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Harper Brown's Belfast Hotel Keeps Blowing Up

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“In such surroundings,” reads the hotel’s brochure, “you instinctively relax.” For anyone who has stayed in Belfast’s 12-story, 210-room Europa Hotel, that claim may ring a little hollow. Built for $7 million by Grand Metropolitan Hotels in 1971, the sleek, concrete-and-steel Europa has been bombed no fewer than 25 times since opening its doors. Still, hotel manager Harper Brown can make one important claim. “We haven’t lost a guest yet,” he says, nervously puffing on his 30th cigarette of the day and rapping his wooden desk top for luck. “We’re proud of that.”

With good reason. More than just a hotel, the Europa is beleaguered Northern Ireland’s link with the outside world. Over its 20 telephone lines, hundreds of correspondents pour out their daily dispatches to Fleet Street and New York. The IRA, in turn, taps the lines and occasionally warns a newsman to clean up his copy—or else. A photo darkroom has been set up in a laundry closet on the tenth floor, and resident journalists can be found waiting in the hotel’s Whip and Saddle Bar for the next story to break.

They seldom have to go far. Once, the hotel was flooded when a bullet struck the rooftop water tank. On another occasion, the ladies’ room was blasted out onto the roof of the neighboring train station. Not altogether surprisingly, dapper, 45-year-old Brown runs the Europa more like a command post than a hotel. On the wall of his bunkerlike office is a framed X ray of a 200-lb. bomb that was removed safely from the lobby three years ago. At the main door is a gatehouse where everyone who enters—including Brown and the rest of the hotel’s staff of 200—is thoroughly frisked. Rifle-toting soldiers patrol the building’s perimeter. In every room, signs tell guests which direction to run in the event of a bomb scare—of which there are four or five a day.

Brown is proudest of the 50 or so staff members who have stuck with the hotel throughout three years of uninterrupted violence. One who is missed is Tommy Dunne, the head hall porter. “Tommy helped one journalist a little too well,” sighs Brown, “and the Ulster Defense Association put a gun to his head. We got him and his wife out of the country in four hours.” Tommy was a master of the gallows humor that kept up morale at the Europa. Once, as guests waited in the street for a bomb to go off inside, an American newsman complained about some letters he had left in his room. Said Tommy, tongue firmly in cheek: “Be patient, sir, they’ll be delivered to you straightaway now—airmail.”