Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
Random Quote
Random Date
Old map of Ireland

HISTORY

WRITE AROUND IRELAND

Spotlight on Belfast City - Mind, Body & Soul

Nine Glens of Antrim

County Antrim occupies the north-east corner of Ireland with a channel just 13 miles separating its rocky coast from Scotland's western shores. Lough Neagh, the largest inland lake in the British Isles, and the fertile valley of the River Bann take up the western part of the county, while the rest is chiefly composed of small hills and mini-highlands, dropping suddenly to the sea on the northern and eastern shores. Belfast City, Northern Ireland's progressive capital city, developed as a great port and industrial centre during the 18th and 19th centuries and is built around the point where the River Lagan enters Lough Neagh in the south of the county. The east boasts wonderful coastal road running north from the ferry-port of Larne, curving around the base of steep headlands between which the exceptionally beautiful "Nine Glens of Antrim" open out onto the sea. Almost every bay on this route is now geared towards holiday-seekers. The Giant's Causeway on the northern coast, a maze of hexagonal basalt rocks, is among the most remarkable natural formations in our planet.

A Potted History from the Normans to '98
In terms of European cities, Belfast is a surprisingly modern affair. Up until the Napoleonic Wars of the early 18th century, this sprawling metropolis on the shore of Lough Neagh was little more than a bustling village. That said, it's proximity to the Lough and the tidal River Lagan has ensured Belfast's relative importance for many millenia. John de Courcy, Ulster's most spirited Norman conqueror, built himself a castle here following his 1177 invasion of the ancient kingdom and felling a previous fort in the process. De Courcy's castle stood between what is now the Corn Market and Donegall Place for 150 years until Edward the Bruce's army of Scottish banditos destroyed it in 1316. For the next three centuries, Belfast essentially to-ed and fro-ed between the O'Neill chieftains and the English, depending on who had the upper hand. This trend came to a halt in 1574 when the Earl of Essex rudely interrupted a banquet by taking the host, Brian O'Neill, chieftain of Clannaboye (the area surrounding Belfast), his wife, brother and various other supporters outside and executing the lot.

Following the Flight of the Earls to Spain in 1607, Belfast Castle (destroyed by fire in 1708) and its lands fell to Sir Arthur Chichester, Governor of Carrickfergus. Chichester had no time for Roman Catholic Gaelic chieftains and merrily initiated a campaign of mass genocide across the county, prior to planting the land with good Protestant families from Scotland and Devon.

For all their real or imagined sins, these newcomers were an industrious group and over the course of the 17th century set the ball in motion for Belfast's rise to power as a major centre for the import trade and, more importantly, the linen industry. Bear in mind that the estimated population for Belfast in 1600 stands at a whopping 500. The boom is attributed to no less a cad than "Black Tom' Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and Charles I's Lord Deputy in Ireland. Strafford purchased the monopoly on imported goods previously held by the port of Carrickfergus. Sixty years after Strafford's execution, Belfast's population had exploded to 2000, many of whom - Huguenot refugees introduced after 1685 - said their prayers and ordered their battered sausages in French.

Boomtime continued through the 18th century but not without the seeds of discontent which would ultimately blow up into "the Situation" we all know and love. Problem was, the English colonials were mad keen on repressive measures against anyone who wasn't a God-fearing Prod. These were called the Penal Laws. At one time, the Irish Parliament seriously entertained the idea of castrating Catholic priests. At any rate, those being repressed, namely the Catholics (the original Irish) and Presbyterians (Scottish newcomers) united. Religious, economic and political freedom were their goals.
This coincided with an extraordinary period in Belfast's cultural history whereby the town - and it was just a town then - was labelled "the Athens of the North". Prominent citizens became patrons of art and learning, schools and libraries were established and everyone was suddenly mad keen to learn all about the music, language and literature of Ireland. This peaked with the magnificent Harp Festival of 1792, held in the Assembly Rooms of the Old Exchange (now HQ for the Belfast Banking Corporation).

United Irishmen & Birth of a City

The Society of United Irishmen was founded in a Belfast pub in 1791. Four years later, its leading lights - wool magnate Samuel Neilson, librarian Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken, Henry Spiers and barrister Wolfe Tone - climbed to MacArt's Fort on Cave Hill and solemnly swore they'd never quit fighting until Ireland was a free nation. McCracken went on to lead the rebel army to defeat at the Battle of Antrim in 1798, finishing his life at the end of a noose by the Corn Market in High Street.

1791 also saw the foundation of Belfast's once prosperous shipping industry, a testament to the brothers William and Hugh Ritchie. Over the course of the 19th century, the introduction of steam power and a port authority saw Belfast leap ahead of its English rivals in the ship-building industry. In 1862, Harland & Wolff was founded, going on to build some of the world's largest ships, including the 45,000 ton Canberra and the Titanic, before its inglorious closure in 1999.

Meanwhile, the "Made in Belfast" linen industry was also powering ahead. By 1900, over half a million ares of Northern Ireland was devoted to flax.

Look at it this way.

In 1600, there were 500 people living in Belfast. By 1700, there were 2000. In 1800, it was around 25,000. By the time Queen Victoria perished in 1901, the population was 300,000.

Belfast, a borough since 1842, was raised to the rank of city in 1888. In 1920, when six Ulster counties opted out of the new Irish Free State, the 32 year old city was selected to be the administrative centre for the "Six Counties". Since then, Belfast has developed to be Ireland's foremost port and the city limits now stretch deep into the surrounding hills and across the River Lagan into County Down.

20th Century Blues

Belfast's experiences in the 20th century were rarely happy. Nearly 1000 people died during a German Luftwaafe bombing raid in the spring of 1941 and Lord only knows how many lives were shattered and lost during the violence that suffocated the region during the last decades of the century. The world crosses its fingers that this unhappy situation is now resolved. Belfast is certainly making up for lost time, sensitively converting its past scars into tomorrow's hopes. Most exciting of all is the Belfast's regular prominence in international travel mags celebrating an energetic and upbeat 21st century metropolis that offers fun for all the family. Belfast, that once tiny wee village on the banks of the Lagan, has come through the wilderness with its head held high.

The City's Buildings

The City Hall
This handsome Renaissance-style building of Portland stone, arguably Belfast's finest, was completed in 1906, occupying a large chunk in the centre of Donegall Square formerly home to the White Linen Hall. All four corners are surmounted by a tower with an elegant dome rising 175 feet in the centre. Within are located the Council Chamber and other stately halls, sumptuously decorated with marble. Queen Vic and various Belfast dignitaries survey the grounds from the statuary, while to the west stands the Great War Memorial and Garden of Remembrance. Directly opposite the City Hall stands a memorial to the 1500 hapless victims of the Titanic disaster. The ship - the largest, plushest and quickest in the world at the time - was constructed in Belfast. And a fat lot of thanks the Irish got for building it if James Cameron's Oscar-winning epic is to be believed, which it probably isn't.

Linen Hall Library
One of the pinnacles of Belfast's cultural peak as the "Athens of the North", this building on Donegall Square was originally founded as the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge which is about as honourable a name as you get. Not that this helped its first Librarian Thomas Russell much. "The Man from God-Knows-Where", as Florence Wilson called him in her poignant ballad, was one of the founding fathers of the United Irishmen in 1791 but paid the ultimate price for his support of Robert Emmet's Rising in 1803. Textile boffins seeking information on the history of the linen trade need look no further than the shelves of this comprehensive library.

Queen's University, Belfast
Established in 1849 as a sister of the Old Queen's Colleges of Cork and Galway, this Tudor-Gothic building in Belfast's southern suburbs is now hailed as one of the top learning centres in Europe. It was incorporated as a separate university in 1908. The science department is housed in the College of Technology in College Square.

Municipal Museum & Art Gallery
Located in the Botanic gardens, not far from Queen's University, this splendid structure was designed by J.C. Wynne and started in 1923.

Royal Belfast Academical Institution
Not far from City Hall, this building - in part a tribute to Dr. William Drennan of "Emerald Isle" fame - was formerly the very same Belfast College where such greats as Lord Kelvin (1824 - 1907), scientist and inventor, and Viscount Bryce (1838 - 1922), statesman and scholar, received their education. The latter was as great a swot as ever there was, scooping degrees from an astonishing 31 universities during his long life.

Assembly Buildings
This Victorian building, just off College Square, with its graceful pinnacled clock tower, is presently the HQ for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Ulster Hall
Located on Bedford Street in the south of the city, this Great Hall is where many an entertaining cultural, political, social and sporting get together gets together.

Royal Courts of Justice
This colossal Portland stone building is located in Chichester Square (1/4 mile east of the City Hall).

Custom House
Built between 1854 and 1857, between Queen's Square and Donegall Square.

The Albert Memorial
Prince Albert was the rather prim and squeamish German-born husband and "Prince Consort" of Queen Victoria, with whom he sired 756 children. Their romance is bizarre. The marriage was pretty much arranged by elder relatives while the two were still in their teens. Yet, when they met, they fell hopelessly in love and remained 100% devoted to one another until death did them part. Unfortunately their eldest son and heir, the Edward VII to be, was a bold boy and one day took to the hay with an actress at the Curragh in County Kildare. Prince Albert heard the news and within a week he was dead of the shock. The net result was Queen Vic refused to smile for 400 years, made "mourning black" the British national colour and insisted on living to such a ripe old age that Randy King Ed VII only got 9 years on the throne. This Memorial was erected shortly after Albert's death and is known as "the Big Ben of Belfast". A statue of the Prince stands in a niche on the tower overlooking High Street.

St. George's Church
Boasting a particularly fine classical portico, this 1812 masterpiece occupies the site of the original "Chapel of the Ford" and, until its demolition in 1774, the Corporation Church. The executed United Irishmen rebel Henry Joy McCracken was buried here in 1798 but re-interred alongside comrade-in-arms Dr. William Drennan at the Clifton Street Cemetery when his coffin appeared during a rebuilding operation 130 years later.

St. Anne's Church
Designed by Sir Thomas Drew, this dignified modern Romanesque (protestant) church boasts a particularly fine nave, 85 feet wide, and paved with canadian maple and Irish marble. The mosaic roof in the Baptistery is composed of 150,000 pieces of glass arranged to symbolise the Creation. Arguably the biggest celeb buried here was Edmund Carson (d. 1935), the lawyer who put Oscar Wilde behind bars before rising to power as Ulster's foremost Unionist.

Sugarhouse Entry
Unfortunately this narrow passageway between High Street and Waring Street was destroyed by the German Luftwaafe during their bombing raid on the city in the spring of 1941. This was the location of the famous "Doctor Franklin Tavern" wherin one dark night in 1791 a bunch of men including Samuel Neilson, Thomas Russell and Henry Joy McCracken and claiming to be "The Muddlers Club" secretly established the United Irishmen. Neilson's "Irish Woollen Warehouse" stood on the corner of the Entry and Waring Street.

Rosemary Street
Here stood the home of Henry Joy McCracken, spirited martyr of the United Irish rebels in 1798. The founding father of the ambitious movement was hung outside the old Market House, just up the way.

York Street
Site of Gallagher's tobacco factory, once among the largest in the world, and now trading in Silk Cut Red, Purple and Blue. Silk Cut Blue is the preferred choice of smoke for those who have tried to quit and failed.

"The Four Corners"
So-called after a junction where Bridge Street, North Street and Donegall Street meet by the HQ of the Belfast Banking Company (formerly the assembly Rooms of the Old Exchange). This is where the mighty Harp Festival of 1792 was held. The Belfast Newsletter, published continuously since 1737, has its offices on Donegall Street.

St. Patrick's Church
Located in Upper Donegall Street, this Catholic building features a chapel beautifully decorated by Sir John Lavery (d. 1941), the painter, who was born in nearby North Queen Street and baptised in this church.

Stormont
The present HQ of the Northern Irish Parliament, 5 miles from Belfast City centre, by Dundonald, was erected between 1928 and 1932 at a cost of £1,250,000, paid for by Stanley Baldwin's British Government who were full of hope that this would accommodate all the various Houses, Senates and Ministries one would need to keep the embattled province happy. A giant statue of Unionist head honcho Lord Carson of Duncairn, who died in 1935, dominates the circus to the front of the building which must go down a wow with Gerry and the boys whenever they rock up in their Beamers.

Belfast Port
With 7 miles of quays accessible by a deep-water channel from Belfast Lough, the traffic in this area is enormous. Donegall Quay on the River Lagn is where you generally catch the ferries to Scotland, England and the Isle of Man. The gigantic shipbuilding yards of Harland & Wolff (estabd. 1862) pretty much cater to the loading and discharge of every type of cargo there is.

Connswater
This district in east Belfast was home to the Belfast Ropeworks, the largest composite cordage factory in the world. At its peak, the 40 acre factory could produce 350 tons of rope, cord, line and twine every week, not to mention innumerable trawling nets.

The Botanic Gardens
38 acres of delightful lawns, conservatories, gardens, rockeries, promenades and walks adjoining Queen's University on the banks of the River Lagan. Open until sunset. Free entry.

Ormeau Park
137 acres of wooded parkland with sporting facilities and a pleasant boulevard along the banks of the River Lagan.

Victoria Park
Located in east Belfast on newly reclaimed land, the park has sporting facilities (bowls, putting, tennis etc), an open-air swimming pool and a 20 acre salt lake for boating.

Belfast Heroes & Villains

Dr. Samuel Bryson (1778 - 1853), Surgeon and Gaelic Scholar
Bryson developed the fascination with which his father, the Rev. John Bryson, had held for the ancient culture and literature of Ireland by assembling and copying a vast collection of rare manuscripts. Many of these may now be seen at the Belfast Public Library on Royal Avenue.

Dr. William Drennan (1754 - 1820), Creator of the "Emerald Isle" & United Irishman
The son of a Presbyterian clergyman, Drennan was one of the founding fathers of the United Irishmen in 1791 and its President for 2 years. Acquitted of charges of sedition in 1794, he played a key role in establishing the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and the "Belfast Monthly Magazine". Among his published poems are "The Wake of William Orr" and "When Erin First Rose" in which, by the way, he made the first written description of Ireland as the "Emerald Isle". He is buried along with Henry Joy McCracken in the Clifton Street Cemetery.

Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810 - 1886), Poet
Considered one of the finest Irish poets to have used the English language, Ferguson's verse is tinged with an upstanding patriotic character.

Articles