A Minute History Of Belfast
Belfast is an excellent city for a weekend break. It has a lot to offer and a history that dates back centuries. Yet, when exploring such a great city, it is almost a waste to spend hours in a museum learning about Belfast’s tumultuous history. So here is an article that shortly explains all you need to know about Belfast!
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For Belfast’s earliest history we have to depend on archaeology. The oldest evidence of occupation is called The Giant’s Ring and is a 5,000-year-old henge with a tomb in the middle of it. Much of Belfast’s other early history is vague, but evidence of real settlements and towns date back to about the 12th century around the river Farset. A castle was built by the English and this castle has been captured, conquered, recovered and destroyed several times by different Irish lords, clans, groups over the centuries.
In the 17th century, when the English began to take more control in Ireland, Belfast became one of the most important towns in the country as it was where the English constituted their power. Sir Arthur Chichester was appointed by the English crown as baron of Belfast and was in charge of the organized colonization of Ireland. English, and also some Scottish, settlers came to Ireland to impose their way of life, customs and Protestant church.
This, of course, led to tensions between the native Irish and new immigrants. In 1641 it even came to a rebellion of the Irish gentry who aimed to take back control and regain the rights for Catholics. This coup failed and it evolved into a long lasting conflict between the native Irish, who were mostly Catholics, and the Protestant immigrants from England and Scotland. Throughout the rest of Belfast’s history, these keep reappearing coming back in every political, religious or economical conflict.
Belfast had not really developed much since the arrival of the English, but thrived in the 18th and 19th century because of the Industrial Revolution that had begun in England. Belfast became a real city and also an important port for all sorts of products. Linen, tobacco and heavy engineering products dominated the economy.
Shipbuilding also became important and it employed over 40,000 workers. The RMS Titanic was built here and, at the time, it was the largest ship to be afloat. The ship sank on its maiden voyage on the 15th of April in 1912 due to the collision with an iceberg, as you probably know. The disaster shocked the world and the huge loss of life led to outrage. The wreck of Titanic was not discovered until 1985 and, since its unearthing ,it has become one of the most famous ships in history.
Belfast’s recent history started in the 1920s. Tensions had been rising for the last decade because the majority of Ireland aimed for independence from the British. After a failed uprising in Dublin in 1916 (I mentioned this in my article on Dublin: https://www.rakbo.com/minute-history-dublin/), Irish politicians decided to gain independence through a diplomatic way.
Yet, not everybody agreed that leaving the United Kingdom was a good idea. Belfast had large Protestant communities that wanted to remain part of Great Britain. Militias emerged and they all had different opinions on whether Ireland should remain part of Great Britain or become an independent nation. These tensions erupted into violence. In 1920, ‘Northern Ireland’ was created by the ‘Government of Ireland Act’ in an attempt to solve this conflict. The six counties in the north with the largest Protestant populations remained part of Great Britain.
This creation of a northern and a southern Ireland did not solve the deeply-rooted problems. Militias of nationalists and unionists remained active and re-emerged in the 1960s. Peace marches were organized, but many ended in riots. Some of the protestant inhabitants of Belfast joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in order to fight against the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who aimed for a united Ireland. In Belfast, the ‘Peace Lines’ were built, walls to separate the neighbourhoods of the two fighting groups. These walls eventually made up a length of 34 km (21 miles) right through the city, with gates that would close at night.
The conflict grew more and more complicated over the decades. It was mostly retribution after retribution that killed over 3,500 people, including many innocent civilians. Snipers made the streets dangerous and forced people to use underground tunnels to do their shopping or go to school. The majority of people were killed in the 70s and 80s and most of this took place in Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city. There have also been attacks in England in cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham.
On the 10th of April 1998, a peace treaty was finally signed, marking the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It has been the most prominent and the biggest conflict in Belfast’s recent history and its effects are still very present today.
Present-day Belfast is a wonderful city to visit. If you wish to see the areas where Belfast’s recent history took place, you can take a Black Cab tour. You will be taken to the various Peace Lines on both sides of the city. Most of the walls are covered in graffiti and street art and really help you to see and understand the Troubles.
Belfast also has a university with a beautiful botanical garden you can visit for free. In this garden, you can find the Palm House, built in 1840. It is one of the earliest still standing examples of a glasshouse built with curved iron and glass and it is filled with exotic tropical plants. Afterwards, make sure to visit the Titanic Museum. It has opened only a few years ago and will tell you everything you want to know about how the Titanic was built, launched and eventually how it sank. It has wonderful displays containing all sorts of items that were retrieved from the wreckage, such as letters and even unopened bottles of champagne.
If you wish to go beyond Belfast, you have several options as well. The Game of Thrones tour has become incredibly popular over the last years. Dress up as your favourite character and this tour will take you along the film locations in Northern Ireland. If you wish to see more of Northern Ireland’s nature, take a tour that will bring you to the Giant’s Causeway, an area created by a volcano eruption with 40,000 interlocking basalt stones. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and really worth a visit.
Have you been to Belfast and feel like I missed something? Tell us about it in the comments!