The History of Belfast
Belfast’s story is unusual for a major modern city. What became the capital of Northern Ireland in the 20th century, and a century earlier had already developed into the most populous and economically significant city in all of Ireland, really only has roots back to the early 17th century.
Bronze Age remains can be found in the area, most notably at the Giant’s Ring, and Iron Age forts abound in the surrounding hills, but the actual site of modern Belfast remained sparsely settled until the Norman Englishman John de Courcy built a castle there in 1177, and a village grew at the ford near the confluence of the rivers Lagan and Farset.
Belfast proper was founded by the English settler Sir John Chichester, granted land (and Belfast Castle ) in 1609 by James I with a view to controlling rebellious Catholic Ulster , though the settlement retained the Gaelic name derived from the description of its location – Beal Feirste, sandy ford by the river’s mouth.
By 1611 Chichester had attracted Protestants from England, Scotland and the Isle of Man ; a town was incorporated in 1613, important enough to have two MPs. The conflict that in later centuries was to damage Belfast so greatly in the 17th century caused its rapid expansion: soldiers from Scotland and England sent by Charles I and later Cromwell to quell Catholic rebellion in Ireland chose to remain.
This same period also saw the arrival of Huguenot refugees, their numbers not great but their economic significance enormous – they brought linen making which remained Belfast’s prime industry for hundreds of years: the city sometimes dubbed Linenopolis.
Surprisingly, given its later history, the influx of diverse non-conformist Protestant groups led to Belfast becoming a hotbed of radicalism in the 18th century: both the Irish Volunteers founded in 1778 and the Society of United Irishmen in 1791 striving for greater democracy and religious toleration.
For Belfast the 18th century saw major economic and civic development: in 1737 a newspaper began; its first bank in 1752; a theatre by 1769; and the linen industry boomed, requiring the The White Linen Hall to be built by 1788 - a decade previously the textile sector added cotton processing, but linen remained dominant.
Chichester’s Belfast in 1613 had perhaps 1,000 residents. By 1800 this was approaching 20,000.
Geographically and in turn economically Belfast benefitted from its protected harbour in Belfast Lough. In the Stuart period it was already a great trading port for the American and Caribbean colonies. In the 19th century it became a major shipbuilding centre, the most famous name in that context Harland and Wollf opening in 1862; its most famous product The Titanic launched in 1911.
Belfast’s booming economy in the 19th century meant continued civic development: a hospital was built in 1815; the place was finally made a borough in 1842, and a city 46 years later; Queen’s University was founded in 1845; the Opera House in 1895; the first railway service began in 1839. But this boom, along with the potato famine in the 1840s, changed the human face of the city: the overwhelmingly Protestant metropolis attracted Catholics from poorer country regions.
In Belfast the sectarian divide was markedly geographic, in simplistic terms Catholics in the west; Protestants the East.
As so often elsewhere in Britain conflict between Protestant and Catholic seemed unavoidable. In 1829 the banning of Orange parades to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne led to rioting (there’s nothing new in the world); same date, same violent outcome in 1857; in 1886 deadly riots arose after the Home Rule Bill had been defeated.
There were, however, some instances where politics broke the insidious hold of religious tribalism, most famously in 1907 when a dock strike was supported by all sides (even the police refusing to break picket-lines).
Westminster regularly sought a solution to the complex Irish question: in 1912 yet another Home Rule Bill seemed likely to give Ireland limited self-rule; in Belfast Edward Carson formed the Ulster Volunteers to fight this. The six-county solution was then proposed, with the largely Protestant North-East of the island split from the rest: this came about in 1920, but exacerbated the problem, the IRA fighting for Irish unification. In 1921 violence on Belfast’s streets flared time and again; the following year the formalisation of partition sparked deadly protests, murders by one side leading to endless retaliation by the other, including barely covert reprisals by Protestant policemen.
The Depression became of more immediate concern to tens of thousands thrown out of work, a situation only really alleviated by the boom in shipbuilding and the aviation industry when WWII began. Those same industries, however, made Belfast a target for the Luftwaffe. Complacency left the city ill-defended and unprepared for air-raids, the most horrific known as the Belfast Blitz on April 15 and 16.
The immediate post-war period was relatively quiet politically, though violent incidents continued. But increasing discrimination by the Protestant authorities promoted Catholic resentment. In the late 1960s The Troubles flared; the British army was brought in to stop the violence. But no solution was found: the geographic divide became more marked as Catholics were forced from Protestant areas and vice versa. The level of violence increased with bombings including the UVF attack on McGurk’s Bar on December 4 1971 , and on July 21 1972 21 IRA bombs exploding in one day.
Eventually the impetus for peace involving the governments of Britain and Ireland, American support, and the desire of almost all involved in the conflict, created a process which, with some worries about remaining dissident groups, had changed the city’s politics – it has even had two Catholic mayors. With peace has come economic and civic development, including major projects such as Victoria Square; the Cathedral Quarter; and the Odyssey entertainment complex. But Belfast’s population has still not recovered from the exodus sparked by the violence: in 1939 it had nearly 440,000 inhabitants; today the figure is nearer 300,000.