Belfast’s Europa Hotel does not merely offer its visitor a warm welcome and tremendous hospitality, it offers a storied past and an unsurpassed history. This icon, once known as the “most bombed hotel in Europe”, has been the subject of many articles and documentaries and remains a star in many tourist selfies.
During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, The Europa was a prestige target, an attack on which would guarantee media exposure. And thus, the hotel was bombed more than 30 times by the Provisional IRA and came to be referred to as the “hardboard hotel” on account of the building’s shattered windows frequently being replaced with wooden boards in the wake of a bombing.
The Europa is a hotel that has faced challenges throughout its nearly 50-year history, yet it has always survived them. This year, however, has been the most difficult since the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998.
Julie Hastings, marketing director of the Hastings Hotel Group that owns The Europa, lamented: “Even during the height of the Troubles, we only closed for refurbishments, but this year, the pandemic has forced us to shut the doors amidst growing uncertainty.”
The current closure is a “temporary suspension of services”, at least according to a press release from the hotel’s owners, but there is little doubt that the COVID-19 crisis represents an existential threat to the most iconic of Belfast’s hotels.
Besieged cities, besieged hotels
I first became fascinated with The Europa’s history while researching a book about Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, a front-line hotel within a besieged city that – like The Europa – became a centre for the international press corps. I had visited The Europa on numerous occasions, and returned there last year to film for the Al Jazeera series War Hotels, which was produced by the journalist and filmmaker Abdallah El Binni.
While so doing, we had the opportunity to interview some of the journalists who had been based at The Europa during the Troubles – the BBC’s Martin Bell, ITN’s Gerald Seymour, Henry Kelly of the Irish Times, Robin Walsh of Ulster Television – as well as the hotel’s staff, some of whom had experienced the tumultuous events that took place within it.
The Europa was conceived before the onset of the Troubles. Although the plans for the building were revealed in 1966, the Grand Metropolitan Hotels Group began construction of the hotel in the autumn of 1969, a matter of weeks after the British Army had been deployed in Northern Ireland following violent clashes between the Protestant and Catholic communities. The hotel opened its doors in August 1971, although it was already in the crosshairs of the IRA. Days before the hotel’s official opening, it was targeted, and though the damage was limited,