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history

If you are a keen historian, or just would like to know a little bit more about the sites we will be visiting on our Belfast day trip, this section is for you. Your friendly guide will add much more factoids to the mix on the way as well, of course....

Belfast

The birth of a city...
King JamesThe city of Belfast began in the early 17th century. The name Belfast is a corruption of the Gaelic words Beal Feirste meaning "Mouth of the sandy ford". In 1177 an Englishman called John de Courcy built a castle there. However the actual town of Belfast grew up after 1609 when King James began his policy of settling Englishmen and Scots in Ulster. By 1611 there were Englishmen, Scots and Manxmen living in the thriving community of Belfast. In 1613 Belfast was made a corporation and afterwards it had 2 MPs in parliament.

A growing industry
In the early 17th century Belfast was but a small town with a population of only about 1,000 inhabitants, but had a thriving industry. Wool, hides, grain, butter and salted meat were exported from Belfast to England, Scotland and France, while wine and fruit were imported into Belfast from France and Spain. Later in the 17th century Belfast traded with the North American colonies. Tobacco was imported from there. Sugar was imported from the West Indies and refined in Belfast. By the late 17th century Belfast probably had a population of about 1,500-2,000. It was swelled by French Protestants, fleeing religious persecution in their own country, who introduced linen weaving to Belfast. Other industries in Belfast were brewing, rope making and sail making.

The linen boom
green linen market, belfast - 1839During the 18th century, Belfast experienced a linen boom, when ever-increasing amounts of linen were exported. In 1701 for instance, less than 200,000 yards of linen were exported, but by 1773 the figure had risen to 17 million yards. Most amazingly, the linen was woven not in factories, but in people's homes in the local countryside! As a result, the White Linen Hall was built in 1788 and cotton spinning was introduced into Belfast in 1777. It was only from the mid 19th century the linen industry was industrialised, but by then the cotton industry was declining already severely never to recover again.

Shipbuilding and the Titanic
It was also in the late 18th century that shipbuilding began in Belfast. The port of Belfast boomed: a channel was dug to by-pass one the river Langan's curves, forming Queens Island. TitanicThe channel was extended in 1849 and the extension was named Victoria Channel - both it and Queens Island being named after the visit of Queen Victoria to Belfast in 1849. The Harland and Wolff shipyard was founded in 1862, and became the birthplace of that famous ship , the Titanic, started in 1909.The Titanic was built in 2 years, and was the largest passenger steamship in the world at that stage. It sank on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City after hitting an iceberg even though it was designed by some of the most experienced engineers, while the most advanced technologies available at the time were used to build it. It was a great shock that the Titanic sank, despite the extensive safety features. The fact that it sank on its maiden voyage added to the particularly ironic nature of the tragedy.

19th century misery
As in all early 19th century cities however, the conditions for people who lived in Belfast were appalling. tenementsThe streets were dirty and houses were overcrowded, while the Lagan River was used a sewer. Not surprisingly in 1847 there was an outbreak of typhus (a disease spread by lice). In 1848 cholera struck Belfast. It was only in the late 19th century that conditions improved. New by-laws meant all new houses were built much better, while the Belfast Council built a network of sewers in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

The 20th century and beyond City HallIn the early 20th century City Hall was built and Belfast was made the capital of Northern Ireland in 1920 with the partition of the island of Ireland into two autonomous regions.

To learn more about the contemporary history of Northern Ireland, see our "Politics" section...

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