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Belfast, Northern Ireland

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Brothers, sisters, where are you now?
As I look for you right through the crowd.
All my life here I've spent,
With my faith in God the Church and the Government.
But there's sadness abound,
Some day soon they're gonna pull the old town down.

From 'Belfast Child' by Simple Minds
Belfast City, Northern Ireland.

When Jim Kerr sang these words in the 1980s Belfast did seem to be a city without hope. However things have changed since then and we'll look at Belfast's chequered history and the city as it is today.

What's in a Name?

Belfast (Irish Gaelic Béal Féirste) means the mouth of the river Farset. The settlement grew up at the confluence of the Farset and the Lagan. The River Farset was a smaller, less significant river than the Lagan, which was the main waterway through Belfast. If you want to see the Farset today you would have to dig up Bridge Street and Donegal Street which were built over the by then redundant waterway.

An alternative meaning for the name is mouth or approach to the sandbank ford. This relates to sand banks and silt, which formed at the mouth of the rivers making it easier to cross and ford the river at this point. Many of these silt deposits were reclaimed for industrial use in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

As both names indicate the most important aspect of Belfast was the rivers and the fact that they could be forded. This is essential due to the location of Belfast. To the west there is a steep escarpment rising up to the Antrim Plateau, the massive basalt level heights that dominate county Antrim. To the East extends the vast sea inlet known as Belfast Lough. So therefore with a very narrow low lying passage between the two any bridging point would be a great asset for trading and herding.

Belfast was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888 and has since continued to grow to be the most important centre of population, culture, government and industry in Northern Ireland.

A Place in History

The first mention of Belfast in the history of Ireland was in 666 AD when the Cruithin and Ulaid tribes clashed in a battle at the ford. The Ulaid were the tribe after which Ulster gained its name; the Cruithin were a Pictish tribe. There is, however, evidence of earlier occupation in the area circa 7000 BC; as the Ice Age retreated there is evidence that Mesolithic people collected cockles from the mud banks of the River Lagan. High on a hillside overlooking what today is the Shaw's Bridge area sits the Giant's Ring and Neolithic dolmen which dates from 3000 BC. The Celts are believed to have first named the place Béal Féirste in about 500 BC.

Around about 900 AD Vikings were present all along Belfast Lough giving the name of some of the settlements along the shoreline, including Ballyholme, their names in Old Norse. The Vikings who settled at Belfast also worked on shallow boats on the banks of the Lagan, probably beating Harland and Wolff1 to the Queen's Island site by over a millennium. From the sheltered harbours on the Irish coast the Vikings launched attacks on the West Coast of England. However, in 1014 Brian Boru defeated the Vikings and returned the rule to the Irish Kings.

The next wave of history to sweep across Ireland and to affect Belfast was the Norman invasion. However, the invaders did not find it easy at Belfast. Celtic foot soldiers managed to turn back the horsemen of John de Courcy as he attempted to ford the river against the instructions of Henry II. De Courcy was famous for fortifying Ireland; one of his most illustrious castles is still seen on the Northern shore of Belfast Lough at Carrickfergus.

The final major foreign influence to come to Belfast was the Scots. In fact the Scottish link is still strong today with weekly exoduses from the city to Glasgow to support the Old Firm football teams2 there. However, the Scots influence started in 1315 when Edward de Bruce3 attempted to invade with 6,000 men to be crowned King of Ireland but was killed in battle in 1318. The Bruce invasion had a major effect on large swathes of Northern Ireland and its effect is seen in many areas.

In 1571 the English came. It was the first attempt to colonise Catholic Ulster. It proved unsuccessful as O'Neill repulsed the forces of Queen Elizabeth I from Belfast. At this time Ulster was the most Gaelic of Ireland's four provinces and a possible ally of Spain, England's arch enemies. Two years later the Earl of Essex was granted Belfast from Queen Elizabeth and defeated O'Neill's men at the ford and built a fort. In 1597 O'Neill retaliated by retaking the castle and bloodletting the English occupiers, slitting throats and disembowelling the remains.

The Industrialisation of Belfast

The major influx of Protestant lowland Scots came with the Plantation early in the 17th Century; they brought their trades with them. This period can also be seen as the start of the industrialisation of Belfast. In 1613 the city was incorporated, placing its fortunes into the hands of the Chichester family for the next 200 years.

Linen production was a major early industry in Belfast, as flax from the surrounding countryside was brought in to be processed into linen to make the famous Ulster Linen. The trade is still remembered at the Linenhall Library, which many historic collections relating to Northern Irish history. The building was the hall where the linen used to be traded.


Another major industry in Belfast was shipbuilding. The Harland and Wolff yard is built on Queen's Island which was land reclaimed from a river straightening scheme in the 1840s. The initial yard was built by Robert Hickson and company in 1853. However, the following year Edward James Harland, who had served as an apprentice with Robert Stephenson and Company, was appointed the general manager. He was only 23 at the time of his appointment to such a senior position.

In 1858 Harland bought the yard from Hickson for £5,000, with financial support from GC Schwabe of Liverpool. Schwabe's nephew and personal assistant was Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. In 1861 he joined Harland as a partner and so the most famous partnership in Belfast, and on the skyline4 was born.

In 1870 Harland and Wolff built their first White Star line vessel, the Oceanic. The yard was to build 70 ships for the company in all. As liners grew larger Harland and Wolff constructed larger docks and bigger slipways to meet the demand. When White Star commissioned three Olympic class ships Harland and Wolff brought over Sir William Arrul who had built the Forth Rail Bridge. He built a giant gantry over the twin docks which could accommodate the building of two ships simultaneously; the first two being the Olympic and the Titanic.


Oswald, Horace and Eustace Short founded Britain's first aircraft factory. The company Short Brothers was founded in 1901 and started aircraft manufacture. It was the first company in history to receive an aircraft production contract from the Wright brothers in 1909, building the Short-Wright biplane. Although the company started out in Rochester, Kent in 1936 the Air Ministry formed a merger with Harland and Wolff, into Short and Harland Limited.

The southern plant was destroyed during the Second World War and with airspace for testing becoming more of a premium in the Thames Estuary all plane production moved to Belfast following the war.

It specialised in smaller planes many of which operate on the Island routes in Scotland. Also Shorts contributed aeroplane parts to other multi-company projects. Considering the move to Belfast was precipitated by the Airforce Ministry the company also moved into weapons manufacture.

In 1989 after years of uncertainty the company was bought by the Canadian company Bombadier.

Car Manufacturer

As if to complete the triplets of transportation Belfast has also produced motor cars.

In 1978 former General Motors director John DeLorean was given £55 million by the Labour government to provide 2,500 jobs for a plant in Belfast. A further £30 million was provided by the Thatcher government.

DeLorean wanted to produce a safe, economical, maintenance-free vehicle for those who enjoyed driving but weren't mega-rich, the cars originally sold for $25,000 in the American market. In 1981 his landmark stainless steel DMC-12 car with gull-wing doors first rolled of the Dunmurray production line. The car would of course go on to become one of the stars of the Back to the Future film series. However, only 8,583 of the cars were produced before the plant ceased production in 1983.

The large amount of public money that was spent on the plant seemed to go into John DeLorean's pocket and not into the production of a successive industry with a long term future. When the gates closed in 1983 there was a lot of debate over the amount of subsidy provided to DeLorean and the lack of return this produced.

Two Roads Diverge in a Parallel Line

The two most famous roads in Belfast are the Protestant Shankhill Road and the Catholic Falls Road. These two roads were the centres of loyalist and republican paramilitaries during the Troubles that rocked Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s. Anybody from outside Ulster would expect these two roads to be on opposite sides of the city, however, they are both located in West Belfast only a few hundred metres apart for most of their length. Many high and fortified walls were built on the side roads between the two roads, and elsewhere in the city. These walls are known as peace-lines despite them being in the most unpeaceful parts of the city.

The same was true of much of Belfast when the Troubles erupted. Communities were living cheek by jowl in the Ardoyne, Tiger Bay and other areas with each other and soon started moving into enclaves to feel safer. Thus it is that in the terraced street all across Belfast there are scattered Protestant and Catholic communities living right up against the each other.

One of the effects of the Troubles on Belfast was an ever present surveillance helicopter, or more, flying over parts of the city. Armed police patrolled in armoured personal carriers accompanied often by soldiers. Towers were built in trouble spots for surveillance and as listening posts. Police stations were heavily fortified and the city centre was closed to all vehicles except buses and delivery vehicles, which were searched upon entry.

One of the highlights of a visit to Belfast is to view the murals on the gable ends and other walls of the various terraces in working class Belfast. These are often fine works of art and are constantly changing to reflect the mood and heartbeat of Belfast. Recently the Linen Hall Library started to collect pictures of these murals as a record of the public mood as these are as much public documents as the margin notes scribbled by ministers at Stormont.

Belfast Castle

The current castle stands 135 metres above sea level on the slopes of Cave Hill overlooking the city but, like many others, this castle has had a turbulent past. At various times the Fitzgeralds, O'Donnells and O'Neills all controlled the castle. The first Belfast Castle was a Norman construction built in the late 12th Century. However, this was replaced on the same site by a stone and timber castle in 1611; this was the home of Sir Arthur Chichester, Baron of Belfast, who had a great influence on the architecture of Belfast. He had been granted the castle in 1603 and decided to redesign it. This castle was burned down in 1708 leaving only street names like Castle Place to mark the site.

The Chichesters (also known as the Donegalls) were the English-based absentee landlords of most of Belfast. However, they came to live in the Ormeau area at the beginning of the 19th Century. When he remarried in 1862 the 3rd Marquis of Donegall decided to build a new house within the deer park on Cave Hill. He employed the architecture firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon to design a Scottish Baronial style home, similar in style to the newly rebuilt Balmoral Castle. The magnificent sandstone building that was completed in 1870 still stands proud on the slopes overlooking Belfast today.

The costs of the building greatly exceeded the estimate and the Donegall family fortune was nearly exhausted in the process. The project was nearly left uncompleted until the Marquis' son-in-law Lord Ashley, who was heir to the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, stepped in to pay the remainder of the costs. In 1884 the Marquis died followed the next year by Shaftesbury, so Ashley inherited his title and along with his wife Harriet Augusta the Donegall family home. These two families are remembered in a number of street names in the City Centre.

The Donegall family coat of arms is prominent over the front door of the castle as well as on the north wall. An unusual feature, which appears on the exterior staircase, is a section of the Shaftesbury coat of arms; the staircase was not part of the original design but was grafted on to the building in 1894. It is in an Italian serpentine style connecting the reception rooms to the garden terrace. Since the castles started hosting wedding receptions it has become a very familiar feature of Belfast. The family gifted the house and estate to the city council in 1934 and it has been a location for weddings, dances and afternoon tea since the end of the Second World War. It underwent major refurbishment in the 1980s costing over £2 million before being reopened in 1988.

A Right Royal Education

A number of education establishments in Belfast have a regal connection. The most famous is Queen's University, which was founded in 1845 as the Queen's University of Ireland by Queen Victoria. It was to be a non-denominational alternative to Trinity College Dublin which was controlled by the Anglican Church.

Another is the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, commonly known as Inst., or in the North West as Belfast Inst. to separate it from its Coleraine counterpart. It is a Voluntary Grammar School for boys, which was founded in 1810. It is located in the heart of the modern city centre only 2 minutes walk away from City Hall.

There is also Belfast Royal Academy, commonly known by its initials B.R.A., which was founded in 1785 in Academy Street, but relocated to its present North Belfast home in the 19th Century. It is co-educational and non-denominational.

Ecclesiastical Belfast

Like Armagh there are two Cathedrals in Belfast, St Anne's Church of Ireland on Donegal Street and St Peter's Roman Catholic on the Falls Road. The Dean of St Anne's has since 1976 stood outside the Cathedral in the run up to Christmas to raise money for charity. Dressed in his black cassock he and his successors have earned the nickname Black Santa.

The foundation stone of St Peter's was laid in 1860 and was dedicated in 1866. The land was gifted by bakery owner Barney Hughes and the triple stained glass window in the south aisle is dedicated to his wife from donations from his three sons. His daughter had died a few months before and the window and altar in the north aisle are dedicated to her. The church was the first Catholic church in the city to be built in the gothic style; its distinctive twin spires were added in 1885.

St Anne's Cathedral is built on the site of St Anne's Church, Belfast's first Church of Ireland Parish in 1776. The foundation stone for the cathedral was laid in 1899 with the existing church demolished in 1903 to make way for the new cathedral. The ambitious 'Hiberno-Romanesque' style cathedral was built in stages starting with the nave which was completed in 1903. The West Front, a memorial to those killed in World War I was completed in 1927; the Baptistry was completed in 1928 with the Chapel of the Holy Spirit being finished in 1932. The Eastern Apse and Ambulatory was added in 1955, the Chapel of Unity and the organ added in 1973 with the last stage of construction the North Transept being completed in 1981.

Belfast is also home to Presbyterian Church House, the home of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Rosemary Street First (Non-Subscribing) Presbyterian Church is the oldest surviving place of worship in the city dating from 1783; John Wesley preached here on a trip in 1789. Other interesting places of worship in the city include the Moravian Church, Sinclair Seaman's Presbyterian, Holy Cross Church and Monastery, St George Church and many more.

Capital Responsibilities

Since the creation of Northern Ireland, Belfast, with its 340,000 inhabitants, has served as the capital for the country formed from six of Ireland's north eastern counties, Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone. However, before the industrial revolution it was merely a little bridging point over a number of rivers.

Just outside Belfast at Stormont is the Parliament Building on land acquired in 1921 which included Stormont Castle. The Castle was built in the 19th Century for John Cleland who was Lord Castlereagh's5 tutor. A new Parliament building was built for the new state which has a mile long avenue leading up the hill to the impressive white front facade. Parliament Building is the home now to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Stormont Castle houses the offices of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the First and Deputy First Ministers.

However, right in the centre of the city stands the City Hall. It was designed by Alfred Bromwell Thomas in a Classical Renaissance style of Portland Stone. It was built between 1898 and 1906. The building covers one acre of Donegal Square and is surrounded by gardens. Probably the most significant event in its history was when US President Bill Clinton addressed the people of Northern Ireland to turn on the lights on the Christmas tree he donated in 1995.


Much of central Belfast was affected and bombed during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact the Four Star Europa Hotel had the reputation as the most bombed hotel in the world6.

In many ways the Troubles have allowed redevelopment to occur in the centre of Belfast much the same way that London, Berlin or Hamburg were redeveloped after World War II, starting from a clear slate. Belfast itself had been hit during the war, more severely than the ensuing 30 years of the Troubles, and was having to start over a second time with the affects.

The major shopping area, around Royal Avenue, was shut off and pedestrianised behind security gates during the height of the Troubles. However, certain shops and blocks were still destroyed by bombing. In the late 1980s one such site was redeveloped into Castle Court a modern shopping mall which the people of Belfast were lacking. It was a symbol of optimism as well as returning prosperity to the centre of Belfast.

A new railway station at Great Victoria Street was built and combined with a new central Bus Station. Building this right in the heart of the city and linking up the previously unconnected parts of the rail network was a great fillip to the people of Northern Ireland. On the roads the Westlink was built to the north and west of the city connecting the M2/M5 to the M1, travelling close to some hotspots of the Troubles on its course. Another new road connection was the M3 built to connect the Sydenham by-pass to the M2 and M5. These connections both saved considerable journey time through the city centre streets and eased city centre congestion.

A new ferry terminal was also built in the heart of Belfast with Sea-Cat and High Speed Ship sailings to Scotland. Prior to the return of ferry traffic from Belfast the only port offering this service was at Larne.

Other development has happened along the banks of the Lagan. Riverside apartments have been built on old factory sites. The old bus station now houses the majestic Waterfront Hall plus the twin towers of the BT Tower and Hilton Hotel. A national call centre now occupies the site of the old gasworks slightly further upstream.

Other changes have been the return of nightlife to Belfast, with new pubs, restaurants and entertainment coming to the city centre. There are many modern trendy nightspots and restaurants that would not be out of place in London, Manchester or Glasgow, and people are again prepared to spend their weekend evenings in the centre of Belfast without fear.

One example is the Odyssey Arena on the East of the river; it hosts an Omniplex Cinema as well as a new concert arena. However, it is also the home of what many describe as Belfast's first truly non-sectarian sports team, the Belfast Giants ice hockey team. The Giants are not only very popular but successful, riding high in the British Elite Ice Hockey League, and all-encompassing. One of the things the club has done is to turn away people wearing other sporting colours, as in Northern Ireland football or rugby shirts can lead to sectarianism.

Out and About In Belfast

As well as the modern Waterfront Hall, there is also the grandeur of the Grand Opera House for an evening's entertainment. The Lyric Theatre and the Ulster Hall7 are also amongst venues providing entertainment. The Kings Hall used to be the only stadium venue in Belfast but now it is joined by the Odyssey. However, the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds are still to the rear of the Kings Hall.

Just up the round from the Grand Opera House is the oldest pub in Belfast, the Crown Bar, almost opposite Great Victoria Street Station. This bar still has stained glass windows and totally enclosed booths to add to the intimacy of your drinking experience.

The Ulster Museum in the University area has a wide rage of artefacts from Egypt, the Spanish Armada, and of course Titanic amongst its collection. The Odyssey is also the home of the W5 Science Museum, an interactive look at how our world works.

If you are a sport follower, as well as the Giants in Ice Hockey there are three main football teams in Belfast; Linfield play in the west of the city at Windsor Park, Northern Ireland's national football stadium, Glentoran play at the Oval in the east and Cliftonville play at Solitude in the north. In the south of the city you will find Ravenhill home of the European Cup winning Ulster rugby team. At Barnaett Demesne you will find the Mary Peters athletic track sitting in a natural amphitheatre which has hosted international events.

Famous People from Belfast

Footballer George Best (1946-2005) was born and raised in the Cregagh estate. His funeral on 3 December, 2005 was the largest funeral in the history of the province. Other sportspeople from Belfast include Dame Mary Peters (who won pentathlon Gold in the 1972 Olympics) and Alex Higgins, the double World Snooker Champion. Other footballers from Belfast include Norman Whiteside, Danny Blanchflower and Sammy McIlroy.

Musician Van Morrison was born in Belfast in 1945. Other famous musicians from the area include flautist James Galway, concert pianist/conductor Barry Douglas and punk band Stiff Little Fingers, as well as singers Brian Kennedy and Peter Corry.

Actor, director and producer Kenneth Branagh was born in Belfast in 1960. One of his early roles was as the son of another Belfast born actor James Ellis, who was born in 1931. Other actors include Ciarán Hinds and Stephen Rea.

Roy Walker, who famously presented Catchphrase, was born in Belfast in 1940; another son of the city is Eamonn Holmes (b.1958), perhaps best-known for his long stint on the GM-TV sofa.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), writer of The Chronicles of Narnia as well as many other books, is also a Belfast son. Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) wrote in the opening lines of his poem Carrickfergus:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

Dr Jocelyn Bell Burnell who was born in 1943 is an astronomer who discovered the first pulsars. Dr Mary McAleese, born 1951, was a top lawyer and academic who would go on to become the second female and eighth President of Ireland. Chaim Herzog (1918-1997) Israel's sixth president was also born in Belfast where his father was rabbi. Mickey Marley, who died in 2005, was a famous street entertainer who was born in the markets area of Belfast. He toured the streets with his horse-drawn roundabout, which since he retired in 1983 can now been seen at the Ulster Folk and transport museum. He was immortalised in the song Mickey Marley's Roundabout:

Round and round and up and down,
Through the streets of Belfast town,
All the children laugh and shout,
Here comes Mickey's Roundabout.
1Belfast's famous ship-building company.2The Old Firm is the nickname for Glasgow's two senior football teams: Rangers and Celtic.3Brother of the Scottish King Robert the Bruce.4Two massive yellow cranes, Goliath and Samson, still dominate the Belfast skyline. They also featured in one of the BBC idents between programmes.5One of the Londonderry family.6Not directly on every occasion but due to its central location it often suffered blast damage.7Led Zeppelin first performed Stairway to Heaven live at the Ulster Hall.

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