Belfast, Co. Antrim
The origins of the cities of Ireland are usually found in 5th Century monastic centres which were overrun by the Vikings some four hundred or so years later to become trading settlements that later "had manners put on them" by the Normans. But Belfast is much newer than that. When the Vikings in 823AD raided what is now known as Belfast Lough, their target was the wealthy monastery at Bangor, and thus their beach-heads were at Ballyholme and Groomsport further east along the lough’s southern shore. Then, when the Normans held sway in the 13th Century, their main stronghold was at Carrickfergus on the northern shore of the wide sea inlet which was known for several centuries as Carrickfergus Bay. And in the tumult of the 17th Century, with the Plantation of Ulster, the Cromwellian campaign, and the WilliamiteWars, Carrickfergus with its powerful Norman Castle continued as a major historical focus.
But at the head of Carrickfergus Bay beside the shallow River Lagan, the tiny settlement of beal feirste - the 'town at the mouth of the Farset or the sandspit' - wasn't noted on maps at all until the late 15th Century. But Belfast proved to be the perfect greenfield site for rapid development as the Industrial Revolution got under way. Its rocketing growth began with linen manufacture in the 17th Century, and this was accelerated by the arrival of skilled Huguenot refugees after 1685.
There was also scope for ship-building on the shorelines in the valleymouth between the high peaks crowding in on the Antrim side on the northwest, and the Holywood Hills to the southeast, though the first shipyard of any significant size wasn't in being until 1791, when William and Hugh Ritchie opened for business. The Lagan Valley gave convenient access to the rest of Ireland for the increase of trade and commerce to encourage development of the port, while the prosperous farms of Down and Antrim fed a rapidly expanding population.
So, at the head of what was becoming known as Belfast Lough, Belfast took off in a big way, a focus for industrial ingenuity and manufacturing inventiveness, and a magnet for entrepreneurs and innovators from all of the north of Ireland, and the world beyond. Its population in 1600 had been less than 500, yet by 1700 it was 2,000, and by 1800 it was 25,000. The city's growth was prodigious, such that by the end of the 19th Century it could claim with justifiable pride to have the largest shipyard in the world, the largest ropeworks, the largest linen mills, the largest tobacco factory, and the largest heavy engineering works, all served by a greater mileage of quays than anywhere comparable. And it was an essentially Victorian expansion - the population in 1851 was 87,062, but by 1901 it was 349,l80 - the largest city in Ireland.
Growth had become so rapid in the latter half of the 19th Century that it tended to obliterate the influence of the gentler intellectual and philosophical legacies inspired by the Huguenots and other earlier developers, a case in point being the gloriously flamboyant and baroque Renaissance-style City Hall, which was completed in 1906. It was the perfect expression of that late-Victorian energy and confidence in which Belfast shared with conspicuous enthusiasm. But its site had only become available because the City Fathers authorised the demolition of the quietly elegant White Linen Hall, which had been a symbol of Belfast's less strident period of development in the 18th Century.
However, Belfast Corporation was only fulfilling the spirit of the times. And in such a busy city, there was always a strongly human dimension to everyday life. The City Hall may be on the grand scale, but it was nevertheless right at the heart of town. Equally, while the gantries of the shipyard may have loomed overhead, they did so near the houses of the workers in a manner which somehow softened their sheer size. Admittedly this theme of giving great projects a human dimension seems to have been forgotten in the later design and location of the Government Building (completed 1932) at Stormont, east of the city. But back in the vibrant heart of Belfast, there is continuing entertainment and accessible interest in buildings as various as the Grand Opera House, St Anne's Cathedral, the Crown Liquor Saloon, Sinclair Seamen's Church, the Linenhall Library, Smithfield Market, and some of the impressive Victorian and Edwardian banking halls, while McHugh's pub on Queen's Square, and Tedford's Restaurant just round the corner on Donegall Quay, provide thoughtful reminders of the earlier more restrained style.
Today, modern technologies and advanced engineering have displaced the old smokestack industries in the forefront of the city's work patterns, with the shipyard ceasing to build ships in March 2003. Shorts’ aerospace factories are now the city’s biggest employer, while parts of the former shipyard are being redeveloped as the Titanic Quarter in memory of the most famous ship built in Belfast, although it’s a moot point if all the people of Belfast wish to be reminded on a daily basis of the Titanic disaster, which occured as recently as 1912.
The energy of former times has been channeled into impressive urban regeneration along the River Lagan. Here, the flagship building is the Waterfront Hall, a large concert venue which has won international praise, and is complemented by the Odyssey Centre on the other side of the river. In the southern part of the city, Queen's University (founded 1845) is a beautifully balanced 1849 Lanyon building at the heart of a pleasant university district which includes the respected Ulster Museum & Art Gallery, while the university itself is particularly noted for its pioneering work in medicine and engineering.
There's a buzz to Belfast which is expressed in its cultural and warmly sociable life, and reflected in the internationally-minded innovative energy of its young chefs. Yet in some ways it is still has marked elements of a country town and port strongly rooted in land and sea. The hills of Antrim can be glimpsed from most streets, and the farmland of Down makes its presence felt.
They are quickly reached by a developing motorway system, relished by those in a hurry who also find the increasingly busy and very accessible Belfast City Airport a convenient boon, while access to the International Airport to the west beside Lough Neagh is being improved. So although Belfast may have a clearly defined character, it is also very much part of the country around it, and is all the better for that. And in the final analysis, Belfast is uniquely itself.
Local Attractions & Information
Arts Council of Northern Ireland 028 90 385200
Belfast Castle & Zoo 028 90 776277
Belfast Crystal 028 90 622051
Belfast Festival at Queens (late Oct-early Nov) 028 90 971034
Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau 028 90 246609
City Airport 028 9093093
City Hall 028 90 270456
Citybus Tours 028 90 626888
Fernhill House: The People’s Museum 028 90 715599
Grand Opera House 028 90 241919
International Airport 028 94 484848
Kings Hall (exhibitions, concerts, trade shows) 028 90 665225
Lagan Valley Regional Park 028 90 491922
Linenhall Library 028 90 321707
Lyric Theatre 028 90 381081
National Trust Regional Office 028 97 510721
Northern Ireland Railways 028 90 899411
Odyssey (entertainment & sports complex) 028 90 451055
St Anne’s Cathedral 028 90 328332
Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park (Rose Gardens) 028 90 320202 / 90603359
Tourism Information 028 90 246609
Ulster Historical Foundation (genealogical res.) 028 90 332288
Waterfront Hall (concert venue) 028 90 334455
West Belfast Festivals 028 90 313440