The city of Belfast is situated at the head of Belfast Lough. It is surrounded on the other three sides by high hills. Belfast grew during the Industrial Revolution and many of its buildings are Victorian in style. In 1800 there were only about 20,000 people living in the town; by 1900 it was a city of 350,000 people. Today, about 277,200 people live in Belfast. When Northern Ireland separated from the rest of Ireland in 1922, Belfast became the capital and the city where the Northern Ireland parliament met.
AN INDUSTRIAL CENTRE
Irish linen is famous throughout the world. Linen is still woven in Belfast, but many factories now make material and clothes from man-made fibres. Some of the old warehouses where the linen was stored have been renovated and put to new uses. Money from the linen industry helped give Belfast splendid buildings such as the Linen Hall Library, where many historic books and documents are kept and studied.
Belfast is also famous for shipbuilding. The deep, sheltered waters of Belfast Lough made it a good harbour and place for launching large ships. Other industries developed to help shipbuilding, such as rope-making and engineering. The Harland and Wolff shipyard in east Belfast was the biggest in Britain, and has one of the world’s largest dry docks for checking and repairing ships. Warships, oil tankers and great ocean liners were built there, including the Titanic, which sailed from Southampton on its tragic maiden voyage in 1912.
Industries such as shipbuilding, engineering and textiles are not as important now and they employ fewer and fewer workers. Today the port of Belfast has been modernized, and there are newer industries in and around the city making aircraft, chemicals and computer items. The Northern Ireland Technology Centre does research to help new industries develop.
FROM TROUBLES TO PEACE
Belfast is a city that has a religious divide. West Belfast is mainly Catholic; east Belfast is mainly Protestant. Near the edges of the city there are areas with a roughly equal number of Catholics and Protestants. During The Troubles, from 1969 to 1994, the biggest problems were in the border areas between the mainly Catholic and mainly Protestant areas, and a large “Peace Wall” was built to try to keep rival groups apart.
The colourful murals painted on the sides of houses and other buildings were inspired by The Troubles. You can see them in and around Falls Road (Catholic) and Shankill Road (Protestant), both of which are west of the city centre. They are propaganda pictures for one side or the other, but now they are also seen as open-air art and history, and they have become a tourist attraction.
Belfast city centre is a bustling place where many roads have been pedestrianized. Queen Victoria visited in 1849, and made Belfast a city in 1888. There are many statues and other reminders: the Albert Memorial Clock Tower on Queen’s Square; Albert Square and Victoria Street and a statue of Queen Victoria guarding the front of City Hall. Queen’s University was founded in 1845, and the Queen’s College building was opened by Queen Victoria in 1849.
Many of the imposing Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the city centre are decorated with statues, such as the Custom House; the Ulster Bank building, which has sculptures of Britannia, Justice and Commerce; and Yorkshire House with its 16 sculptured heads. There are many other sculptures in and on churches, museums and art galleries.
When Northern Ireland’s parliament meets it uses Stormont Castle, about ten miles east of Belfast city centre at Hillsborough. Belfast Zoo and Belfast Castle are on Cave Hill, to the north of the centre, which you can climb for great views of the city and Belfast Lough. On a clear day you can even see part of Scotland.