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Royal Avenue Belfast2
Royal Avenue, Belfast. Photochrom print circa 1890–1900

The history of Belfast as a settlement goes back to the Iron Age, but its status as a major urban centre dates to the 18th century. Belfast today is the capital of Northern Ireland. Belfast was throughout its modern history a major commercial and industrial centre, but the late 20th century saw a decline in its traditional industries, particularly shipbuilding. The city's history has been marked by violent conflict between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants which has caused many working class areas of the city to be split into Catholic and Protestant areas. In recent years the city has been relatively peaceful and major redevelopment has occurred, especially in the inner city and dock areas.

Early history

The Belfast area has been occupied since at least the Bronze Age. The Giant's Ring, a 5,000-year-old henge, is located near the city, and evidence of Bronze and Iron Age occupation have been found in the surrounding hills. One example is McArt's Fort, an Iron Age hill fort located on top of Cavehill north of the city.

Northern Ireland Belfast Giants Ring 001
The Megalithic tomb at the centre of the Giant's Ring.

The original settlement of Belfast was little more than a village, based around the marshy ford where the River Lagan met the River Farset, which today would be where High Street meets Victoria Street. The Ford of Belfast existed as early as 665, when a battle was fought at the site. The current Church of Ireland church at this location (St. George's) is built on the site of an ancient chapel used by pilgrims crossing the water. The earliest mention of the Chapel of the Ford is in the papal taxation rolls of 1306.

A castle was built by the English to protect and dominate this position. It was located at what is now Castle Place, where several roads meet at the top of High Street. The castle was attacked, recovered, destroyed and rebuilt many times. It was first destroyed in 1315 by Edward le Bruce, who came to Ireland on the invitation of O'Neill and other Irish chieftains. The replacement building was dismantled in 1503 by Gerald, Earl of Kildare, rebuilt by the Irish and subsequently destroyed by the same Earl of Kildare in 1512. In 1552 Lord Deputy James Croft fortified the castle and put it under the command of Hugh Mac Neil Oge, who swore allegiance to the English crown. When Mac Neil Oge was killed by Scottish attackers in 1555, the castle was committed to the custody of Englishman Randolphus Lane. The old Belfast Castle was eventually destroyed by fire on 25 April 1708.

ArthurChichester BaronChichesterOfBelfast Belfast Harbour Commissioners
Sir Arthur Chichester

Recent archaeological excavations inside the former Woolworth's building beside Castle Place discovered a "gully trench" with medieval pottery dating the bottom-most strata highlighting physical evidence that had until then been relatively absent for medieval occupation of the town. The discoveries would have been situated on the south bank of the River Farset. Timbers were also recovered from the Ann Street end of the building which dated to the 16th century.

Until the late 16th century most of the land surrounding Belfast was still in the hands of the O'Neill clan. In 1571 this land was granted to Sir Thomas Smith by Elizabeth I, but Smith failed to take control of the area, or to fulfil the requirements of his grant, and so the land reverted to the crown under James I. In 1612 King James granted the town of Belfast and its castle, together with some large estates, to Sir Arthur Chichester. By letters patent, Chichester was created Baron Chichester of Belfast. The new importance of Belfast was demonstrated when in 1613 the town was constituted a corporation, of a sovereign, twelve burgesses and a commonalty, with the privilege of sending two representatives to parliament. The first sovereign appointed in Belfast was Thomas Vesey, and the first representatives sent to parliament were Sir John Blennerhasset, Baron of the Exchequer, and George Trevillian.

Despite Belfast's seemingly growing significance to the English monarchy, it was still very much a small settlement at this stage. John Speed's 1610 map of Ireland marks Belfast as an insignificant village, and the 1612 patent styles it a town, or village. Nearby Carrickfergus, successfully held by the English for much longer, was still the more prominent settlement and centre for trade. In 1640 Thomas Wentworth, then Lord Deputy of Ireland, purchased from Carrickfergus its trade monopolies (namely, one third import duty compared with other locations in the kingdom) and bestowed them upon Belfast. The customs house was also relocated to Belfast at around the same time, and new trade flooded into the town, much to the expense of the prosperity of Carrickfergus.

Throughout the 17th century, Belfast was settled by English and Scottish settlers as part of the Plantation of Ulster, of which Arthur Chichester was a major proponent. During the aftermath of the 1641 Rebellion, the Scottish parliament sent an army to Ulster to put down the unrest. Many of these soldiers settled in Belfast after the Irish Confederate Wars.

During the Williamite War in Ireland Belfast changed hands twice. After being seized by Protestants during an uprising against the rule of the Catholic James II in 1689, it was captured by Richard Hamilton and the mainly Catholic Irish Army following the Break of Dromore. Later the same year a large Williamite expeditionary force arrived in Belfast Lough landing and taking the major towns of the area before laying siege to Carrickfergus. Belfast was captured by a detachment led by Henry Wharton after the Jacobites had abandoned it without a fight. Combined with their failure at the Siege of Derry, Schomberg's landing and march to Dundalk Camp led to the Jacobites withdrawing from most of Ulster and Belfast remained in Williamite hands to the end of the war.

Merchant and industrial town

Belfast thrived in the 18th century as a merchant town, importing goods from Great Britain and exporting the produce of the linen trade. Linen at the time was made by small producers in rural areas. The town was also a centre of radical politics, partly because its predominantly Presbyterian population was discriminated against under the penal laws, and also because of the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment. Belfast saw the founding of the Irish Volunteers in 1778 and the Society of United Irishmen in 1791—both dedicated to democratic reform, an end to religious discrimination and greater independence for Ireland. As a result of intense repression however, Belfast radicals played little or no role in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Two major developments at the time altered the appearance of Belfast's centre: in 1784 plans were drawn up for the White Linen Hall (now the site of Belfast City Hall) along with new modern streets (now Donegall Square and Donegall Place). Construction was completed by 1788. In 1786 the River Farset was covered over to create High Street and the ford across the Lagan was removed.

Belfast 1854 (Doyle)
Belfast viewed from the hills in 1852. The new Queen's Bridge across the Lagan can be seen to the right.

In the 19th century, Belfast became Ireland's pre-eminent industrial city with linen, heavy engineering, tobacco and shipbuilding dominating the economy. Belfast, located at the western end of Belfast Lough and at the mouth of the River Lagan, was an ideal location for the shipbuilding industry, which was dominated by the Harland and Wolff company which alone employed up to 35,000 workers and was one of the largest shipbuilders in the world. The ill-fated RMS Titanic was built there in 1911. Migrants to Belfast came from across Ireland, Scotland and England, but particularly from rural Ulster, where sectarian tensions ran deep. The same period saw the first outbreaks of sectarian riots, which have recurred regularly since.

For 12 July 1829, Orange Institution parades in Belfast were banned, leading to demonstrations and serious rioting in the city. This spread to County Armagh and County Tyrone, lasting several days and resulting in at least 20 deaths. On 12 July 1857, confrontations between crowds of Catholics and Protestants turned into ten days of rioting, with many of the police force joining the Protestant side. There were also riots in Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. In the summer of 1872, about 30,000 Nationalists held a demonstration at Hannahstown in Belfast, campaigning for the release of Fenian prisoners, but leading to another series of riots between Catholics and Protestants in the city. In June 1886, Protestants celebrated the defeat of the Home Rule Bill, leading to rioting again on the streets of Belfast and the deaths of seven people, with many more injured. In the same year, following the Twelfth Orange Institution parades, clashes took place between Catholics and Protestants, and also between Loyalists and police. Thirteen people were killed in a weekend of serious rioting which continued sporadically until mid-September and an official death toll of 31 people. For more information see: 1886 Belfast riots.

In the second half of the 19th century, the city underwent much change. It had started to overtake Carrickfergus as the main settlement in the area. So much so that, at some point, Carrickfergus Lough was renamed as Belfast Lough. Industries were set up and concentrated on Belfast, which resulted in a high level of internal migration to the town. Though Belfast had seen some growth before that. Of the migrants, a fair proportion were Roman Catholics from the west of Ulster, settling mostly in the west of Belfast. Until that point Belfast had been overwhelmingly Protestant. Towards the end of the 18th century, money was raised by collections from both the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland congregations of the town and, together with monies donated by Protestant businessmen, enough was raised to erect the first Roman Catholic church in Belfast – St. Mary's in Chapel Lane.

A couple of years later, at the opening and first mass on 30 May 1784, the mostly Presbyterian 1st Belfast Volunteer Company paraded to the chapel yard and gave the parish priest a guard of honour, with many of the Protestants of Belfast also present and sharing the event. At the time, the Roman Catholic population of Belfast was only around four hundred. By 1866 that number had risen to some 45,000.

Belfast City Hall - Under Construction
Belfast City Hall during construction.

In 1862 George Hamilton Chichester, 3rd Marquess of Donegall (a descendant of the Chichester family) built a new castle on the slopes of Cavehill above the town. The new Belfast Castle was designed by Charles Lanyon and its construction was completed in 1870.

Although the county borough of Belfast was created when it was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888, the city continues to be viewed as straddling County Antrim and County Down with the River Lagan generally being seen as the line of demarcation. By 1901, Belfast was the largest city in Ireland. The city's importance was evidenced by the construction of the lavish City Hall, completed in 1906. As noted, since around 1840 its population included many Catholics, who originally settled in the west of city, around the area of today's Barrack Street which was known as the "Pound Loney". West Belfast remains the centre of the city's Catholic population (in contrast with the east of the city which remains predominantly Protestant). Other areas of Catholic settlement have included parts of the north of the city, especially Ardoyne and the Antrim Road and the Markets area immediately to the south of the city centre.

Conditions for the new working class were often squalid, with much of the population packed into overcrowded and unsanitary tenements. The city suffered from repeated cholera outbreaks in the mid-19th century. Conditions improved somewhat after a wholesale slum clearance programme in the 1900s.

Belfast's Harland and Wolff Shipyard (RMS Adriatic), 1907
A 1907 stereoscope postcard depicting the construction of an ocean liner at the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Belfast saw a bitter strike by dock workers organised by radical trade unionist Jim Larkin, in 1907. The dispute saw 10,000 workers on strike and a mutiny by the police, who refused to disperse the striker's pickets. Eventually the Army had to be deployed to restore order. The strike was a rare instance of non-sectarian mobilisation in Ulster at the time.

Partition 1912–1920

In 1912, the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced to Parliament by the Liberal government, which would have given limited autonomy to an all-Ireland Irish Parliament. Unionists, led by Edward Carson raised a militia, the Ulster Volunteers, to resist this, by force if necessary. The political crisis heightened tensions in Belfast and rioting took place in city in July of that year.

It was then proposed that Ireland would be partitioned, with unionists demanding that the six north-eastern counties of Ireland (four of which had Protestant majorities) would be excluded from Home Rule. Home Rule and partition had been accepted in principle by 1914, but were postponed until the end of the First World War.

Following the end of the War and radical Irish nationalist politics after the Easter Rising of 1916, the issues of Irish independence and the partition of Ireland again came to prominence. The separatist Sinn Féin party won a majority of seats in Ireland, though not in Ulster, where in Belfast nationalists continued to vote for members of the Irish Parliamentary Party and unionists for the Unionist Party. Thereafter a guerilla war developed between the security forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Ireland was partitioned into Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland (the six most-Protestant counties of the province of Ulster) and the Catholic-dominated rest of the country. James Craig was Northern Ireland's first Prime Minister.

Conflict 1920–1922

The period immediately before and after partition was marked by major sectarian conflict in Belfast, and some areas became much more dominated by one religious group. Although coinciding with the Irish War of Independence, the Belfast conflict had a nature all of its own. Unlike the rest of Ireland, where the war was largely fought between the IRA and Crown forces, around 90% of the 465 deaths in Belfast were civilians, as the violence often took the form sectarian assassinations and also of armed clashes between Catholic and Protestants.

The conflict began in Belfast in July 1920. On 21 July 1920, rioting broke out in the city, starting in the shipyards and later spreading to residential areas. The violence was partly in response to the IRA killing of a northern RIC police officer Gerald Smyth, in Cork, and partly because of competition over jobs due to the high unemployment rate. loyalists marched on the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast and forced over 7,000 Catholic and left-wing Protestant workers from their jobs. Sectarian rioting broke out in response in Belfast resulting in about 20 deaths in just three days. Both Catholics and Protestants were also expelled from their homes in the trouble. The IRA assassination of an RIC Detective, Swanzy, in nearby Lisburn on 22 August prompted another round of clashes, in which 33 people died in the city over the following 10 days. The violence led to the reviving of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a unionist militia first formed in 1912. Thereafter there were recurring cycles of violence until the summer of 1922.

In response to this violence, southern nationalists imposed a boycott on goods produced in Belfast. In Northern Ireland, an auxiliary police force, the Ulster Special Constabulary was recruited for counter-insurgency purposes.

The year 1921 saw three major flare ups in Belfast. Just before the Truce that formally ended the Irish War of Independence on 11 July, Belfast suffered a day of violence known at the time as 'Belfast's Bloody Sunday'. An IRA ambush of an armoured police truck on Raglan Street killed one RIC man, injured two more and destroyed their armoured car. This sparked a day of ferocious fighting in west Belfast on the following day, Sunday 10 July, in which 16 civilians; eleven Catholics and five Protestants, lost their lives and 161 houses were destroyed. Gun battles raged all day along the sectarian 'boundary' between the Falls and Shankill Roads and rival gunmen used rifles, machine guns and hand grenades in the clashes. Another four died over the following two days The second spike in violence came in three days from 29 August to 1 September, in which twenty people were killed and the third in November, when more than thirty died. In the November violence, the IRA bombed city trams taking Protestant workers to the shipyards, killing seven people.

The violence peaked in the first half of 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty confirmed the partition of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Michael Collins the Free State leader, sent arms and aid to the northern IRA with the aim both of trying to defend the Catholic population there and trying to destabilise Northern Ireland. Roughly thirty people were killed in Belfast in February 1922, sixty in March and another 30 in April. The IRA actions in Belfast, such as the killing of policemen, resulted in retaliation with attacks on the Roman Catholic population by loyalists, sometimes covertly aided by state forces.

On 22 May, IRA assassinated unionist politician William Twaddell, in Belfast. Immediately afterwards, under the new Special Powers Act, 350 IRA men were arrested in Belfast, crippling its organisation there. The cycle of sectarian atrocities against civilians however continued into June 1922. May saw seventy-five people killed in Belfast and another 30 died there in June. Several thousand Catholics fled the violence and sought refuge in Glasgow and Dublin. However, after this crisis, the violence declined rapidly. Only six people lost their lives in July and August and the final conflict related killing took place in October 1922.

Black and white photo: Crowds of people and a ranked military guard gather to watch four men in ceremonial uniform approach a set of stone steps.
Opening ceremony of the new parliament buildings east of Belfast, 1932.
A large, symmetrical white building with classical-style columns front and centre sits uphill of the viewer, behind a well-tended lawn.
The parliament buildings at Stormont.

Two factors contributed to the rapid end to the conflict. One was the collapse of the IRA in the face of the Northern state's use of internment without trial. The second was the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in the south, which distracted the IRA's attention from the North and largely ended the violence there.

According to historian Robert Lynch's count, a total of 465 people died in Belfast in the conflict of 1920–22. A further 1,091 were wounded. Of the dead, 159 were Protestant civilians, 258 Catholic civilians, thirty-five Crown forces and twelve IRA members.

The Great Depression

As the largest city in Ulster, Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland, and a grand parliament building was constructed at Stormont in 1932. The Government of Northern Ireland was dominated by upper and middle class unionists. As a result of this, conditions in the poorer parts of Belfast remained bad, with many houses being damp, overcrowded and lacking in basic amenities such as hot water and indoor toilets until about the 1970s.

In common with similar cities worldwide, Belfast suffered particularly during the Great Depression. Partly as a result of these economic tensions, in the 1930s, there was another round of sectarian rioting in the city, although the most significant unrest of the period, the Outdoor Relief Riots of 1932, was notable for its non-sectarian nature.

Second World War

USAEF Belfast
Monument to USAEF (United States of America Expeditionary Force) and rededication plaque by US President Bill Clinton in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.

During the Second World War, Belfast was one of the major cities in the United Kingdom bombed by German forces. The British government had thought that Northern Ireland would be safe from German bombing because of its distance from German positions, and so very little was done to prepare Belfast for air raids. Few bomb shelters were built and the few anti-aircraft guns the city possessed were sent to England. The Belfast Blitz occurred on Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941, when two hundred German Luftwaffe bombers attacked the city, pounding working class areas of Belfast around the shipyards and north Belfast-in particular, the New Lodge and Antrim Road areas. About one thousand people died and many more were injured. Of Belfast's housing stock, 52% was destroyed. Outside London, this was the greatest loss of life in a single raid during the war. Roughly 100,000 of the population of 415,000 became homeless. Belfast was targeted due to its concentration of heavy shipbuilding and aerospace industries. Ironically, during the same period the local economy made a recovery as the war economy saw great demand for the products of these industries.

The Troubles

The post-war years were relatively placid in Belfast, but sectarian tensions and resentment among the Catholic population at widespread discrimination festered below the surface, and the city erupted into violence in August 1969 when sectarian rioting broke out in the city. The perceived one-sidedness of the police and the failure of the IRA to defend Catholic neighbourhoods of the city was one of the main causes of the formation of the militant Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which would subsequently launch an armed campaign against the state of Northern Ireland.

H&W Cranes2
Samson & Goliath shipyard cranes, completed 1969–1974.

The violence intensified in the early 1970s, with rival paramilitary groups being formed on both sides. Bombing, assassination and street violence formed a backdrop to life throughout The Troubles. The PIRA detonated twenty-two bombs, all in a confined area in the city centre in 1972, on what is known as "Bloody Friday", killing nine people. Loyalist paramilitaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) retaliated against the PIRA campaign by killing Catholics at random from around August 1972 onward. A particularly notorious group, based on the Shankill Road in the mid 1970s became known as the Shankill Butchers.

The Army, first mobilised in 1969 to restore order, became a feature of Belfast life, with huge fortified barracks being constructed, predominantly in nationalist west Belfast. Initially the Army was welcomed by the minority nationalist community, but the relationship soured after such incidents as the Falls Curfew of July 1970, when the Army fought a three-day gun battle with the Official IRA in the Falls Road area, resulting in four deaths. Major confrontation continued between the Army and Republican paramilitaries throughout the 1970s, notably in Operation Motorman in 1972, when the Army re-took nationalist "no-go areas" in Belfast and elsewhere.

In the early 1970s, there were huge forced population movements as families, mostly but not exclusively Roman Catholic, living in areas dominated by the other community were intimidated from their homes, either directly or indirectly through general fear. The general decline in European manufacturing industry of the early 1980s, exacerbated by political violence, devastated the city's economy. As recently as 1971 the city and surrounding area had a large Protestant majority, but as of 2011 is almost evenly balanced. This fundamental change in balance has been attributed to higher Catholic birth rates and rising prosperity, together with Protestant emigration (both internal, e.g., to North Down and external).

In 1981, Bobby Sands a native of Greater Belfast, was the first of ten Republican prisoners to die on hunger strike in pursuit of political status. The event provoked major rioting in nationalist areas of the city. During the 1980s, the most notorious series of incidents in the city took place within a week in 1988. Firstly, a Republican funeral was attacked by loyalist Michael Stone (see Milltown Cemetery attack), then, the following week at the funerals of Stone's victims, two off-duty soldiers were lynched in the "corporals killings".

In the early 1990s, loyalist and republican paramilitaries in the city stepped up their killings of each other and "enemy" civilians. A cycle of killing continued right up to the PIRA ceasefire in August 1994 and the Combined Loyalist Military Command cessation six weeks later. The most horrific single attack of this period came in October 1993, when the PIRA bombed a fish shop on the Shankill Road in an attempt to kill the UDA leadership. The Shankill Road bombing instead killed nine Protestant shoppers as well as one of the bombers.

Despite the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, today the city still remains scarred by the conflict between the two communities. In all, nearly 1,500 people have been killed in political violence in the city from 1969 until the present.

Lagan Weir South
The Lagan Weir, a major catalyst for redevelopment of the Laganside area and increasing use of the river throughout the city

In 1997, unionists lost control of Belfast City Council for the first time in its history, with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland gaining the balance of power between nationalists and unionists. This position was confirmed in the council elections of 2001 and 2005. Since then it has had two Catholic mayors, one from the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and one from Sinn Féin.

Recent history

The city in general has seen significant redevelopment and investment since the Good Friday Agreement. The formation of the Laganside Corporation in 1989 heralded the start of the regeneration of the River Lagan and its surrounding areas. Other areas that have been transformed include the Cathedral Quarter and the Victoria Square area. However communal segregation has continued since then, with occasional low level street violence in isolated flashpoints and the construction of new Peace Lines.

Belfast saw the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. However, since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there has been major redevelopment in the city including Victoria Square, the Titanic Quarter and Laganside as well as the Odyssey complex and the landmark Waterfront Hall.

  • Nesbitt, Noel. 1982. The Changing Face of Belfast. Second (revised) edition. Ulster Museum Publication No. 183.
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