Here are ten unique, curious or little known but certainly fascinating facts about the Cathedral.
1 In the Beginning
The foundation stone was laid in the closing months of the nineteenth century on 6thSept 1899. The decision to build the Nave (i.e. the main body of the Cathedral without the East End) first was a significant departure from normal procedure. The construction of nearly all the great Cathedrals, ancient and modern, was begun at the East End, which has special significance as it contains the Altar. However the first priority was to create a large space and be able to accommodate as large a congregation as possible. Another unusual feature was the method adopted by which the outer walls of the Cathedral's Nave were built, stone by stone around the old St Anne's Church whilst worship continued for another four years, right up to the 31st December, 1903. Only six months later, the Nave of the new Cathedral was consecrated. However two devastating world wars and more than fifty years would elapse before completion of the Eastern Apse and Ambulatory.
2 Marble Maze
In the central area of the floor at the West End is a black and white marble maze, or strictly speaking a labyrinth (as it has only a single, non-branching path), representing the journey of life. Following the white route (virtue) leads the pilgrim into the main Aisle (as per the image) proceeding to the Altar. However the black route leads nowhere. As a pilgrim church, St Anne's has an Ambulatory, designed to enable pilgrims to walk up a side aisle and around the back of the altar where there may have been one or a series of side-chapels holding the relics of a saint. The pilgrims could then exit by the aisle on the other side of the church without disrupting any act of worship which may have been taking place.
3 One Tomb
Unlike most Cathedrals, there is only one Tomb in the Cathedral - that of Lord Carson of Duncairn, eminent lawyer and Ulster's great leader in the troubled years from 1911 to 1921, who died on 22nd October, 1935, and was buried here by authority of a special Act of Parliament. The Tomb is railed in bronze and marked by a massive but simple granite stone from Mourne bearing the one word "Carson." A Memorial Plaque has been placed on the wall above. At the funeral service, earth from each of the Six Counties of Ulster was strewn on the coffin, and subsequently the handsome silver Bowl which had contained this earth was presented to the Cathedral for use at baptismal services.
4 Unique Oecumenical Hassocks
There are around 1000 kneelers or hassocks in the Cathedral and each is unique and handmade by a member of the congregation based upon the theme of unity. The Greek word, oikumene means the whole inhabited world and Oecumenism (often spelt Ecumenism) is illustrated on the kneelers.
The interlacing designs signify unity, but no two are the same: the oecumenical movement aims at unity, but not uniformity. The kneelers here and throughout the building are the work of the Tapestry Guild. On the oecumenical front, Belfast Cathedral and St Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, formed The Cathedral Partnership in 1998. Clergy from all the Christian denominations are regular participants in Cathedral services.
Much more detail on the kneelers and the ladies who produced this outstandingly detailed and unique needlework over a period of 60 years, can be found here
5 Sinking in the Sleech
The 1770's St Anne's church was demolished early in 1904 to make way for the new cathedral which was already rising around the old building. In answer to those who regretted its passing, the cathedral architect, Thomas Drew, said “The whole building has sunk, like most buildings in the yielding soil of Belfast, until its floor is on the level of the ground and the steps on which it may have been elevated have long disappeared.” He was referring to the soft grey mud, silt and fine sand known as Belfast "sleech" and the nature of the site meant that wooden piles, four double rows, up to fifty feet long, had to be driven through the underlying bed of soft clay to provide a foundation for the walls and pillars of the new Cathedral. Even so our Cathedral is sinking, and a walk up the aisle will demonstrate this only too dramatically! The undulations in the marble floor of the aisle are even visible to the naked eye in the accompanying image. The wooden foundations have been investigated at considerable cost and movement is being carefully monitored using modern laser measurement techniques.
6 Unique "Spire of Hope"
The Belfast “sleech” (above) ruled out the building of any form of spire or bell tower on either the Cathedral or its predecessor as the additional weight would aggravate subsidence. However in 2004 a competition was held for some form of lightweight spire and fifteen exciting and innovative concept design proposals were received from young architects all over Ireland. The Cathedral Board felt that just as the Cathedral was originally built in a period of confidence and growth in the city of Belfast, so too there were many signs of progress in the current re-development of the city at that point in time, thus the “Spire of Hope”. The new spire rises some 250 feet or 80 metres above ground level and is illuminated at night, adding to the Belfast skyline. But above all else it is a witness to God's love for the city and the wider community it serves. The aim is that 'The Spire of Hope' will remind people of God's concern for them and the Cathedral's witness and mission of service in that community. The contemporary titanium clad spire is unique in that it can be seen from both inside and outside of the cathedral. The spire punctures the roof of the cathedral allowing natural light to flood around the spire and into the church. It has a glass surround and when you stand under it actually appears as if the spire is floating.
7 Two Bishops
St Anne's Cathedral is unique in being shared between two dioceses and thus having two Bishops. Connor, Down and Dromore originally constituted a single diocese, but in 1944 Connor was separated from Down and Dromore, with Connor being on one side of the River Lagan, and Down and Dromore on the other. Hence the two episcopal seats. The Bishop's seat has always been regarded as one of the most significant elements in a Cathedral, and here a stately and dignified design has crystallised into a canopied throne (featured), which is now the seat of the Bishop of Connor, the Ordinary of the Cathedral. By the Statute providing for the regulation of the Cathedral it is enacted that "there shall be a stall therein for the Bishop of Down & Dromore", so a similar seat was accordingly provided on the opposite side. The chapter canons are drawn from both dioceses and their stalls form the back row of the Chancel on each side.
8 Marble Messages
On the floor just inside the Great West Door and in line with its centre point is a patterned circle two feet in diameter. This is wrought in marble and is composed of 32 separate pieces, each representing one of the 32 counties in Ireland, thus symbolising the unity of the Church of Ireland. The marble utilised was hewn in slabs from quarries situated in various parts of Ireland as follows:
Black Marble: from Kilkenny and Galway
White Marble: from Recess, Dunlewy, and Clifden
Red Marble: from Cork.
In the side aisles, large panels of red marble with black and white borders are separated from each other by further geometrical patterns, alternately circular and square in shape, and each one opposite a pillar. The designs thus wrought with such care and skill are all different in conception and execution, and serve to demonstrate some of the permutations and combinations obtainable from the use of primary shapes. Each is rich in variety of detail, and all blend and merge to produce a vista of endless charm.
9 1898 Time Capsule
On the northern jamb of the Great West Door and just over six feet from the floor, there is embedded a plate commemorating the laying of the Cathedral's foundation stone in 1899. Beneath this stone was deposited a hermetically sealed casket containing not only a Bible, Prayer Book and Hymnal, but also certain contemporary documents such as Diocesan and Parochial Reports for 1898, copies of current Belfast newspapers, and a parchment inscribed with the details of the ceremony and the names of those participating in it.
10 Narrow Escape
The troubled years of World War II brought the added anxiety of grave danger to the fabric of the Cathedral as a result of attack from the air, and the real possibility of its complete and utter destruction. In the devastations of the Belfast Blitz in 1941 the Cathedral stood, all but unscathed, amidst a veritable sea of fire and destruction, with the fierce all-consuming flames advanced almost to the very walls. Yet in the mercy of Providence it was preserved intact.
A great area around, particularly on the North side now the site of the University of Ulster, had been almost completely cleared of the houses in the tightly packed streets around the Cathedral.