Belfast’s history as a modern town begins on 27 April 1613. A royal charter, issued in the name of James I, transformed what had been a collection of dwellings by a river crossing into a legal entity governed by a corporation of 13 men, headed by a sovereign.
At the time the change was not seen as particularly significant.
The new charter, in fact, was one of forty issued at around this time, partly to promote the economic development of Ireland by extending its urban network and partly, since the new towns each sent two members to the Irish parliament, to ensure a safe government majority in the forthcoming parliamentary session.
The land on which the new borough stood was part of a large estate just granted to Sir Arthur Chichester, in return for his services in the recent conquest of Gaelic Ulster. The centre of Chichester’s estate, however, was the much longer established Carrickfergus, and that is where he initially took up residence. It was not until the 1630s that the family realised their mistake, and transferred their residence to a rebuilt or much-expanded mansion in what was now emerging as the more important centre at Belfast.
The reason why Belfast blossomed in this unexpected way lay in its geographical position. Already in the Middle Ages it had been recognised as a strategic site, marked by a castle, because of the sandbar that created a shallow crossing point on the broad, meandering River Lagan. In addition the Lagan Valley provided a natural corridor stretching into a fertile agricultural region which also, from the late 17th Century, became a centre of linen spinning and weaving.
As the Irish economy expanded, Belfast thus became both a communications hub and an increasingly busy port. Around 1685 the importance of the river crossing was confirmed when the ford was replaced by a stone bridge of 21 arches (the ‘Long Bridge’), the largest structure of its kind in Ireland at that time. In 1731, Belfast became the first Ulster port to open a direct two-way trade across the Atlantic, exporting linen, beef, pork, and butter to the
French and British colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and importing flaxseed, timber, sugar and tobacco.
At this stage Belfast was still a relatively small centre. It had just two main streets, Waring Street, the site of the original settlement, and High Street, initially a quay on either side of the River Farset, with the street emerging as the water was gradually culverted over.
The population in 1757 was about 8,500. From the 1760s, however, the first marquis of Donegall, now head of the Chichester family and still the sole owner of the land on which the town stood, promoted a major programme of rebuilding, extending the town centre by the construction of North Street, Donegall Street, Castle Place and Donegall Place. Meanwhile the town’s exports continued to rise, with the boom in transatlantic trade. In particular, Belfast now became the unchallenged capital of Ulster’s hugely successful linen manufacture, an achievement confirmed by the construction in 1785 of the White Linen Hall on the site of the present City Hall. By 1800, the population of the town had risen to around 20,000. Today two fine buildings, the former poor house on Clifton Street, and Rosemary Street Presbyterian church, stand as memorials of this age of prosperity and urban improvement.
Eighteenth-century Belfast was still primarily a port and commercial centre. The linen on which much of its prosperity depended was spun and woven in households across rural Ulster, before being collected at fairs and markets for export through Belfast. In the late 1770s, however, the first factories appeared using the new technology of water or steam powered machinery to spin thread. Initially the fabric produced was cotton, where Irish firms faced stiff competition from Scottish and English producers. From 1826, however, it became possible to apply machine spinning to Belfast’s speciality, linen. Factory based industry now spread rapidly, with migrants flocking from the countryside in search of employment.
Visitors talked of Belfast, with a population of almost 100,000 in 1851, as Ireland’s Manchester. Over the next few decades the
establishment of the shipbuilding firms of Harland and Wolff in 1858 and Workman, Clark and Company in 1880 laid the foundations for the second great pillar of the town’s prosperity.
Where linen employed mainly women, in an industry increasingly vulnerable to competition from low cost producers in eastern Europe, shipbuilding, and other branches of engineering that developed in association with it, created well-paid employment for skilled male workers, thus securing the town’s future as a thriving industrial centre.
The growth of shipbuilding and heavy engineering, in a region without its own supplies of coal and iron, is at first sight difficult to explain. Something was owed to the design skills of Edward Harland, and to the close personal links with major shipping lines developed by Gustav Wolff and by a later director, William Pirrie. Harland and Wolff also benefited from entering shipbuilding late, and hence with the latest technology.
But the most important factor, once again, was geography.
At a time when the existing shipbuilding centres on the Mersey and Clyde were becoming increasingly congested, Belfast offered a new site, with excellent port facilities and a short sea crossing that facilitated the easy circulation of raw materials and technical expertise. Belfast’s massive growth set it clearly apart from other Irish centres, where the 19th Century brought industrial decline and depopulation. For much of this period its inhabitants continued to see themselves as residents of an Irish city. Queen Victoria, visiting Belfast in 1849, was welcomed with shamrocks, harps and banners proclaiming Céad Mile Fáilte.
Later, in response to the rise in other provinces of an increasingly aggressive Catholic nationalism, this sense of an Irish identity became more problematic. Instead it became fashionable to emphasise the contrasts between Belfast and the rest of Ireland, and in particular to stress the town’s Scottish heritage.
Nationalists, on the other hand, continued to insist that Belfast was just another Irish city, oblivious to how little their vision of a rural Ireland cut off from the rest of the world by economic and cultural protectionism had to offer to a city whose past and future were so bound up with the international economy.
The fascination of Belfast lies precisely in its dual character — as a British industrial city located on the island of Ireland, and as an Irish city that played a significant part in the process by which the United Kingdom became for a time the workshop of the world.