Belfast Lough has always been a safe haven for shipping and this plus the fact that a fresh water river flowed into the Lough at its neck gave rise to an ancient settlement where the river crossing was easiest. This became known as ‘the crossing of the mouth of the Farset’, Beal Feirste in Irish, which eventually gave the town the name by which we know it today, Belfast. Four hundred years ago the town was a bustling seaport with trade passing both in and out. In 1613 a Royal Charter was granted to Sir Arthur Chichester to expand the waterfront to facilitate docking and mooring and this area has since become Donegall Quay. As trade increased and boat building developed from a craft to an industry through the 18th and 19th centuries the town grew in size and stature until 1888 when it was granted city status, one year before Birmingham’s successful petition.
From High Street to Queen’s Square the Farset flowed to the lough. Eventually as the city expanded and property in this area of town became more expensive the river was diverted through an underground channel and today it still flows beneath the streets. McHugh’s pub in Queen’s Square is believed to be Belfast’s oldest building, and would have serviced a busy port; its not difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle around this area as boats came and went loading and offloading a variety of products; port from Lisbon and sherry from Spain or Guinness from Dublin. Just a little way up High Street lived Henry Joy McCracken, local leader of the United Irishmen, who shared the libertarian aspirations of the French Revolution, and who was hanged in Cornmarket when the famous uprising of 1798 was crushed. During a period of enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century our leading citizens declared their town of 20,000 inhabitants to be ‘the modern Athens’ and sought to create a civic society capable of underpinning their wider hopes.
The waterfront was the engine of the extraordinary wealth and industry that saw Belfast transformed from a small town to a mighty city of over 450,000 people by the beginning of the 20th century. Across the River Lagan at Queen’s Island (now being developed as the £1 billion Titanic Quarter), the Harland and Wolff shipyard grew, making full use of the deep lough and built a succession of ever more luxurious and larger ships, until 1912 when RMS Titanic was launched it had become the greatest shipbuilder in the world, and Belfast one of the world’s most important ports.
With the rising prestige of the city and the growing wealth of the Victorian city fathers they began to demonstrate their civic pride in constructing one impressive building after another; buildings such as Lanyon’s delightful Custom House, where the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope kept an office, the Queen’s University of Belfast, another Lanyon masterpiece. Successive industrial and trading advances utterly transformed Belfast and created this architectural legacy. Belfast could claim not only the largest shipyard in the world, but the largest linen mill, the largest tobacco factory and the largest rope works. Today many highlights of contemporary Belfast were once Victorian warehouses like the luxury boutique hotel Ten Square housed in old linen warehouse and the fashionable Malmaison Hotel once two glorious seed warehouses. The chic Japanese restaurant Zen and that icon of Belfast’s cultural life, the Linen Hall Library both once Linen warehouses. Even the building that most symbolises the city’s great ambitions and aspirations, City Hall, is built on the site of the old White Linen Hall.
Drawing the heart of the city west from the waterfront when it was opened in 1906, City Hall was built to celebrate Belfast’s award of city status in 1888 and its great dome, superb Portlandstone façade and lavish marble halls were designed to impart a message – we have arrived! The twentieth century was a turbulent period for the city as shipbuilding and other industries declined. Belfast lost over 1,000 citizens during the Belfast Blitz of the Second World War and the late 60s saw the onset of the Troubles, which blighted the city for over 30 years. But, today, in one of Europe’s most dramatic transformations, hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in stylish bars and fine restaurants, world-class hotels and stunning visitor attractions and shopping centres.
But Belfast’s greatest, and most unique, attraction is its people, whose enduring warmth and friendliness remain a welcoming truth, their distinct character and culture evolving with the new city as it merges with the old. So wonderful Victorian celebrations of culture and entertainment, such as the Grand Opera House and Ulster Hall, both recently refurbished, join with the more contemporary Belfast Waterfront Hall and Odyssey Arena. They present the best in local and international arts as Belfast’s artists, performers, musicians, crafts people and entertainers are now regularly joined by the finest of their global peers. In acclaimed festivals, and through a packed calendar of cultural events, the city is lit up through the year with a fantastic variety of arts and entertainment, while weekends in Belfast are always a blur of socialising and clubbing, accompanied by live music and DJs.