorial to Dean Crooks and Dean Shearer by adapting the former diocesan office block and the Cathedral Hall and vestries


This timeline shows the periods the various architects were engaged at the Cathedral and the principal features they designed

1896 -1910
Sir Thomas Drew

1910 -1915
William Henry Lynn

Baptistry, designed 1915, built 1922-4, consecrated 1928.

1915 -1922
Peter McGregor Chalmers of Glasgow

Central crossing, started 1925.            
Capitals of Courage and Agriculture.

1922 -1924
Richard Mills Close

Supervised building of baptistry.

1924 -1948
Sir Charles Archibald Nicholson of London

West front 1925-7
Paving in nave 1929
Decoration of baptistry 1927-28
Chapel of the Holy Spirit and muniment    
room 1930-32        
Designs of nave capitals, except Courage, Agriculture and Temperance,and corbels.

1948 -1963 Thomas H. Rushton of London

Eastern apse and ambulatory 1959, designed by Nicholson and Rushton.Thomas H Rushton and his son, Henry Theodore Ruston, became partners of Sir Charles Nicholson.

1963 -1979 John MacGeagh
South transept 1974

1979 -1986 Robert McKinstry
Oversight of North transept and military chapel 1981, designed by MacGeagh.


1838 - 1910

The first architect appointed was Sir Thomas Drew, son of the minister of Christ Church Parish, Belfast. His father was well known as a preacher and was responsible for building several parish schools as the city of Belfast expanded. His sister was married to the notable Orange figure, William Johnston of Ballykilbeg.

Drew supervised the work at the cathedral from 1896 until his death in 1910.

Articled to Sir Charles Lanyon, Drew joined the office of William G. Murray and moved to Dublin. He became one of the most distinguished architects of the 19th century in Ireland, as well as being president of the RIAI, he held the Chair of Architecture at the new National University of  Ireland. Amongst his most important buildings are the Ulster Bank branch of Dame Street, Dublin (the interior of which has been destroyed); the Trinity College Graduate's Building, Rathmines Town Hall, and St Anne's Cathedral.

One of Drew’s most innovative works is Milltown Parish Church in the Palmerston area of Dublin which was named after the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, the Prime Minister of Great Britain who died in 1865. Milltown was owned by the Leeson family.

The church has a rose window over a tripartite west window. The sanctuary is hexagonal with a narrow window in each wall and an unusual porch where it joins the five-bay double pile of the nave.

Drew designed the ornate stone staircase in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, which leads to  the organ loft and was part of a restoration programme in 1901. A model of this, also dated about 1901, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was the gift of HM Queen Mary in 1929.

He was responsible for a restoration of St Botolph’s, Boston, UK. He also reported on the condition of the fabric of various churches such as St Nicholas, Carrickfergus in 1872.

1829 - 1915

Lynn supervised the building programme at the cathedral from 1910 - 1915. He designed the baptistry in 1915. He was a worshiping member of the cathedral community.

There is a memorial plaque to Lynn on the south wall of the cathedral which states, ” His art adorns the city and many others throughout the Empire. He aided Sir Thomas Drew in the original design of this cathedral and watched with ceaseless care the erection of the nave.

“He was a devout Christian and a generous benefactor of the Church. The Great West window was a gift and he made a liberal bequest to the cathedral building fund.”

A most appropriate biblical text from the Epistle to the Hebrews completes the inscription: “He looked for the city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God”(Ch 11. verse 10).

The window above the plaque was erected as a memorial to Lynn by his cousin. Appropriately it shows Nehemiah supervising the re-building of Jerusalem and its Temple. He holds in his hand a detailed plan and builders are working in the background. The ascription states, “Nehemiah who raised up for us the walls that were fallen”.

Lynn with Charles and John Lanyon designed  the Linen Hall Library (1864), and Richardsons and Owden’s linen warehouse  - now part of Marks and Spencers (1867 - 69). He and George Smith were responsible for the Custom House (1852 - 54; 1891 - 1895). Lynn designed the Clarence Place Hall (1865), Belfast Central Library (1883 - 88), and Bank Buildings (1900),

Lynn designed several parts of Queen’s University between 1864-5 and 1911-13 to complement the main building designed by Lanyon. A professional comment on this work states that “not withstanding the extraordinarily late date of the second half of the building, the Library is one of Lynn's (and Belfast's) finest surviving Ruskinian polychrome designs. Performing the difficult task of blending with the Old College and yet making a statement of its own, the Library demonstrates Lynn's skill both as a planner and as one with a careful regard for the environment. The full vocabulary of Ruskinian design is employed. Brick and polychrome stone work, gables and gargoyles, banded tiles, ornamental tracery and interesting skyline are combined. Yet the building works with, not against, its neighbour.” 

The long pointed roof, as Moody and Beckett in their history of Queen’s have noticed, gives an ecclesiastical effect, 'but', they continue, 'in the eyes of many Queensmen it forms a satisfying whole, and the reading room ... with its high roof and great west window, beneath which in winter, a huge fire blazed in the open grate, seemed the very ideal of a library reading room.'

Other buildings designed by Lynn include Riddell Hall, Stranmillis Road 1913 - 1915, The Bank Buildings (currently Primark) 1899 - 02, Campbell College 1892-94 and  an extension to the Harbour Commissioners’ Office in Corporation Square, 1891 - 95.

1858 - 1922

Peter Chalmers supervised developments from 1915 -1922. He designed the Central Crossing and the Capitals of Courage and Agriculture. Chalmers was based in Glasgow.

Born in Glasgow, Chalmers trained at the Glasgow School of Art and became a pupil of John Honeyman (1831 - 1914). Chalmers established an architectural practice in the city and went on to become one of the most prolific church architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His churches were often unusual, with styles including the Romanesque, Italian and German. Examples of his work include Carnoustie Church (1902), Cardonald Parish Church (1888), Kilmore Church at Dervaig (Mull, 1905), Kirn Parish Church (1906), St Ninian's, Prestwick (1908), St Anne's Corstorphine in Edinburgh (1912), St Margaret's in Newlands (1912), the Chancel in Cambuslang Old Parish Church (1922), Dailly Parish Church, South Ayrshire and St Columba's Church in Elgin.

Chalmers was also involved in several important restoration projects, including Iona, Glenluce, Melrose and Paisley abbeys and the Old Friars’ Church in Kirkudbright in the Episcopal Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway. He also designed the war memorial in Ardrossan.


1922 -1924

Supervised the building of the baptistry. Close designed the Western end of St Peter’s Parish Church on the Antrim Road, 1932 - 33. Following the destruction of St James’ Parish Church in the blitz of the Second World War, Close supervised its rebuilding but not to its original design but also in Decorated Gothic style.
The Crucifixion over the north porch

1867 - 1949

From 1924 -1948 Sir Charles Archibald Nicholson of London was the cathedral architect and many of the main features of the cathedral are evidence of his professionalism.  They include the West front  including the design of the doors (1925-7), the decoration of the baptistry (1927-28), the paving in the nave 1929, and the Chapel of the Holy Spirit and muniment room (1930-32).

He designed all the nave capitals, except those depicting Courage, Agriculture and Temperance, and the corbels.

The foundation stone of the west front was laid by the Governor of Northern Ireland, the Duke of Abercorn, on 2nd.June,1925 - the 21st anniversary of the consecration of the nave. Two years later the work was completed and dedicated as a Thankoffering for Victory and in memory of those from Northern Ireland who lost their lives serving in the First World War. Sir Charles set aside Drew’s planned gabled porticoes. His new arrangement created the three arched porches, completed the wall up to the parapet, added buttresses to the adjoining main building and arcading to the upper part of the gable. Two rose windows were installed and the capstones of the four turrets were laid. The tympanums show the Crucifixion over the north porch, Christ in Glory over the central doors, and the Resurection over the south porch. The sculptor was Esmond Burton.

    (Notes to be inserted on the design of the decoration of the baptistry (1927-28), the paving in the nave 1929, and the Chapel of the Holy Spirit and muniment room (1930-32).)

It was Sir Charles who brought to Belfast the sisters Gertrude and Margaret Martin to lay the mosaics and Morris Harding, the sculptor, who later shared a studio in Holywood with Rosamund Praeger who also completed work in the cathedral.
Sir Charles, like Sir Thomas Drew, was nationally known and was in demand throughout the British Isles. His commissioned work is extensive. It includes:
- The screen in the Church of St Mary, Saffron Walden, 1929
- The oak choir stalls and pulpit in St Mary’s Selborne, 19937 and 1939. These have inscriptions  connected with important events in the history of the church. They are carved on the back and the bench ends with appropriate coats of arms.
- Extensive plans for the square at the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, Sheffield which were delayed by the Second World War.
- A major refurbishment of Christ Church Skipton in 1925.
- The organ gallery in St Stephen with St Mark in Lewisham, London just before the Second World War.
- St John the Baptist in Catford was built to his design in 1928.
- The restoration of Wakefield’s rare bridge chapel - the Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin which is over 700 years old, in 1939.
- The remodelling in 1932 of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, London which was founded in 1450.
- Christ Church, Southend-on-Sea
- St Alban’s Church, Westcliff
- The completion of All Saints’, Southend.

- St Alban the Marty, Copnor, on Portsea island which suffered damage during the Second World War so that the west end was completely destroyed.

Perhaps his most remarkable work is Alton Abbey, a Church of England Benedictine monastery at Beach, Hampshire. It was described by ‘The Times’ as “the Church of England’s best kept secret”. The Abbey was built by the monks with their own hands under the guidance of Sir Charles.

He wrote the preface to “Church builders of the nineteenth century : a study of the Gothic revival in England” which was written by Basil Fulford Lowther and published by SPCK and Macmillan in 1938.

1901 - 1985

John MacGeagh was the Cathedral architect from 1983 to 1979. He worked on the completion of the Cathedral. He was responsible for the South Transcept which includes the Chapel of Unity. It was consecrated in 1974. He made a start on the North Transcept with its enormous Celtic Cross. This was designed by MacGeagh but completed by Robert McKinstry in 1981. MacGeagh also proposed a central spire over the crossing. This was not executed.

In 1916 when he was 15 years of age he became an articled pupil of the well known firm of Belfast architects, Blackwood and Jury. In 1920 he became an assistant in that practice and three years later became clerk of works to another Belfast architect, J. St. J. Phillips. Following that he set up in private practice on his own in the Scottish Provident Buildings in the city.

Dr. Paul Larmour of the Department of Architecture at Queens says that MacGeagh was “a perfectionist in brickwork”.

His early work comprises suburban housing in Belfast and some modest mission halls. His first building of note was a lecture hall for Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church. It is in red brick in a Tudor Revivalist Style with characteristics showing the influence of Blackwood and Jury on him. He designed Carryduff Presbyterian Church Hall (1929-30). It was in a very different style, neo-Georgian, to fit with the existing church. The design was one of two commended entries for the Ulster Architectural Medal of 1930.

Other commissions followed including a Masonic Hall at Enniskillen (1930); - the Smyth Halls on the Lisburn Road, Belfast for Great Victoria Street Presbyterian Church (1930-33); and the Fulton Memorial Presbyterian Church, Duneane, Randalstown (1935-36). This was erected by J. K. Fulton of Johannesburg as a memorial to his parents and includes an unusual gable carving of a child flanked by African springboks. The foundation stone was laid by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon. The building made MacGeagh’s name.

It led to him being commissioned by Dr. Frederick Ogilvie, Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, to design a large free standing and examination hall for the university - the Sir William Whitla Hall. Designed in 1937, its foundation stone was laid in 1939. The building was at an advanced stage when war-time restrictions stopped work. Completion of the interior did not recommence until 1945. The building was awarded the RIBA Ulster Architecture Medal for 1950.

Other buildings designed by MacGeagh in the 1930s include:-

-  the Elim Tabernacle, Ravenhill Road (1930 the first building in Belfast to be floodlit)
-  the Ambassador Cinema (1936)
-  the Masonic Hall, Crumlin Road (1938-40)

In the 1940’s and 50’s he designed: an extension to Fortwilliam Presbyterian church; Paton Memorial Hall for Malone Presbyterian Church; the School of Geology at Queens; the north wing and tower, and the physics building.

He designed two Church of Ireland parish churches in North Belfast - St. Barnabas in Duncairn Gardens (1955-57) and St. Silas on the Cliftonville Road. Both were in a similar neo-gothic style - simple lines with a dominant square or rectangular tower inspired perhaps by Maufe’s work at Guildford Cathedral.

MacGeagh’s later work includes Aughnacloy secondary school (1963), and the library extension at Queens (1967).

John MacGeagh died in 1985. Paul Larmour states, “His name was synonymous with thoroughness of design and attention to detail. He was a perfectionist who has left us a legacy of remarkably fine buildings.


Robert McKinstry who oversaw the completion of John MacGeagh’s work at the Cathedral is perhaps best know for his oversight of the restoration of the Grand Opera House in Belfast and the Ballance House at Glenavy, the ancestral home of a Prime Minister of New Zealand.

The Opera House opened in 1895. The renovation supervised by McKinstry commenced in 1975. Some of the ceiling panels were painted on canvas. These were replaced by Robert’s wife Cherith, a well known established artist. The restoration was estimate to cost well over £2 million. The high quality of the work received a commendation from the prestigious consecration group Europe Nostra.

Robert McKinstry was the supervising architect at the cathedral from 1879 to     . He oversaw the building of the North transept and military chapel which had been designed by McGeagh - 1981.
Amongst his designs is Rathcoole Presbyterian Church. McKinstry,like an architectural John Aubrey, has chronicled the brief life of modern design in the Province and in his own work has contributed notably to its achievements. In addition, his association with the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and his rehabilitation of historic buildings reflect a deep concern with past values and conservation...