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Belfast History

Belfast began life as a cluster of forts built to guard a ford across the River Farset, which nowadays runs underground beneath the High Street. The Farset and Lagan rivers form a valley that marks a geological boundary between the basaltic plateau of Antrim and the slaty hills of Down: the softer red Triassic sandstones from which their courses were eroded are responsible for the bright red color of Belfast’s brickwork.

Belfast developed slowly at first and, indeed, its history as a city does not really begin until the seventeenth century. A Norman castle was built here in 1177, but its influence was always limited, and within a hundred years or so control over the Lagan Valley had reverted firmly to the Irish, under the O’Neills of Clandeboye, who had their stronghold to the south in the Castlereagh Hills. Theirs was the traditional Irish pastoral community, their livestock and families spread between the hills and valley plain. Then, in 1604, Sir Arthur Chichester, a Devonshire knight whose son was to be the first Earl of Donegall, was “planted” in the area by James I, and shortly afterwards the tiny settlement was granted a charter creating a corporate borough. By the restoration era of 1660 the town was still no more than one hundred and fifty houses in five or six streets, and Carrickfergus at the mouth of the lough held the monopoly on trade.

By the end of the seventeenth century, things were looking up. French Huguenots fleeing persecution brought skills that rapidly improved the fortunes of the local linen industry– which, in turn, attracted new workers and wealth. In 1708, the town was almost entirely destroyed by fire, but it was only a temporary setback: throughout the eighteenth century the cloth trade and shipbuilding expanded tremendously, and the population increased tenfold in a hundred years. Belfast was a city noted for its liberalism: in 1784 Protestants gave generously to help build a Catholic church and, in 1791, three Presbyterian Ulstermen formed the society of United Irishmen, a gathering embracing Catholics and Protestants on the basis of common Irish nationality. Belfast was the center of this movement, and thirty Presbyterian ministers in all were accused of taking part in the 1798 Rebellion. Six were hanged.

Despite the movement’s Belfast origins, the rebellion in the North was in fact an almost complete failure, and the forces of reaction backed by the wealthy landlords quickly and ruthlessly stamped it out. Within two generations most Protestants had abandoned the Nationalist cause, and Belfast as a sectarian town was born. In the nineteenth century, Presbyterian ministers like the Reverend Henry Cooke and Hugh “Roaring” Hanna began openly to attack the Catholic Church, and the sectarian divide became wider and increasingly violent. In 1835, several people were sabred to death in Sandy Row, and sporadic outbreaks of violence have continued from that day on. Meanwhile, the nineteenth century saw vigorous commercial and industrial expansion. In 1888, Queen Victoria granted Belfast city status; the city fathers’ gratitude to her is stamped on buildings throughout the center. By this time the population had risen to 208,000 and, with the continued improvement in both the linen and shipbuilding industries, the population exceeded even that of Dublin by the end of the century.

Partition and the creation of Northern Ireland with Belfast as its capital and Stormont as its seat of government inevitably boosted the city’s status, but ultimately ensured that it would become the focus for much of the Troubles. This became first apparent in March 1969 when Loyalists from the UVF and UPV bombed the Castlereagh electricity sub-station in East Belfast in an attempt to undermine the government of Terence O’Neill and followed up their action by several attacks on Belfast’s water supply. Serious rioting followed that year’s July 12 Orange Order parades, with many families being forced to leave their homes (the beginnings of Belfast’s modern demographic reorganization), and British troops entered West Belfast in August as a result of further disturbances caused by the Battle of the Bogside in Derry. The first “peace line” was constructed to separate Catholic and Protestant areas, while Catholics who had at first welcomed the British Army now began to establish “no-go” areas.

Serious rioting again occurred in March 1970 following Orange parades and continued in Ballymurphy for a further few days, while a major gun battle took place in June in the Short Strand between the IRA and Loyalists. The following day five hundred Catholic workers were forced to leave the Harland& Wolff shipyard by their Protestant colleagues, many never returning. Continued violence led to the introduction of internment on August 9, 1971, a day followed by some of the worst violence in the city’s history in which seven thousand people were forced to flee their homes. While now targeting the security forces in addition to Loyalist paramilitaries, the IRA’s response was Bloody Friday, when 22 bombs exploded during 75 minutes in Belfast’s city center on July 21, 1972, killing nine people and seriously wounding a further 130. This triggered the army’s Operation Motorman, a massive attempt to smash the “no-go” areas. In return, the IRA attacked various army undercover units.

Government attempts to introduce power-sharing via the Sunningdale agreement led to the May 1974 strike called by the Ulster Workers Council, which thoroughly paralyzed Belfast before the British gave in. While the remainder of the 1970s was characterized by the IRA’s bombing campaigns on mainland Britain, Belfast was the scene of vicious internecine disputes. In 1975 alone, the UVF and the UDA killed 120 Catholics, many the victims of the notorious Shankill Butchers. Partly in retaliation, the IRA bombed the Bayardo Bar on the Shankill Road, though it still maintained its prime aim of removing the British from Ireland.

One of those allegedly leading the IRA’s West Belfast brigade was Gerry Adams, who was elected MP for the area in 1983. While he has never taken up his seat in Westminster, Adams was and to this day remains a dominant figure in Belfast and the North’s politics– so much so that in March 1987 a solo UDA operative, Michael Stone, attempted to kill both Adams and another significant political figure, Martin McGuinness, while they were attending the funeral of three IRA members shot in Gibraltar by the British. Stone missed, but was successful in killing three others. As the funeral of one of these victims was making its way to Milltown, a car driven by two army corporals inexplicably drove into the cortege. Mourners dragged the men out of the car and away to waste ground where they were shot. The initial moments were filmed by a television crew and were subsequently widely broadcast, heightening tension even further.

Although political machinations were leading eventually to the IRA’s 1994 declaration of a ceasefire, the Loyalists were still regarded as fair game, and one of the last major bombings of the Troubles took place in October 1993 when the IRA bombed a fish shop on the Shankill Road, believing that Johnny Adair and other leaders of the UDA were attending a meeting above the premises. The bomb detonated prematurely, killing the bomber himself and nine Protestants in the shop at the time. The UDA response was to bomb a bar in Greysteel, Country Derry.

Even before the Troubles, German bombing in World War II had destroyed much of the city, so by the time the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994, much of it resembled a battle site. The end of IRA activities marked a sea change in the city’s fortunes, and significant rebuilding has taken place in the intervening period, especially in West Belfast. Billions of pounds of money poured in from Britain and the European Union for revitalization in the hope that economic growth might help to bring about a more hopeful future. Major shopping centers were built, swish hotels, bars and restaurants seemed to spring up almost overnight, and buildings such as the Waterfront Hall and Odyssey Arena have fundamentally altered the city’s skyline. Young Belfast partied like never before– and continues to do so– while the atmosphere of the whole city center has changed irrevocably.

Nevertheless, feuding has continued to hit the headlines over the last couple of years, particularly over incidents at Holy Cross School in North Belfast, where Protestants sought to prevent Catholic parents from taking their children to school through a Loyalist area, and in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, where a small Catholic enclave sees itself as the victim of a deliberate squeezing-out policy by Loyalists. On a constitutional note, Belfast’s first Sinn Fein mayor, Alex Maskey, took office in 2002.