In its heyday, Derry’s St Columb’s Hall was a vibrant, much-loved theatre attracting many thousands through its doors in pursuit of escape and entertainment. Now, Masons Bar proprietor Billy Campbell has brought this historic city-centre gem into the 21st Century.
While many businesses struggle in the recession, Billy Campbell’s tenure at the helm of Masons Bar has ensured its continued success. Far from feeling the pinch, Masons thrives, and now this visionary businessman is determined to rejuvenate one of Derry’s grandest buildings. Nestled between the city’s main shopping centres on the junction of Orchard Street and Newmarket Street, St Columb’s Hall is the Parochial Hall for the Long Tower Parish. Originally built as a temperance hall in 1886, it has enjoyed many uses over its 125 year history.
Billy Campbell spoke to the ‘Derry Journal’ about St Columb’s Hall and of his unique vision for its future.
“We’ve been hiring St Columb’s Hall ad hoc for two and a half years now,” he reveals. “I have a short-term lease, but now we have have the option of taking on the long term lease, which is what we intend to do.”
“This building was known as the People’s Hall. Originally, it was a temperance hall so there was no alcohol sold here. But when Fr Con McLaughlin took it over some years back, he realised that some people might like a drink when they go out to be entertained and from there he developed a theatre licence. Besides The Playhouse using it in recent years and the Derry Feis once a year, the building was basically lying empty most of the time and so we want to bring it back to life.”
Initially, Mr Campbell and Masons Events ran several events in the Ballroom, but it wasn’t until the success of several huge live music events in its opulent main hall, namely Woodstock Revisited and The First Waltz, that the building’s true potential became apparent.
“After those few big events with AMP Promotions, we realised the potential was here for much better use,” Mr Campbell says. “However, because seating filled the whole main hall, we sought advice and permission to take the seats out and we haven’t looked back since then!”
With the space now opened up, its grandeur is even more impressive. “Visually inside, it’s like the Empire Music Hall in Belfast, but its more like the size of the Ulster Hall,” Mr Campbell says.
“We have loads of events planned, like big-name comedians, hosting sporting events and music events - basically anything that adheres to the theatre licence and promotes the hall and the city. We also have the full support of Jim Roddy and the City Centre Initiative, who are just delighted to see the hall back in use.”
Masons have a number of occasional licences per year, and instead of wasting them, Mr Campbell and his team started a fully-licensed, fully insured Masons Events service. “With this we did Celtronic at the Void Gallery, In Your Space at Carnival of Colours and kick-boxing at Pilot’s Row,” he says.
“In terms of concerts at St. Columb’s Hall, we are networking with a lot of Northern Ireland promoters who bring bands to Belfast and Dublin for dates in the North West. Having seen what the hall has to offer and its set-up, they have been really keen to get involved.”
“The fact that we have a teenage disco here bodes well for the future too,” Mr Campbell adds.
“These young people from the ages of 13-17 are now being catered for at St Columb’s Hall with Bounce Teens run by Robert Allen. Hopefully these very teenagers will see this as a long-term place for entertainments, they’ll be back for over-16 gigs and adult events in the future.”
Clearly, the long-term vision for St Columb’s Hall is an exciting one. Its new proprietor knows his industry well. “It’s hard work, but we’re tailoring our business to the evening economy as people are still coming out to be entertained. That means the more diverse our programme is, the wider appeal we have. That’s why we’re branching out. Anything that is well-run and pulls a crowd back into the hall, we will be hopefully putting on.”
Mr Campbell is also confident that the tradition and historical importance of the building will be preserved. “I don’t think there’s any need for worry, as we are keeping St Columb’s Hall in the ethos of what it essentially is - an entertainment venue - putting on events by local people, for local people.”