History of Belfast

Belfast, the capital and largest city in Northern Ireland, has a history that dates back to the Bronze Age (around 1900 BC), although it established itself as a major urban hub only during the 18th century. Since then, despite periods of great difficulty and armed conflict, Belfast has remained a major commercial and industrial centre throughout its history.

Today, there are many hill forts scattered around Belfast that serve as reminders of the Bronze Age. The original Belfast Castle, the most magnificent of the Bronze Age structures, has since been demolished but a new castle has been erected in its place on the slopes of the Cavehill.

Under Sir Arthur Chichester, English and Scottish Protestant settlers occupied Belfast in the 17th century as part of a plan to colonize and drive away Irish Catholics from Ireland. In response, Irish Catholics launched a rebellion against the Protestant settlers in 1641. They slaughtered the invaders who were forced to flee to Carrickfergus where the Scottish army later sent reinforcements to squash the Irish Catholic rebellion. Following the war, a significant Scottish population settled in Belfast. They were later joined by a small number of French Huguenots, precursors of the local linen trade, which thrived under the hands of rural-based small producers..

During the 18th century, Belfast flourished as a commercial centre, mainly by exporting linen and importing British goods. Aside from its merchant endeavours, Belfast was also known for its radical politics rooted in the Penal Laws’ discrimination against the predominantly Presbyterian population.

By the 19th century, Belfast was the industrial capital of Ireland, with its economy bolstered by industries such as linen, tobacco, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. The city became a land of jobs and opportunity. The shipyards of Belfast, where the ill-fated RMS Titanic was constructed in 1911, employed over 35,000 workers. Peasants from Scotland, England, rural Ulster and all across Ireland headed to Belfast to seek their fortune. Unfortunately, this fast-growing cultural melting pot also led to a recurring series of sectarian riots. By the end of the 19th century, Belfast had briefly supplanted Dublin in population to become the largest city in Ireland.

In 1920, the Government of Ireland Act named Belfast as the capital of Northern Ireland. From 1920-1922, Belfast was wracked with bloody sectarian violence, mostly directed against Catholics who were forced to leave the city by the thousands.

The Great Depression and its resulting economic difficulties led to more sectarian rioting in the 1930s as well as the Outdoor Relief Riots of 1932, which were non-sectarian in nature.

The advent of World War II saw unparalleled death and destruction in Belfast as German forces constantly bombed the city, despite the fact that the isle of Ireland had remained neutral during the war. On April 15, 1941, the infamous Belfast Blitz saw 200 German Luftwaffe bombers pound the city, particularly east Belfast near the shipyards, claiming the lives of over a thousand people and damaging over half of the houses in the vicinity. Overnight, virtually one-fourth of the 415,000 population of Belfast were rendered homeless. Ironically, Belfast was a prime target of the Germans because of its heavy shipbuilding and aerospace industries, but the presence of these industries also led to a superb economic recovery in light of the demand for their products during that time.

After the war, Belfast experienced a brief period of peace before further sectarian rioting broke out in August 1969, again directed against Catholics. An RUC armoured car blasted the Catholic Divis Flats area, killing several people, including two young children. Loyalists also burned Bombay street, a predominantly Catholic neighbourhood. These attacks coupled with the loyalist leanings of the police and inability of the Irish Republican Army to defend Catholics led to the birth of the militant Provisional IRA, the driving force behind an armed campaign against the state of Northern Ireland.

During the 1970s, bombings, street violence and assassinations became everyday occurrences in Belfast. On “Bloody Friday” in 1972, the IRA detonated 22 bombs in the city centre, killing nine people. In retaliation, loyalists paramilitaries, the UVH and UDA began killing Catholics at random.

In 1969, the British army was deployed to restore order in Belfast. They constructed huge fortified barracks and patrolled the streets. Their first armed encounter came in June 1970 in a three-day gun battle against the IRA. During Operation Motorman in 1972, the British army deployed thousands of troops to re-take nationalist “no go areas” in the city.

Armed violence led to a huge exodus of families, mostly Roman Catholics, from Belfast in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, the decline in local industries and continuing political violence further ravished the city’s economy. The riots continued throughout the decade, punctuated by the Milltown Cemetery attack in 1988 when two off-duty British soldiers were hanged.

A ceasefire was called between loyalist and republican paramilitary forces in 1994 and in 1997, unionists lost control of the Belfast City Council for the first time. Subsequent council elections in 2001 and 2005 would maintain the balance of power between nationalists and unionists.

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