Belfast, Ireland - Encyclopedia

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BELFAST, a city, county and parliamentary borough, the capital of the province of Ulster, and county town of county Antrim, Ireland. Pop. (1901) 349,180. It is a seaport of the first rank, situated at the entrance of the river Lagan into Belfast Lough, 1121 m. north of Dublin by rail, on the north-east coast of the island. It is an important railway centre, with terminal stations of the Great Northern, Northern Counties (Midland of England), and Belfast & County Down railways, and has regular passenger communication by sea with Liverpool, Fleetwood, Heysham, Glasgow, and other ports of Great Britain. It is built on alluvial deposit and reclaimed land, mostly not exceeding 6 ft. above high water mark, and was thus for a long period subject to inundation and epidemics, and only careful drainage rendered the site healthy. The appearance of the city plainly demonstrates the modern growth of its importance, and evidence is not wanting that for a considerable period architectural improvement was unable to keep pace with commercial development. Many squalid districts, however, have been improved away to make room for new thoroughfares and handsome buildings. One thoroughfare thus constructed at the close of the 19th century is the finest in Belfast - Royal Avenue. It contains, among several notable buildings, the post office, and the free public library, opened in 1888 and comprising a collection of over 40,000 volumes, as well as an art gallery and a museum of antiquities especially rich in remains of the Neolithic period. The architect was Mr W. H. Lynn. The magnificent city hall, from designs of Mr (afterwards Sir) Brumwell Thomas, was opened in 1906. The principal streets, such as York Street, Donegall Street, North Street, High Street, are traversed by tramways. Four bridges cross the Lagan; the Queen's Bridge (1844, widened in 1886) is the finest, while the Albert Bridge (1889) replaces a former one which collapsed. Other principal public buildings, nearly all to be included in modern schemes of development, are the city hall, occupying the site of the old Linen Hall, in Donegall Square, estimated to cost £300,000; the commercial buildings (1820) in Waring Street, the customhouse and inland revenue office on Donegall Quay, the architect of which, as of the court house, was Sir Charles Lanyon, and some of the numerous banks, especially the Ulster Bank. The Campbell College in the suburb of Belmont was founded in 1892 in accordance with the will of Mr W. J. Campbell, a Belfast merchant, who left 200,000 for the building and endowment of a public school. Other educational establishments are Queen's University, replacing the old Queen's College (1849) under the Irish Universities Act 1908; the Presbyterian and the Methodist Colleges, occupying neighbouring sites close to the extensive botanical gardens, the Royal Academical Institution, and the Municipal Technical Institute. In 1897 the sum o was subscribed by citizens to found a hospital (1903) to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and named after her. It took the place of an institution which, under various names, had existed since 1797. Public monuments are few, but include a statue of Queen Victoria (1903) and a South African War memorial (1905) in front of the city hall; the Albert Memorial (1870), in the form of a clock-tower, in Queen Street; a monument to the same prince in High Street; and a statue in Wellington Place to Dr Henry Cooke, a prominent Presbyterian minister who died in 1868. The corporation controls the gas and electric and similar undertakings. The water supply, under the control of the City and District Water Commissioners (incorporated 1840), has its sources in the Mourne Mountains, Co. Down, 40 m. distant, with a service reservoir at Knockbreckan; also in the hilly district near Carrickfergus. There are several public parks, of which the principal are the Ormeau Park (1870), the Victoria, Alexandra, and Falls Road parks. There is a Theatre Royal in Arthur Square. There are also several excellent clubs and societies, social, political, scientific, and sporting; including among the last the famous Royal Ulster Yacht Club.

In 1899 was laid the foundation stone of the Protestant cathedral in Donegall Street, designed by Sir Thomas Drew and Mr W. H. Lynn to seat 3000 worshippers, occupying the site of the old St Anne's parish church, part of the fabric of which the new building incorporates. The diocese is that of Down, Connor, and Dromore. The first portion (the nave) was consecrated on the 2nd of June 1904. The plan is a Latin cross, the west front rising to a height of 105 ft., while the central tower is 175 ft. The pulpit was formerly used in the nave of Westminster Abbey, being presented to Belfast cathedral by the dean and chapter of that foundation.

Most of the older churches are classical in design, and the most notable are St George's, in High Street, and the Memorial church of Dr Cooke in May Street. For the more modern churches the Gothic style has frequently been used. Amongst these are St James, Antrim Road; St Peter's Roman Catholic chapel, with its Florentine spire; Presbyterian churches in Fitzroy Avenue, and Elmwood Avenue, and the Methodist chapel, Carlisle Circus. The Presbyterians and Protestant Episcopalians each outnumber the Roman Catholics in Belfast, and these three are the chief religious divisions.

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The country surrounding Belfast is agreeable and picturesque, whether along the shores of the Lough or towards the girdle of hills to the west; and is well wooded and studded with country seats and villas. In the immediate vicinity of the city are several points of historic interest and natural beauty. The Cave Hill, though exceeded in height by Mount Divis, Squire's Hill, and other summits, is of greatest interest for its caves, in the chalk, from which early weapons and other objects have been recovered. The battle in 1408, which was fought along the base of the cliffs here between the Savages of the Ards and the Irish, is described in Sir Samuel Ferguson's "Hibernian Nights Entertainment." Here also are McArt's Fort and other earthworks, and from here the importance of the physical position of Belfast may be appreciated to the full. At Newtonbreda, overlooking the Lagan, was the palace of Con O'Neill, whose sept was exterminated by Deputy Mountjoy in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Belfast Lough is of great though quiet beauty; and the city itself is seen at its best from its seaward approach, with its girdle of hills in the background. On the shores of the lough several villages have grown into residential towns for the wealthier classes, whose work lies in the city. Of these Whitehouse and White Abbey are the principal on the western shore, and on the eastern, Holywood, which ranks practically as a suburb of Belfast, and, at the entrance to the lough, Bangor.

Harbour and Trade

The harbour and docks of Belfast are managed by a board of harbour commissioners, elected by the ratepayers and the shipowners. The outer harbour is one of the safest in the kingdom. By the Belfast Harbour Acts the commissioners were empowered to borrow more than 2,500,000 in order to carry out several new works and improvements in the port. Under the powers of these acts a new channel, called the Victoria Channel, several miles in length, was cut about 1840 leading in a direct line from the quays to the sea. This channel affords 20 ft. of water at low tide, and 28 ft. at full tide, the width of the channel being 300 ft. The Alexandra Dock, which is 852 ft. long and 31 ft. deep, was opened in 1889, and the extensive improvements (including the York Dock, where vessels carrying 10,000 tons can discharge in four to six days) have been effected from time to time, making the harbour one of the most commodious in the United Kingdom. The provision of a new graving dock adjoining the Alexandra was delayed in October 1905 by a subsidence of the ground during its construction. Parliamentary powers were obtained to construct a graving dock capable of accommodating the largest class of warships. The growth and development of the shipbuilding industry has been immense, the firm of Harland & Wolff being amongst the first in the trade, and some of the largest vessels in the world come from their yards. The vast increase of the foreign trade of Belfast marks its development, like Liverpool, as a great distributing port. The chief exports are linen, whisky, aerated waters, iron ore and cattle.

Belfast is the centre of the Irish linen industry, machinery for which was introduced by T. & A. Mulholland in 1830, a rapid extension of the industry at once resulting. It is also the headquarters and business centre for the entire flax-spinning and weaving industry of the country. Distilling is extensively carried on. Several firms are engaged in the manufacture of mineral waters, for which the water of the Cromac Springs is peculiarly adapted. Belfast also has some of the largest tobacco works and rope works in the world.


In conformity with the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1840 the constitution of the corporation was made to consist of ten aldermen and thirty councillors, under the style and title of " The Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses of the Borough of Belfast." In 1888 the rank of a city was conferred by royal charter upon Belfast, with the incidental rank, liberties, privileges, and immunities. In 1892 Queen Victoria conferred upon the mayor of the city the title of lord mayor, and upon the corporation the name and description of The Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Citizens of the city of Belfast." By the passing of the Belfast Corporation Act of 1896, the boundary of the city was extended, and the corporation made to consist of fifteen aldermen and forty-five councillors, and the number of wards was increased from five to fifteen. By virtue of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, Belfast became a county borough on the 1st of April 1899. By the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, Belfast became for assize purposes "the county of the city of Belfast," with a high sheriff. It is divided into four parliamentary divisions north, south, east and west, each returning one member. The total area is 16,594 acres.


The etymology of the name (for which several derivations have been proposed) and the origin of the town are equally uncertain, and there is not a single monument of antiquarian interest upon which to found a conjecture. About 1177 a castle is said to have been built by John de Courcy, to be destroyed by Edward Bruce in 1316. It may be noted here that Belfast Castle was finally burnt in 1708; but a modern mansion,, on Cave Hill, outside the city, bears that name. About the beginning of the 16th century, Belfast is described as a town and fortress, but it was in reality a mere fishing village in the hands of the house of O'Neill. In the course of the wars of Gerald Fitzgerald, 8th earl of Kildare, Belfast was twice attacked by him, in 1503 and 1512. The O'Neills, always opposed to the English, had forfeited every baronial right; but in 1552 Hugh O'Neill of Clandeboye promised allegiance to the reigning monarch, and obtained the castle of Carrickfergus, the town and fortress of Belfast, and all the surrounding lands. Belfast was then restored from the half ruined state into which it had fallen, and the castle was garrisoned. The turbulent successors of O'Neill having been routed by the English, the town and fortress were obtained by grant dated the 16th of November 1571 by Sir Thomas Smith, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, but were afterwards forfeited by him to the lord deputy Sir Arthur Chichester, who, in 1612, was created Baron Chichester of Belfast. At this time the town consisted of about 120 houses, mostly built of mud and covered with thatch, while the castle, a twostoreyed building, was roofed with shingles. A charter was now granted to the town by James I. (April 27, 1613) constituting it a corporation with a chief magistrate and 12 burgesses and commonalty, with the right of sending two members to parliament. In 1632 Thomas Wentworth, Earl Strafford, was appointed first lord deputy of Ireland, and Belfast soon shared largely in the benefits of his enlightened policy, receiving, among other favours, certain fiscal rights which his lordship had purchased from the corporation of Carrickfergus. Two years after the rebellion of 1641 a rampart was raised round the town, pierced by four gates on the land side. In 1662, as appears by a map still extant, there were i 50 houses within the wall, forming five streets and as many lanes; and the upland districts around were one dense forest of giant oaks and sycamores, yielding an unfailing supply of timber to the woodmen of Carrickfergus.

Throughout the succeeding fifty years the progress of Belfast surpassed that of most other towns in Ireland. Its merchants in 1686 owned forty ships, of a total carrying power of 3300 tons, and the customs collected were close upon X20,000. The old charter was annulled by James II. and a new one issued in 1688, but the old was restored in 1690 by William III. When the king arrived at Belfast in that year there were only two places of worship in the town, the old corporation church in the High Street, and the Presbyterian meeting-house in Rosemary Lane, the Roman Catholics not being permitted to build their chapels within the walls of corporate towns.

At the beginning of the 18th century Belfast had become known as a place of considerable trade, and was then thought a handsome, thriving and well-peopled town, with many new houses and good shops. During the civil commotions which so long afflicted the country, it suffered less than most other places; and it soon afterwards attained the rank of the richest commercial town in the north of Ireland. James Blow and Co. introduced letterpress printing in 1696, and in 1704 issued the first copy of the Bible produced in the island. In September 1737, Henry and Robert Joy started the Belfast News Letter. Twenty years afterwards the town contained 1800 houses and 8 549 inhabitants, 556 of whom were members of the Church of Rome. It was not, however, till 1789 that Belfast obtained the regular communication, which towns of less importance already enjoyed, with Dublin by stage coach, a fact which is to be explained by the badness of the roads and the steepness of the hills between Newry and Belfast.

The increased freedom of trade with which Ireland was favoured, the introduction of the cotton manufacture by Robert Joy and Thomas M`Cabe in 1777, the establishment in 1791 of shipbuilding on an extensive scale by William Ritchie, an energetic Scotsman, combined with the rope and canvas manufacture already existing, supplied the inhabitants with employments and increased the demand for skilled labour. The population now made rapid strides as well by ordinary extension as by immigration from the rural districts. Owing to the close proximity of powerful opposed religious sects, the modern history of the city is not without its record of riot and bloodshed, as in 1880 and 1886, and in August 1907 serious rioting followed upon a strike of carters; but the prosperity of the city has been happily unaffected.

See George Benn, History of Belfast (Belfast, 1877); Robert M. Young, Historical Notices of Old Belfast (Belfast, 1896).

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