Topics include Dining Scene, United Kingdom: For Foreign Visitors & more!
Though there has been settlement in and around the current city of Belfast for almost a millennium, the history of the modern City really only dates back to the Seventeenth Century. The name is a corruption of the Gaelic Beal Feirste, meaning "mouth of the sandy ford" and records of buildings in this area date back at least to 1177 when the Norman John deCourcy built a castle here. However, the modern city owes its origin more to the Chichester family.
This family was granted lands by King James I under the Plantation of Ulster. The Plantation took place in the early part of the Seventeenth Century when the financially embattled James was faced both with the problem of mounting debts in his Scots Kingdom combined with revolutionary unrest in Ireland and in particular in Ulster. There had been several rebellions during the reign of Elizabeth I as the native Irish attempted to preserve their customs, language and after the reign of Henry VIII their religion. The Norman Invaders of the 1100's had been entirely subsumed into the native population and had adopted their customs until by the beginning of the Tudor Period, English custom and absolute rule had been limited to an area around Dublin known as the Pale. All previous attempts at settling and planting Ireland had to a greater extent failed and Ulster in particular became extremely rebellious.
In Ulster, there were no English settlers or garrisons west of Lough Neagh. With its mountains, lakes and forests, the region was eminently defensible. The Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O'Neill who was a former favourite of the Queen, raised an army of 600 men and attempted a rebellion against English rule along with Spanish help. In 1601, he marched to Kinsale to meet the invading Spanish troops (still smarting from the defeat of the Armada of 1588 and still pursuing the Spanish claim to the English throne through Philip II who had been declared joint Monarch with Mary Tudor). Whilst marching, the Irish were ruthlessly routed and Tyrone retreated to his native county where he submitted to the Queen's Representative Lord Mountjoy. He and the other Ulster Earls found the increased English grip on Ulster to be too much to stomach and in 1607, they fled to the Continent. This effectively left Ulster without a ruling class.
The profligate James I who had run up fantastic debts in securing the English throne seized upon this opportunity to pay his debts whilst also settling the Province of Ulster. The Crown confiscated the lands of the Earls and James directed that their lands should be given to his Scots creditors on the understanding that they would administer the Province and improve its infrastructure. Hundreds of Scots settlers poured into Ulster in the most effective plantation yet attempted and one the effects of which reverberate to this day.
The area today covered by the city of Belfast was granted to Sir Arthur Chichester who rebuilt the castle in 1611. A town soon sprang up in its shadow. In 1613 Belfast, with a population approaching 1000, was made a corporation and afterwards it sent 2 MP's to Westminster. In effect however the Chichesters remained in absolute control of the town. In the main, Belfast's economy was based upon the export of agricultural items brought into the town from the surrounding countryside but with the arrival of French Hugenots after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, linen, rope making and sail making took over as the main source of income for the town. The population of the town continued to expand gradually throughout the eighteenth century and the port was expanded. Shipbuilding began in 1791.
However, the period of greatest growth was in the period after the Industrial Revolution when linen making and shipbuilding exploded. Hundreds of linen mills sprang up around Belfast and the surrounding area and by the latter nineteenth century, Ulster was the world’s largest producer of linen and had one of the world's most important shipyards, Harland and Wolff, established in 1862. Belfast was granted a constituent College of the Royal University of Ireland in 1849 (later The Queen's University) the same year the River Lagan was improved, creating the Port of Belfast and the Queen's Island shipyard. The population of Belfast exploded. By 1901, the population reached 349,000 and at one point thereafter Belfast's population exceeded that of Dublin.
In 1888, Queen Victoria granted the status of City upon the town of Belfast and during this period, a scheme of improvement created the city centre as it still looks today with the clearance of Hercules Street and the building of the stately Royal Avenue and Donegall Place. Work on Sir Arthur Brumell Thomas' masterpiece, the City Hall was completed in 1906 and by this point Belfast represented perhaps better than any other city in the United Kingdom the civic pride and self confidence of Edwardian Britain. Just three years later, the keel plate was laid on the world's largest ship, the Titanic which at this point embodied Belfast's pride and confidence.
Below the surface, however, sectarian problems were already bubbling. Nationalism had undergone something of a revival and nowhere was this more resented than in Belfast where the majority of the citizens believed that their continued wealth was dependent upon retaining their place in the British Empire. When the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912, the largest rally ever seen in the City was held at the City Hall where many thousands queued to sign a Covenant undertaking to do everything in their power to prevent the establishment of a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin. At this point, the problem was not as simple as Protestant against Catholic as many of the Catholic middle classes feared the economic consequences of Home Rule as much as their Protestant compatriots, but with continued tensions often spilling into violence, each side became increasingly entrenched. Unlike Dublin where the majority of the population was quietly supportive of the bourgeois Irish Parliamentary Party (who merely wanted a degree of independence keeping Ireland within the British Empire), in Belfast, the population was split and staunch in equal measures.
The Home Rule question was put on ice during the Great War but after the abortive declaration of an Irish Republic in Dublin during the Easter Rising of 1916, it became clear that some form of independence would have to be granted in Ireland. The majority of the population of Ulster remained, however, staunchly anti-independence and with the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Westminster feared that they would have to introduce independence by force. To avoid this problem, the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, adopted a compromise whereby the six most staunchly unionist counties of Ulster would be exempted from Home Rule and would be given their own Home Rule Parliament to govern themselves.
The Government of Ireland Act 1920 made Belfast the capital of the new state of Northern Ireland and envisaged that the two Home Rule parliaments in Belfast and Dublin would work in tandem toward the eventual reunification of Ireland. In the event, the population of the remaining 26 counties refused to accept the validity of the Dublin parliament and thus only the Belfast Parliament met at City Hall in 1920 and began the governance of the new state in earnest. A parliament was not created in Dublin until after a bitter guerrilla war and the implementation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922.
In contrast to its civil war ravaged and economically impaired neighbour, the new state of Northern Ireland flourished in its early years as the traditional industries of ship building and linen manufacture continued to grow and it looked as though the partition of Ireland might just have saved the North. By the 1930's however, Ulster and the city of Belfast were thrown into a deep economic depression as a result of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and unemployment grew. Respite came with the Second World War in 1939 when the traditional industries and shipbuilding in particular boomed again. The City did however receive three severe air raids between April and May 1941when large swathes of High Street, Waring Street and the Docks were destroyed. 955 people died and 3,200 homes were destroyed.
After the war, the traditional industries went into an almost terminal decline after 1950. The linen industry was all but decimated by the importation of Eastern fabrics and heavy industry was shifted to the Far East. Unemployment soared. Furthermore, sectarian tensions had once again reached boiling point. The Northern State had always been resented by the minority Catholic population and with the onset of the 1960s, a movement began demanding equal Civil Rights for the catholic citizens. The situation boiled over in 1969 when the British Army was required to intervene to keep the peace in the Province. Thus began the darkest period of Belfast's history as the IRA, UVF and the other sectarian terrorist groups began a concerted campaign of bombing and shooting.
This situation lasted until 1996 when the IRA declared its first ceasefire. Tentatively inward investment increased and Belfast's nightlife began to take off. In 1997, the groundbreaking Waterfront Hall opened to great acclaim. The Laganside Corporation was formed to regenerate the formerly unspeakably grim Docks area and slowly but surely Belfast began to re-invent itself again. Today the city is bustling with locals and tourists admiring its newly restored buildings and regeneration. Hotels, clubs, sports arenas, entertainment centers, pubs and restaurants have sprung up across the city. Whilst Harland and Wolff is now effectively defunct, its former premises are now the subjects of one of Ireland's largest development projects as demand for city centre living has for the first time since the 1920s exploded. Natives of Belfast have always been proud of their city and visitors during the Troubles were welcomed royally, being treated to Belfast's famous craic and locals going out of their way to ensure a great visit. With peace and regeneration has come a renewed sense of confidence and pride. Now is the time to visit; Belfast is as friendly as ever and the locals have even more than ever to share with you.