It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Europa Hotel in Belfast is still standing. Between 1970 and 1994, it was damaged by explosions 33 times, gaining it the dubious title of “the most bombed hotel in the world”.
On one occasion, the Provisionals simply walked in to the lobby and left a bomb in a box at reception with the letters ‘IRA’ scrawled on it. Today, the Europa is not only standing proud, it’s thriving, and looking forward to a successful 2017.
A £1 million makeover has transformed the bedrooms, bars and restaurants. In the upstairs piano bar, Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing plays softly in the background. In the Grand Ballroom, each candle is perfectly straight in its ornate silver candelabra. There is no trace of the chaos of the past.
But for devoted customers and long-serving staff, the Europa will never be just another blandly generic hotel. It’s a place alive with history, a testament to the hope and resilience of Belfast and its citizens.
When the Europa first opened its doors, in the summer of 1971, against a backdrop of rising political violence, it did so with a flourish. By this time, it had already experienced its first bomb attack.
“For your own comfort, don’t go to Belfast until July,” advised an early advert. “That’s because in July we open the Europa Hotel. Not only will the Europa be the only international hotel in Northern Ireland, but also the largest and most luxurious.”
In the top-floor Penthouse, diners could feast on Forbidden Fruits - white peaches served in flaming brandy – for 55p each, or Duckling Aquarius (£2.70), “for an intimate tete-a-tete” to be shared between two. They were served and entertained by the Penthouse Poppets, a posse of young Belfast women in brown velvet leotards, intended as a a racy but fundamentally wholesome provincial version of the famous Bunny-girls. General manager Harper Brown, dapper in his tuxedo, presided over it all with charm and iron control.
But outside, things were falling apart. The city was under siege; it was turning into a war zone. Instead of the affluent tourists and travellers that the Europa was designed to accommodate, it became a home-from-home for journalists who had been sent to cover the trouble in Belfast.
Former BBC journalist John Sergeant called it "a big modern hotel with no normal clients". The late Simon Hoggart, of the Guardian, described it as "a headquarters, a training school, a private club and only marginally a hotel … Everyone came to the Europa – the press mainly, but everyone else came because of the press. If you were a politician, or a soldier, or even a paramilitary, you knew that was where to put the word out. It was the information exchange."
Retired bar manager Paddy McAnerney remembers the period well. He started work at the hotel in the early 1970s. “Oh yes, this was the centre for the press – Kate Adie, Trevor McDonald, Richard Ford – I looked after all those high-falutin’ press people,” McAnerney says. “If there was an incident, some of the journalists had an unofficial rota: only one or two would go out and report back, then 10 or 12 of them would write up the same story in different words.”
Paddy still works the bar on Friday and Saturday nights, making his award-winning cocktails, including the famous Irish Smile. “After dinner, the men would drink brandy, the women would drink Tia Maria with just a little bit of cream on top, and then they would both share After Eights. So I decided to put it into liquid form.”
At one point, the Irish Times' entire Belfast desk decamped to the Europa after a huge car bomb wrecked the paper's base on Great Victoria Street. "The five of us on the premises had to run past it when we got the army warning, which was shouted up from the street," recalled journalist and former Northern editor Renagh Holohan, some years later. "It destroyed all the buildings, including our offices. So for a couple of months during the summer of 1973, The Irish Times moved into the Europa Hotel."
Martin Mulholland, who is now head concierge at the Europa, started working at the hotel in September 1983. “I sort of fell into it, really. I do remember people asking – ‘what would make you apply for a job in the most bombed hotel in the world?’ ”
Up all night
He, too, recalls the journalists’ occupation of the place. “Frequently when I came in for an early shift at 6.45am, I could hear their voices still echoing downstairs, they’d been up all night. A combination of the pressure they were under and the exuberance of youth, I suppose.”
The Europa was a target for the IRA because of its high visibility as a landmark building, symbolising investment in the city. And the fact that the press corps were based there, guaranteed maximum publicity for any attack. “The windows were blown out on a weekly basis,” remembers McAnerney. “Hardboard Hotel, that’s what they called it. There was a standing order with a warehouse that had every pane of glass duplicated or triplicated, so they could be immediately replaced. But then the windows got blown out that many times, the steel frames got warped, so they had to cover them up with hardboard instead. You got phone calls almost every day, telling you to search your area [for suspect devices], in my case the bar. You got used to it, unfortunately. Thank God nobody was seriously injured.”
Each time, the staff swept up the debris and carried on. The formidable Harper Brown was determined that the hotel would not close its doors. During the general strike organised by the Ulster Workers Council in 1974, in protest against the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement, the electricity supply was cut and the city was plunged into darkness.
But the Europa kept going. The Poppets served drinks by candlelight, while the enterprising chef lit a fire in the yard behind the hotel and made soup over it. Bedclothes and linens were taken out of the hotel and brought to the nuns at Nazareth Lodge, on the Ormeau Road, to be washed in their laundry which had its own generator.
Even in these trying circumstances, Harper Brown insisted on his workers being impeccably turned out. Bar staff were expected to be equipped with a wine opener, a watch and a cigarette lighter. If a customer produced a cigarette, the bar man should be instantly at his side, offering him a light.
But it wasn’t only the staff that proved resilient. Customers themselves took a philosophical approach. On one occasion, a bomb was detonated in one of the water tanks on the top floor, and the water came seeped down through each level of the building. Paddy McAnerney recalls the water dripping through the ceiling of the Whip and Saddle, one of the hotel’s bars. “A customer was having a pint at the time. He just got his umbrella out, put it up and carried on drinking.”
The last two times the Europa was attacked were the most devastating. In December 1991, a 1,000lb bomb exploded in Glengall Street, beside the hotel, causing extensive damage, and a repair bill of around £3 million.
By this time, the hotel was in receivership. Eighteen months later, in May 1993, another bomb went off, blowing a vast hole in the left side of the building, and wrecking the Grand Opera House next door. “When I stood at my desk in the lobby, I could look straight through and see the Opera House stage,” recalls Martin Mulholland.
Yet still the Europa endured. Now in the hands of the Hastings Hotel Group, which bought the devastated building at a knock-down price, it closed for six months for complete refurbishment.
Sense of optimism
But Mulholland says that as the peace process began, there was a tentative sense of optimism. He found himself greeting politicians, prime ministers, musicians and movie stars: Bob Dylan, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, U2. And the thrill of Bill and Hillary Clinton coming to stay at the Europa, during their visit to Belfast in November 1995, reinforced the feeling that things were, at last, beginning to look up.
“This was the most powerful man in the Western world, and he was staying not at Hillsborough Castle, where visiting dignitaries normally go, but with us, at the Europa,” says Mulholland. “We took it that this was his endorsement of Belfast and the peace process.”
Later, the Europa announced its support for the Good Friday Agreement by unfurling a vast banner from the top of the hotel. It said one word: YES.
James McGinn, the hotel’s general manager, and another long-serving member of staff, or “lifers” as Martin Mulholland jokingly calls them, says that the secret of the Europa’s longevity is the way it constantly reinvents itself.
“We are always moving forward, keeping things fresh and innovative. We run the hotel like an extension of our own homes. It’s important to be physically present, always out on the floor, and I think we do that more than most. It’s a family thing, really. So many people come here because of Paddy or Martin.”
Work is currently underway on a new Hastings-owned hotel in Belfast city centre, the Grand Central, due to open in May 2018. At 23 storeys tall, McGinn says that the Grand Central will be the new landmark building on the city skyline. But for those who know and love it, the Europa will always come first. The story of this remarkable hotel is the story of Belfast itself: wrecked, shattered, yet somehow still standing, and finally finding a new spring in its step.
THE EUROPA: A BRIEF HISTORY OF A TROUBLED HOTEL
The Europa was conceived in the economic optimism of the 1960s, when Belfast really was starting to boom. But the Troubles were coming, and the British army arrived on the streets in 1969, shortly before construction of the building began.
A month after the hotel opened in July 1971, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, introduced internment, and violence in the city flared dramatically.
During the first three years of its existence, the Europa suffered damage from more than 20 bombs. A permanent notice was attached to each bedroom door warning that because of the civil unrest in Belfast, guests may have to speedily evacuate the building.
The bomb attacks on the hotel abated during the 1980s, but two devastating explosions in December 1991 and May 1993 almost finished off the Europa. Between the Christmas bomb in 1991, and the sale of the hotel in 1993, there were 250 bomb warnings.
Incredibly, in the entire history of the hotel, only two or three people were slightly injured by the attacks, and nobody was killed.