Sinn Féin MLAs and orchestra greet Prince Charles before Omagh visit
Royal in Belfast ahead of return to Co Tyrone town to commemorate 1998 bombing
The Prince of Wales with Sinn Féin MLA Caral Ní Chuilín and her colleague Gerry Kelly (left) at Carlisle Memorial Church in Belfast. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
The Prince of Wales samples a special brew created for the ABVFest beer festival at Carlisle Memorial Church in Belfast. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
The first port of call for Prince Charles during a two day visit to Northern Ireland was a landmark church which had faced demolition a few years ago. It was an appropriate choice for a man known to appreciate architecture.
Carlisle Memorial Church in north Belfast, which has not had a congregation since 1980, is being reinvigorated as a cultural hub and is to become the official rehearsal hall for the Ulster Orchestra.
The orchestra played for the Prince on Tuesday, with principal conductor David Brophy telling the Irish Times that the idea to turn the church into a musical base came after a performance of the Belfast Opera by Neil Martin in 2016.
“This is going to be our new home. Up until now we have used the Ulster Hall for rehearsals but this space is magnificent and will be fantastic for the Orchestra. I am thrilled,” he said.
Mr Brophy — who played piano for the Prince and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, at a reception in Hillsborough Castle during their last visit — said it would also form part of regeneration plans for the area as a whole.
The church stands cheek by jowl near the main Belfast Orange Hall, where the annual Twelfth of July demonstrations begin, and whose museum curator Frank McDowell was also talking up the new life of the area.
Mr McDowell said there was an area of waste ground to the back of the church where many people had died by suicide. “It is now going to be put to use, as a car park for the local housing estate. Things are changing — very slowly, but they are changing.”
Prince Charles spent time chatting to local people with the new Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sinn Féin’s Deidre Hargy, the first to greet him at the church.
“God you’re young,” he told her.
“I am 38 and this is my first week in post,” Ms Hargy replied, adding that the royal then “said I was hitting the ground running”.
Other senior Sinn Féin representatives were present including Maze prison escapee Gerry Kelly and former minister Carál Ní Chuilín. Both said they had no problem attending.
“It is all about outreach and showing leadership. Martin McGuinness demonstrated that with the Queen,” said Mr Kelly, a North Belfast MLA. “This is a project which both of us have supported strongly from the very beginning.”
Wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit the Prince also sampled some locally produced cheese and beer before departing for his second engagement at the University of Ulster in Coleraine.
Prince Charles will on Wednesday meet survivors and families of the victims of the Omagh bombing — almost 20 years after the atrocity.
He flew into the town the day after the explosion in which 28 people were killed and which he said later always made him think of the IRA killing of his uncle, Lord Mountbatten by the IRA in 1979.
The centre-piece event of the two day visit will see the Prince and the Duchess take a walk through the town centre. A floral tribute will also be laid at the town’s memorial garden for the atrocity.
Prince Charles also went to Tyrone General Hospital after the 1998 Omagh bombing, where many of the wounded were being treated.
“The least I can do is to come here and offer my sympathy and support, especially to those who have the worst of the burden in looking after people,” he said at the time. “My memory goes back to 19 years ago when Lord Mountbatten was killed, so I do have some understanding of the awful horrors that people have to put up with.”