Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, with a population of 348,000 in 2001. The city is located at the mouth of the River Lagan, where it flows into Belfast Lough, which in turn is an inlet into the Irish Sea. The city gets its name from the Irish Beal Feirste, the 'crossing of the sand bank' of the river Feirste. Belfast is well-known for the Troubles which began in 1969, resulting in terrorist campaigns by groups like the IRA and UVF. In recent years, however, the peace process has resulted in a peace dividend for the city, and it has many attractions for the visitor. This writeup will look at places worthy of a visit both within the city and nearby, before giving a brief history of some key events in the city's development.
Places to visit in Belfast
- Belfast Cathedral - This Anglican (episcopal) cathedral was opened in 1904 on a site of worship since the 1700s. It houses Irish marbles, mosaics, and stained glass, the largest pipe organ in Northern Ireland, and the largest Celtic cross in Ireland.
- Belfast City Hall - Edwardian, built in 1906. It reminded me in some ways of Glasgow City Chambers, both with their cenotaphs to war dead outside, and both of similar architectural style.
- Lagan Lookout - Close to the source of the river Feirste, the lookout offers views of the city, and the river Lagan and its weir. Exhibitions about the city can also be found here.
- Palace Stables Heritage Visitor Centre - A restored Georgian stable block, with a 'Day in the Life' exhibition of life there in 1786.
- Queen's University - Founded in 1845 as the Queen's College.
- St Patrick's Trian Visitor Complex - Includes the Armagh Story, Saint Patrick's Testament, and The Land of Lilliput.
- Ulster Museum - Highlights are the Treasures of the Armada, recovered from the Spanish galleon Girona.
- Whowhatwherewhenwhy - Interactive discovery centre
- Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
Belfast was incorporated by a charter in 1613. In 1708 its castle was destroyed by fire, and in 1770 the 'steelboys' movement of Presbyterian farmers marched on Belfast barracks in an attempt to release one of their colleagues. 1886 saw Protestants riot in protest against impending Irish home rule. By this time the city was prospering as a centre of linen, engineering and shipbuilding. 12,000 Unionists and Liberal Unionists met in Belfast to protest Gladstone's home rule proposals in 1892. The Belfast Opera House, designed and built by Frank Matcham, opened in 1895.
In 1920, as the Irish war of independence raged, riots broke out in Belfast, one of the factors leading to the first Northern Ireland parliament, which opened in Belfast City Hall in 1921. During World War II, more than 700 people died in the city in one air raid, in April 1941.
British troops entered the city in August, 1969, in an attempt to control sectarian riots by Catholics and Protestants. A curfew was introduced in July, 1970, after troops were killed by petrol bombs. Internment and a terrorist crackdown again led to riots in 1971. Belfast women launched a peace campaign in August 1976, and John Stalker was removed from an inquiry into allegations of a 'shoot-to-kill' policy by police in 1986, as the Troubles continued. 300 extra troops were brought into the city in 1991 as sectarian murders rose in number.
Hopes rose for peace in 1993 as John Major and Albert Reynolds signed a declaration designed to bring peace to the province. An IRA ceasefire was declared in 1994, and Loyalists responded in kind. Peace talks led to the signing of another peace agreement by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in 1998, designed to lead to a devolved Ulster assembly. Ulster Unionists formed a majority in the first elections to the assembly. The peace process has, however, been dogged by problems since then.
A personal note
I visited Belfast in the early 90s, before the IRA ceasefire - I was visiting a friend I had known at university in Glasgow. I remember the barbed wire around the police stations, and the armoured cars with their Freephone numbers painted on the side (I was bemused to see 666, the Number of the Beast included within one number).
Despite these images, my time there was very peaceful and I enjoyed meeting the friendly people of the city, and visiting the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede. I would recommend a visit to Belfast as one of interest to anyone.
20th Century Day by Day, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 2000
Chronicle of Britain, Chronicle Communications Ltd, 1992
Part of Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK