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Slums, brothels and seedy dives....journey into the dark side of Belfast

With its cobbled streets, trendy restaurants and five-star hotel, the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast is the epitome of city centre chic.

But behind its fashionable facade lurks a dark and dangerous past — where drunken sailors mingled with women of the night and rebels gathered for secret meetings.

North Street was an overcrowded slum where families slept in one-roomed houses and unemployed fathers drowned their sorrows in the local tavern.

Now these old brothels and ale-houses are to be brought to life again in a new walking tour which celebrates the darker history of the Cathedral Quarter and the lower end of Royal Avenue.

The Belfast: City Of Sin tour will focus on a relatively unexplored side of this part of town through poetry, songs and stories. The tour has been launched as part of the Coors Light Open House Festival.

Led by Alan Burke, one of Ireland’s finest traditional singers, and performance poet Gearóid MacLochlainn, the tour leaves from the Northern Whig and explores Belfast’s hidden heritage from the early development of the city through the industries, characters and events that helped shape Belfast today.

Festival director Kieran Gilmore believes Belfast: City Of Sin will help cast light on a fascinating side of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

“Cathedral Quarter is the oldest and most fascinating part of the city, the true heart of Belfast,” he said.

“It was the main trade and warehousing area, encompassing the docks, the newspaper houses, the Customs House, the Speakers’ Corner, the Assembly Rooms, the brothels and the alehouses.

“Belfast: City Of Sin will give people the opportunity to find out more about the history of this part of the city which may have transformed since then, but still remains an inspiration to many.”

This part of the city was also the inspiration for Belfast artist Terry Bradley for his ‘Sailortown and Titanic’ collection.

This was the first collection where Terry has concentrated his paintings on men, depicting characters based on Ireland’s hardworking docker industry and the Sailortown area around Belfast which saw its heyday over 100 years ago.

The pieces show proud and rugged faces of the men who built and worked in the famous sea ports of both Dublin and Belfast.

Terry said: “I love the history and culture in this part of my city. The area is rich in folklore, history, arts and tradition and my ‘Sailortown’ and ‘Dockers’ work was truly inspired by the characters and places that brought this history to life.”

The tour will take in the old Muddlers’ Club at the back of the Northern Whig, where the United Irishmen used to meet. It was also a well-known alehouse and brothel.

It will also explore the history of the Assembly Rooms, where the Harpers Festival of 1792 was held, the over-crowded slums of Hill Street and Donegall Street, the pottery and tannery of Waring Street, the brothels and alehouses of North Street and the area around St Mary’s Chapel.

The tour will then explore the history of Castle Street and Smithfield, known as the Republic of Smithfield for its lawlessness.

It will also take in High Street and Castle Place, Cornmarket, where United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken was hanged, and finally, Speakers’ Corner at Custom House Square, where Irish trade union leader Jim Larkin famously spoke in 1907.


  • The Cathedral Quarter used to be called the Half Bap.
  • In Royal Avenue (Hercules Street) there were 57 butcher’s shops.
  • An Irish-speaking community of fish-mongers called the Fadgees, who hailed from Omeath, settled in the Smithfield area of the city.
  • The Potthouse bar was built on the site of an old pottery in Waring Street, hence its name.
  • Donegall Street was built to re-house residents who lived close to the tannery in Waring Street - because they had to get away from the stench of the hides.


Terri Hooley’s Alternative Belfast Walking Tour

Punk godfather Terri Hooley leads a one-off tour full of stories of the people and the city he loves. Departs Marcus Music 7.30pm and 9pm on Friday, September 25.

Late Night Art Tour

Cathedral Quarter Gallery walking tours led by experienced Belfast artists. Depart from Belfast Exposed Donegall Street 4:30pm, 6.30pm and 8pm (duration 45 minutes).

Literature Tour

A fixed part of the cultural landscape of the city centre since its inception five years ago, the tour focuses on such literary greats as Derek Mahon, Jonathan Swift and John Hewitt.

Ghosthunting Tour

New tour of Crumlin Road jail, conducted by the Northern Irish Paranormal Research Association. Begins on October 1 and is fully booked. More tours expected to follow.

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Belfast Telegraph