Belfast History: The Origins of a City

Updated On: April 30, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Belfast or, in Irish, Béal Feirste means “river mouth of the sandbanks”. It is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, and the second largest on the island of Ireland. By population, it is the fourteenth largest city in the United Kingdom. Belfast is at the western end of Belfast Lough and at the mouth of the River Lagan giving it the ideal location for the shipbuilding industry. When the Titanic was built in Belfast in 1911–1912, Harland and Wolff had the largest shipyard in the world. Belfast is a centre for industry, arts, higher education, business, and law, and is the economic engine of Northern Ireland. The city has sustained a period of calm, free from the intense political violence of former years, and substantial economic and commercial growth. Also, Belfast city centre has undergone substantial expansion and regeneration in recent years.

From Docks to Conflict: Belfast History and Memories

The history of Belfast goes back to the Iron Age, but its status as a major urban centre dates to the 18th century. Belfast was a major commercial and industrial centre, but the late 20th century saw a decline in its traditional industries, particularly shipbuilding. The city’s history is marked by violent conflicts between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants which has caused many working-class areas 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 in the inner city and dock areas.

The Belfast area has been occupied since at least the Bronze Age. The Giant’s Ring, a 5,000-year-old hinge, is located near the city, and evidence of Bronze and Iron Age occupation has been found in the surrounding hills. One example is McArt’s Fort, an Iron Age hill fort located on top of Cave hill north of the city.

Until the late 16th century most of the land surrounding Belfast was still in the hands of the O’Neill clan. In 1571 this land was granted to Sir Thomas Smith by Elizabeth I, but Smith failed to take control of the area or to fulfil the requirements of his grant, and so the land reverted to the crown under James I. In 1612 King James granted the town of Belfast and its castle, together with some large estates, to Sir Arthur Chichester.

Despite Belfast’s seemingly growing significance to the English monarchy, it was still very much a small settlement at this stage. John Speed’s 1610 map of Ireland marks Belfast as an insignificant village, and the 1612 patent styles it a town, or village. Nearby Carrickfergus, successfully held by the English for much longer, was still the more prominent settlement and centre for trade.

Throughout the 17th century, Belfast was settled by English and Scottish settlers as part of the Plantation of Ulster, of which Arthur Chichester was a major proponent. During the aftermath of the 1641 Rebellion, the Scottish parliament sent an army to Ulster to put down the unrest. Many of these soldiers settled in Belfast after the Irish Confederate Wars.

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. 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.

Two major developments at the time altered the appearance of Belfast’s centre: in 1784 plans were drawn up for the White Linen Hall (now the site of Belfast City Hall) along with new modern streets (now Donegall Square and Donegall Place). Construction was completed by 1788. In 1786 the River Farset was covered over to create High Street and the ford across the Lagan was removed.

Home of the Titanic: Belfast’s Ship

In the 19th century, Belfast became Ireland’s pre-eminent industrial city with linen, heavy engineering, tobacco and shipbuilding dominating the economy. It had the ideal location for the shipbuilding industry, which was dominated by the Harland and Wolff Company that 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.

In 1912, the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced to Parliament by the Liberal government, which would have given limited autonomy to an all-Ireland Irish Parliament. Unionists, lefd by Edward Carson raised a militia, the Ulster Volunteers, to resist this, by force if necessary. The political crisis heightened tensions in Belfast and rioting took place in the city in July of that year.

Following the end of the First World War and radical Irish nationalist politics after the Easter Rising of 1916, the issues of Irish independence and the partition of Ireland again came to prominence. The separatist Sinn Féin party won a majority of seats in Ireland, though not in Ulster, where Belfast nationalists continued to vote for members of the Irish Parliamentary Party and unionists for the Unionist Party. Thereafter a guerilla war developed between the security forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 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. James Craig was Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister.

A History of Terror: The Belfast Conflict

The conflict began in Belfast in July 1920. On 21 July 1920, rioting broke out in the city, starting in the shipyards and later spreading to residential areas.

The year 1921 saw three major flare-ups in Belfast, Just before the Truce that formally ended the Irish War of Independence on 11 July, Belfast suffered a day of violence known at the time as ‘Belfast’s Bloody Sunday’.

The violence peaked in the first half of 1922 after the Anglo-Irish Treaty confirmed the partition of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.

 The opening ceremony of the new parliament buildings east of Belfast, 1932: A large, symmetrical white building with classical-style columns front and centre sits uphill of the viewer, behind a well-tended lawn.

The parliament buildings at Stormont: Two factors contributed to the rapid end to the conflict. One was the collapse of the IRA in the face of the Northern state’s use of internment without trial. The second was the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in the south, which distracted the IRA’s attention from the North and largely ended the violence there.

The Great Depression: 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. 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.

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.

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. About one thousand people died and many more were injured. Of Belfast’s housing stock, 52% was destroyed.

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 sectarian rioting broke out in the city. 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.

Despite the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, today the city 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.

A Cultural Delight: Sites in Belfast


The Giant’s Ring is a henge monument at Ballynahatty, near Shaw’s Bridge, Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was originally preserved by Viscount Dungannon. The inscribed stone tablet on the wall surrounding the site which details Viscount Dungannon’s interest was carved by Belfast stone carver Charles A Thompson about c.1919. This is confirmed by his granddaughter Ann Aston as told to her by him and was shown the tablet in situ by him. The site is a State Care Historic Monument and has ASAI (Area of Significant Archaeological Interest) status.

The Giant’s Ring dates from the Neolithic period and was built around 2700BC, meaning that it predates the Egyptian pyramids. The original purpose of the monument was most likely as a meeting place or as a memorial to the dead.


Cave Hill is a basaltic hill overlooking Belfast; it forms part of the southeastern border of the Antrim Plateau. It is distinguished by its famous ‘Napoleon’s Nose, a basaltic outcrop which resembles the profile of the famous emperor Napoleon. All of Belfast can be seen from the hill’s peak.

Cave Hill rises to almost 370 metres above sea level. Most of its lower east side lies on the Belfast Castle estate, which has as its focal point the imposing 19th-century Scottish baronial castle. The castle was designed by Charles Lanyon and constructed by The 3rd Marquess of Donegall in 1872 in the Deer Park. The slopes of Cave Hill were originally used as farmland but, from the 1880s, a major planting exercise was undertaken, producing the now familiar deciduous and coniferous woodland landscape.

There are three large caves inside the hill; they are man-made and were originally excavated for iron-mining. On the summit of the hill, you will find McArt’s Fort, which is an example of an old ring fort. It is protected on one side by a precipice and the others by a single ditch, 10 feet in depth and 25 feet in width. The flat top of the fort is 150 feet from north to south, and 180 feet from east to west. It is believed that the fort’s inhabitants used the caves to store white foods for the winter and may have served as a refuge during times of attack.


On the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built, is now the Titanic Belfast museum, it charts the history of Belfast and the creation of the world’s most famous ocean liner. The building contains more than 12,000 square metres of floor space, most of which is occupied by a series of galleries, plus private function rooms and community facilities.


Botanic Gardens were established in 1828 by the Belfast Botanic and Horticultural Society. It was originally known as the Belfast Botanic Garden, the site contained exotic tree species and impressive plant collections from the southern hemisphere. It is home to the Palm House and the Tropical Ravine.

The Palm House contains a range of tropical plants, hanging baskets, seasonal displays and birds of paradise. The Tropical Ravine was built in 1889 by the park’s head gardener, Charles McKimm, and his staff; it contains some of the oldest seed plants, as well as banana, cinnamon, bromeliad and orchid plants.


The Ulster Museum is located in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast and has around 8,000 square metres of public display space, featuring material from the collections of fine art and applied art, archaeology, ethnography, treasures from the Spanish Armada, local history, numismatics, industrial archaeology, botany, zoology and geology. It is the largest museum in Northern Ireland.


St George’s Market is the last surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast. It is located on May Street, close to the River Lagan and the Waterfront Hall.

The market hosts a Friday variety market: flowers, produce, meat, fish, homewares and second-hand goods; a Saturday food and craft market: food stalls to look out for include Suki Tea, Ann’s Pantry bakers and Hillstown Farm and a Sunday market: food, local arts and crafts and live music.


One of Belfast’s most iconic buildings, Belfast City Hall first opened its doors in August 1906 and is Belfast’s civic building. It’s located in Donegall Square, in the heart of Belfast city centre.


Carrickfergus Castle is a Norman Irish castle in Northern Ireland, situated in the town of Carrickfergus in County Antrim, on the northern shore of Belfast Lough. Besieged in turn by the Scottish, Irish, English and French, the castle played an important military role until 1928 and remains one of the best-preserved medieval structures in Northern Ireland.


Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park is a park in South Belfast, covering almost 130 acres. It has meadows, woodland, riverside fields, formal rose gardens, a walled garden and a Japanese garden, as well as a children’s playground, coffee shop, an orienteering course and many walks.


Belfast Zoo is one of the top fee-paying visitor attractions in Northern Ireland, receiving more than 300,000 visitors a year. The site is home to more than 1,200 animals and 140 species. The majority of the animals in Belfast Zoo are in danger in their natural habitat. The zoo carries out important conservation work and takes part in over 90 European and international breeding programmes which help to ensure the survival of many species under threat.


Built over 80 years, the foundation stone to Belfast Cathedral was laid in 1899 and the nave was consecrated in 1904. The new Cathedral was built around the old Parish Church, which remained in use up until 27th December 1903, when the last service was held in it. The parish church, except for the Sanctuary, which was incorporated into the new Cathedral, was then demolished. In 1981 the North Transept was finished and in 2007 the addition of the Spire of Hope was made to the Cathedral. There are beautiful works of art to be seen: mosaics, textiles, carvings and many historical artefacts.

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