Yesterday I wrote about JG Farrell’s haunting novel Troubles. No-one who has read that book can ever forget the decayed splendour of the Majestic Hotel. Today, as on almost every day, I passed an Irish ruin in the heart of Liverpool – the Irish Centre on Mount Pleasant. This was once a vibrant musical and social venue: I recall seeing world music events here, and attending many trade union and left-wing social events in the rather shabby and rambling building.
Empty and decaying since the late 1990s, the Irish Centre is a grade II listed Georgian building which began life in 1816 as the Wellington Rooms, where the merchant elite of the city held balls and parties. The Wellington Rooms were designed by Edmund Akin as assembly rooms for the Wellington Club in 1815-1816. It was built with the purpose of providing a venue for balls and other entertainment and was designed to attract Liverpool’s most ‘respectable and fashionable’ residents.
So how did it become the Irish Centre? The Wellington Club was wound up in 1923 but the Rooms continued to function as a social club and place of entertainment throughout the 20th Century, being known in succession as the Embassy Rooms, Rodney Rooms and Rodney Youth Centre. Meanwhile, the Liverpool Irish community, that by the turn of the twentieth century constituted nearly a quarter of the city’s people, had began to establish cultural centres and associations, and a number of organisations and venues in the city gave support to Irish music and dance. In 1957 a Liverpool branch of Comhaltas Céoltoirí Eireann (Association of Irish Musicians) was established which set about promoting the performance of Irish traditional music and song through organised classes, music sessions and competitive events. In 1964 the Irish Centre opened in the former Wellington Rooms, which became a base for Irish dance classes, the Liverpool Céilí Band and the Comhaltas Céoltoirí Eireann branch.
The Irish Centre closed in the late 1990s and on several occasions in the past decade it has been reported that New Dimensions Properties, which took over the 99-year lease in 2000, was seeking to attract funding to meet the £2 million redevelopment costs, in order to reopen the building. For example, in 2006 New Dimensions announced a plan for a 60-bedroom hotel which would have straddled the existing building with a metal structure, with the hotel sitting above. The city planners objected, as did English Heritage, because building on top of the existing structure was considered unsympathetic.
The Georgian Group commented:
Although keen to see a new use for the building, we are alarmed by the plans currently on the table, which would necessitate adding floors to these modestly scaled, single-storey assembly rooms. The intervention would not only terminally alter the character of the Wellington Rooms, one of Liverpool’s finest Greek Revival buildings; it would also damage the picturesque skyline in this elevated part of the historic city. There is also a serious question mark about the wisdom, in structural terms, of loading additional floors on top of the relatively fragile ballroom.
Another plan, by Liverpool City Council, was to save the centre by making it the home of the North West National Dance Centre. The Council was reported to be entering negotiations to compulsorily purchase the building so it could be turned into a dance studio with dance and theatre rehearsal space, studios and facilities for dancers to meet and perform.
Liverpool City Council, which owns the freehold of the site and also has statutory responsibilities for the listed building, has served a number of notices on the leaseholder, in order to try and arrest the serious outbreak of dry rot. Temporary eradication measures and emergency roof repairs have been carried out, but the fine interiors with ornamental plaster work continue to be at risk. The cause of the Wellington Rooms has also been taken up by Liverpool Echo’s ‘Stop the Rot’ campaign and is a national priority for The Georgian Group.
This painting of the Irish Centre is by local artist Jane Adams, who has painted many of Liverpool’s architectural landmarks: ‘Our personal histories are anchored in our geography and a snapshot of a particular place can spark strong memories and emotions’.