History of Belfast

Mother Earth Travel > United Kingdom > Belfast > History

BEGINNINGS

Belfast, like any other city in Ireland, North or South, has a long and turbulent history. However, sectarian divisions nursed by centuries of conflict, phenomenal industrialisation in the nineteenth century and its role as regional capital within the UK have all combined to set Belfast apart. Belfast is a Janus-faced city, shaped by both Irish Catholic and Scots/English Protestant heritages and situated on the cultural and political interface between Ireland and Britain. Its history is punctuated with civil unrest, great poverty, revolutionary fervour, several industrial world records and, in spite of everything, an enduring spirit of optimism and renewal.

Béal Feirsde ('the mouth of the crossing'), or Belfast as we know it today, was first mentioned in history in 666AD as the site of a battle between Ireland's ancient peoples. It remained true to its name ' a simple crossing point over an insignificant river ' until the Norman invasion of Ulster in 1177. After laying the foundations of Carrickfergus Castle, further up the Lough, the Norman leader John de Courcy built a smaller Norman fort at the mouth of the River Lagan in 1178. And so Belfast was born as a permanent settlement.

1600-1800

Out of all the chiefs of Ireland the fierce Celtic warriors of Ulster proved the hardest to subdue. It is one of the many ironies underpinning Ulster's history that it was targeted for plantation by James I in order to curb its rebellious spirit. By 1611 the policy of appropriating Catholic lands and 'planting' lowland Scots and English settlers was well underway. Over the next century 200,000 Scots Presbyterians poured into the province and Ulster's distinctive, predominantly Protestant culture was formed, setting it apart from the rest of the country where the Protestant Ascendancy remained firmly in the minority. This division was to be further reinforced by the industrialisation of Belfast in the nineteenth century.

After the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 Belfast underwent a trading boom, dealing principally with France, Spain and the American colonies. A wealthy, erudite and predominantly Presbyterian mercantile elite developed around the city in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Perpetually threatened with a large Roman Catholic hinterland, the Protestant population of Ulster reacted decisively to the constitutional crisis of 1688. The Protestant King William of the Dutch House of Orange defeated the English Catholic monarch James I at the legendary Battle of the Boyne and took over the English throne. When King William entered Belfast in 1690 after the withdrawal of James I, he was greeted with wild enthusiasm. Enormous bonfires were burned in his honour - a tradition that remains to this day in the form of the 12th July celebrations.

But Protestants were not always united amongst themselves. Presbyterians were denied parliamentary representation, which was tightly controlled by Anglicans, and in 1704 the penal code denying Catholics property and voting rights was systematically extended to Presbyterians. Feeling discriminated against, Presbyterians identified strongly with the cause of the American revolutionaries in 1777. When the French Revolution ignited Europe in 1789, Ulster was alive with a radical spirit demanding further emancipation for both Presbyterians and Catholics ' a rare moment of non-sectarian political agitation which was to find its echo in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In 1795, core leaders of the United Irishmen met at McArt's Fort on top of the Cave Hill and swore 'never to desist in our efforts until we have subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.' A successful government backlash in Ulster leading up to 1798, however, ensured that when southern counties such as Wicklow and Wexford rose, there was no comparable uprising here. Henry Joy McCracken faced the British forces at the Battle of Antrim in 1798, and there was an uprising in Ballynahinch, Co. Down, but the United Irishmen were easily suppressed. The same year McCracken was publicly hanged for his trouble in Belfast's Cornmarket. His final resting place is deemed to be Clifton Street Graveyard by Carlisle Circus, along with other famous Belfast revolutionaries of this era, including William Drennan.

INDUSTRIAL BELFAST

As a consequence of this unrest, Ireland's parliament in Dublin was dissolved under the Act of Union in 1801. The two kingdoms were joined and representation for both was centred in Westminster. With ties between Belfast and mainland Britain now stronger than ever, the stage was set for the city's meteoric industrialisation. As cotton manufacture took off in British cities, Belfast initially followed suit; but when it was discovered that soaked flax could also be spun by power looms in 1828, cotton manufacture was exchanged for the production of linen. Linen had been the main cottage industry in Ulster throughout the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century linen production was brought into Belfast and it rapidly became the city's largest employer and the largest source of city revenue. Over 70,000 worked in linen mills at the end of the century - mostly women and children in pitiful conditions.

With more jobs than people to fill them, the countryside around Belfast drained. Rural immigration into Belfast was augmented by the Famine, Ireland's worst ever natural disaster. The Famine years 1845-47 left millions dead or destitute. Belfast was swamped with waves of emaciated people fleeing the land, and by 1847 one in five Belfast inhabitants were infected with typhus. Until the end of the nineteenth century Belfast's life expectancy was the lowest for any British city: cholera epidemics in the ensuing decades and devastating infant mortality rates kept the figure as low as nine years. Thompson Thompson worked tirelessly at establishing the Belfast Hospital for Incurable Diseases in the post-Famine years, and the monument erected in his honour still stands today at the foot of Bedford Street.

In 1853 Belfast's second industry was born when construction began on what was to become the Harland & Wolff shipyard. In 1870 a contract for the White Star Line was secured, and Belfast began producing the sleekest, biggest, fastest and most technically advanced ocean liners in the world. The most famous of these ships was the 'unsinkable' Titanic, which sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912. The Titanic was considered the paragon of Belfast craftsmanship and when news of her sinking reached the city grown men cried in the streets. The sinking of the great ship instantly caught the public imagination and we have remained fascinated with the Titanic ever since.

THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY

Shifts in the balance of parliamentary power in the 1910 general election ensured that Home Rule for Ireland ' a limited form of independence ' would probably come into force. The Unionists of Belfast, (so-called because they supported the Act of Union) did everything in their power to prevent what they saw as a severing of their links with Britain. Huge rallies were held throughout the city ' the largest being the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant on the 25th September 1911 when the city was swamped with protestors. A people's militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (U.V.F.) was formed to resist the imposition of Home Rule with force, and this organisation still exists today as a Protestant paramilitary grouping. (Fernhill House, otherwise known as the People's Museum, is home to a permanent exhibition on the Ulster Protestant reaction to Home Rule.) The rest of Ireland responded by forming their own militia, the Irish Volunteer Force, to ensure the passing of Home Rule, and civil war was only prevented by the declaration of international war in 1914.

Both Unionists and Home Rule supporters volunteered en masse to fight for Britain during the First World War. Over 5,500 Ulstermen were dead or wounded in the Battle of the Somme (1916) and this is a wound which runs deep in Ulster consciousness, commemorated as it is in every Ulster town and remembered in many plays and poems up to the present day.

The Easter Rebellion in Dublin of the same year changed the fight for Home Rule in the south to a fight for full-blown independence. The Republican party Sinn Féin won a landslide victory in the 1918 General Election and by 1920 it was clear that Ireland would have to be given substantial independence from Britain. Ulster remained problematic and a solution was brokered in 1921 when Northern Ireland was created as a separate state under Britain while the South became the Irish Free State and later the Republic of Ireland. Belfast was declared the regional capital of the new six-county country, which it remains to the present day.

World War rolled round again in 1939 and Belfast industries switched instantly to war-time production, inaugurating an economic boom. While Belfast churned out uniforms, parachutes, battleships and fighter planes for the war effort, it was naively thought that the city was out of the range of German air retaliation. In 1941 anti-aircraft cover was less than half the approved strength and there were no searchlights. The price for such complacency was heavy. Three devastating Luftwaffe air raids between 7th April and 5th May that year resulted in over 700 deaths, 1,500 wounded, 1,600 homes destroyed and a further 28,000 homes damaged. It took the shipyards six months to recover from the attack, but it is a testament to the spirit of its workforce that output at the end of the war was higher than ever. Economically Belfast was indeed 'saved by the War', despite the acute post-blitz housing shortage and the numbers killed in battle. Visit the Hall of Friendship in Waring Street, built on a World War Two bomb site, to learn more about Ulster's experience between 1939 and 1945.

TROUBLES

From the foundation of Northern Ireland until the 1960s, the Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont systematically ignored the rights of the nationalist minority who remained within the new state after its initial borders were drawn. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement in America, the first generation of University-educated Catholics in Belfast initiated their own Civil Rights movement in Belfast in the late 1960s, which was quickly followed by Civil Rights associations in Derry. The situation was catapulted into uncontrollable unrest when Civil Rights protestors were shot by the British Army in Derry in 1972, an event referred to famously as "Bloody Sunday". Stormont was dissolved in 1972 and once again rule was from Westminster. British troops were stationed in the Province permanently and Catholics and Protestants formed themselves into hostile paramilitaries once more. The 'Troubles' as they were euphemistically called, became Europe's longest running conflict. Belfast during these years witnessed many explosions and assassinations. The city centre was entirely cordoned off while images of Belfast as war-torn and rife with sectarian division made the city infamous around the world.

A stunning I.R.A ceasefire was followed by an equally stunning Loyalist ceasefire in 1994-5. Representatives from the British and Irish governments, as well as the heads of most local parties, worked tirelessly to bring about the "Good Friday" or "Belfast" Agreement of 1998, which was endorsed by the positive results of referendums held in both Northern and Southern Ireland. The return of local government to Stormont has not been without its problems but the ceasefires have held, and local government is functioning. A new era of peace and prosperity has been ushered in, welcomed with great relief by the vast majority of Belfast people.

THE FUTURE

While commercial interest in the city was held back by the long years of unrest, it wasn't long before companies began to brave the untested climate of Belfast investment, with highly favourable results. The arrival of a Belfast five-star Hilton signalled an increase in commercial confidence. The whole of the Waterfront area, with the state-of-the-art Waterfront Hall and executive Laganside apartments, bespeaks wealth, glamour and an invigorated civic pride. Building is everywhere. West Belfast is booming, along with the city's alternative Cathedral Quarter. New businesses are opening weekly and the city is enjoying something of an artistic renaissance with ever more festivals, exhibitions and musical performances gracing its venues. From a city once immortalised by the lines: let's bury the future and live in the past/may the Lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast, Belfast is now displaying an extraordinary capacity to move beyond the confines of its own turbulent history.

CULTURAL BELFAST

Perhaps Belfast's most famous musical export is Van Morrison, whose much-acclaimed live album was recorded at the city's Grand Opera House. The famous flautist James Galway is another renowned son of the city. The acclaimed poet and novelist Ciaran Carson (The Irish for No, The Star Factory, The Ballad of HMS Belfast) lives in the city, and Belfast can also claim as its own the actor and director Kenneth Branagh, the poets Derek Mahon (Antarctica, The Yellow Book), Medbh McGuckian (Captain Lavender, Shelmalier) and Michael Longley (The Ghost Orchid, The Weather in Japan), and the late novelist Brian Moore (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne). Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney studied and taught at Queen's University for many years. On the sporting side Belfast has spawned two of the most flawed genius of modern sport, Alex Higgins and George Best, both of whom were perhaps the finest natural talents at their chosen sports of snooker and football, but neither of whom could cope with life in the spotlight. However their talent will always remain in the minds of those who have seen them.