History of Belfast - Merchant and Industrial Town

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 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. 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.

For 12 July 1829, Orange Institution parades in Belfast were banned, leading to demonstrations and serious rioting in the city. This spread to County Armagh and County Tyrone, lasting several days and resulting in at least 20 deaths. On 12 July 1857, confrontations between crowds of Catholics and Protestants turned into ten days of rioting, with many of the police force joining the Protestant side. There were also riots in Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. In the summer of 1872, about 30,000 Nationalists held a demonstration at Hannahstown in Belfast, campaigning for the release of Fenian prisoners, but leading to another series of riots between Catholics and Protestants in the city. In June 1886, Protestants celebrated the defeat of the Home Rule Bill, leading to rioting again on the streets of Belfast and the deaths of seven people, with many more injured. In the same year, following the Twelfth Orange Institution parades, clashes took place between Catholics and Protestants, and also between Loyalists and police. Thirteen people were killed in a weekend of serious rioting which continued sporadically until mid-September and an official death toll of 31 people. For more information see: 1886 Belfast riots.

In the second half of the 19th century, the city underwent much change. It had started to overtake Carrickfergus as the main settlement in the area. So much so that, at some point, Carrickfergus Lough was renamed as Belfast Lough. Industries were set up and concentrated on Belfast, which resulted in a high level of internal migration to the town. Though Belfast had seen some growth before that. Of the migrants, a fair proportion were Roman Catholics from the west of Ulster, settling mostly in the west of Belfast. Until that point Belfast had been overwhelmingly Protestant. Towards the end of the 18th century, money was raised by collections from both the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland congregations of the town and, together with monies donated by Protestant businessmen, enough was raised to erect the first Roman Catholic church in Belfast - St. Mary's in Chapel Lane.

A couple of years later, at the opening and first mass on 30 May 1784, the mostly Presbyterian 1st Belfast Volunteer Company paraded to the chapel yard and gave the parish priest a guard of honour, with many of the Protestants of Belfast also present and sharing the event. At the time, the Roman Catholic population of Belfast was only around four hundred. By 1866 that number had risen to some 45,000.

Although the county borough of Belfast was created when it was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888, the city continues to be viewed as straddling County Antrim and County Down with the River Lagan generally being seen as the line of demarcation. 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. As noted, since around 1840 its population included many Catholics, who originally settled in the west of city, around the area of today's Barrack Street which was known as the "Pound Loney". West Belfast remains the centre of the city's Catholic population (in contrast with the east of the city which remains 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.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Belfast

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