History of Belfast

History of Belfast

The history of Belfast as a settlement goes back to the Bronze Age, but its status as a major urban centre dates to the eighteenth century. Belfast today is the capital of Northern Ireland. Belfast was, throughout its modern history, a major commercial and industrial centre. It suffered in the late twentieth century from a decline in its traditional industries, particularly shipbuilding. The city's history has been marked by violent conflict between Catholic and Protestant communities which has caused many parts 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 the inner-city and dock areas.

Early history

The site of Belfast has been occupied since the Bronze Age. The Giant's Ring, a 5000 year old henge, is located near the city, and the remains of Iron Age hill forts can still be seen in the surrounding hills. It became a substantial settlement in the 17th century after being settled by English and Scottish settlers at the same time as the Plantation of Ulster.

The original Belfast Castle was at Castle Junction, where several roads meet at the top of High Street. This was demolished at the same time as the River Farset was covered over to create High Street. There is a new castle on the slopes of the Cavehill above the Antrim and Shore roads, which is now a popular location for wedding receptions.

According to the city's official history (as seen on a plaque outside St. George's Church), the original settlement was based around the marshy ford where the River Lagan met the River Farset (also called the Belfast River), which today would be where High Street meets Victoria Street. The current Church of Ireland church there (St. George's) is thought to be on the site of an ancient chapel used by pilgrims crossing the waters. The castle was later added to protect and dominate this position. Maps from the 17th century suggest that the Lagan was narrowed at this point (so deepening it and making the Farset navigable) at some time before 1680.

Within today's city boundaries the hamlet of Shankill (likely to come from the Irish meaning 'old church' or 'old enclosure') is probably an older settlement than the city that absorbed it.

In the early 17th century, Belfast was settled by English and Scottish settlers, under a plan by Sir Arthur Chichester. After the 1641 Rebellion, many Scots who had come to Ulster as part of the Scottish army sent to put down the rebellion, settled in Belfast after the Irish Confederate Wars. Belfast was later settled by a small number of French Huguenots fleeing persecution, who established a sizeable linen trade.

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 the 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.

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 [cite news |url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/3176184.stm |title=Cranes to remain on city skyline |publisher=BBC News |date=2003-10-09 |accessdate=2007-03-12] . 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.

Originally a town in County Antrim, Belfast county borough was created when Belfast was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888. [cite web | title = Belfast City Hall | work = Discover Northern Ireland | publisher = Northern Ireland Tourist Board | url = http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/product.aspx?ProductID=2782 | accessdate = 2007-05-18]

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. Since around 1840 its population included many Catholics, who originally settled in the west of city, around the area of today's Barrack Street. West Belfast remains the centre of the city's Catholic population (in contrast with the east of the City which is 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 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 and conflict

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. 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 (i.e., those who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom), and the needs and wishes of working class Protestants and Catholics of all classes were virtually ignoredFact|date=August 2008. 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.

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. The Irish Republican Army was weak in the cityFact|date=August 2008 and what actions it did take, such as the killing of policemen, resulted in retaliation with attacks on the Roman Catholic population by loyalists, and sometimes covertly aided by state forces.Fact|date=November 2007 In response to this violence, southern nationalists imposed a boycott on goods produced in Belfast. About 450 people died in sectarian violence in Belfast between June 1920 and July 1922, by when it had largely subsided.

The Great Depression

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. [ [http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/sectarian/brewer.htm CAIN: Issues: Sectarianism: Brewer, John D. 'Northern Ireland: 1921-1998' ] ]

econd World War

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, April 15 1941, when two hundred German Luftwaffe bombers attacked the city, pounding working class areas of Belfast around the shipyards. About one thousand people died and many more were injured. Of Belfast's housing stock, 52% was destroyedFact|date=August 2008. Outside London, this was the greatest loss of life in a single raid during the war. [cite news |url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/1269206.stm |title=The Belfast blitz is remembered |publisher=BBC News |date=2001-04-11 |accessdate=2007-03-12] Roughly 100,000 of the population of 415,000 became homelessFact|date=August 2008. Belfast was targeted due to its concentration of heavy shipbuilding and aerospace industries. Ironically, the same period saw the economy recover as the war economy saw great demand for the products of these industries.

The Troubles

"Main article 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 vicious sectarian rioting broke out in the city "(see Northern Ireland riots of August 1969)". 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.

The violence intensififed 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. Loyalists paramilitaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) retaliated against the PIRA campaign by killing Catholics at random. A particularly notorious group, based on the Shankill Road in the mid 1970s became known as the Shankill Butchers.

The Army, first deployed 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 was overwhelmingly Protestant, but today is almost evenly balanced due to higher Catholic birth rates and rising prosperity, together with Protestant emigration (both internal, e.g., to North Down and external) have fundamentally changed the balance.

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. Most of Belfast is highly segregated with enclaves of one community surrounded by another (e.g., Protestant Glenbryn estate in North Belfast, and the Catholic Short Strand in east Belfast) feeling under siege. Fitful paramilitary activity continues, often directed inwards as in the loyalist feuds and the killing of Catholic Robert McCartney by PIRA members in December 2004.

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 Belfast 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. In the largely nationalist west of the city which bore the brunt of much of the social unrest a Sainsburys Super Market is opening.


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