Belfast is a relatively young city, with few reminders of its pre-19th-century history. The city takes its name from the River Farset (from the Gaelic feirste, meaning sandbank, or sandy ford) which flows into the River Lagan at Donegall Quay (it is now channelled through a culvert). The old Gaelic name, Beál Feirste, means ‘Mouth of the Farset’.
In 1177 the Norman lord John de Courcy built a castle here, and a small settlement grew up around it. Both were destroyed 20 years later, and the town did not begin to develop in earnest until 1611 when Baron Arthur Chichester built a castle and promoted the growth of the settlement.
The early-17th-century Plantation of Ulster brought in the first waves of Scottish and English settlers, followed in the late 17th century by an influx of Huguenots (French Protestants) fleeing persecution in France, who laid the foundations of a thriving linen industry. More Scottish and English settlers arrived, and other industries such as rope-making, tobacco, engineering and shipbuilding developed.
With its textile mills and shipyards, Belfast was the one city in Ireland that felt the full force of the Industrial Revolution. Sturdy rows of brick terrace houses were built for the factory and shipyard workers, and a town of around 20,000 people in 1800 grew steadily into a city of 400,000 by the start of WWI, by which time Belfast had nearly overtaken Dublin in size.
The partition of Ireland in 1920 gave Belfast a new role as the capital of Northern Ireland. It also marked the end of the city’s industrial growth, although decline didn’t really set in until after WWII. With the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the city saw more than its fair share of violence and bloodshed, and shocking news images of terrorist bombings, sectarian murders and security forces’ brutality made Belfast a household name around the world.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which laid the groundwork for power-sharing among the various political factions in a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, raised hopes for the future and since then Belfast has seen a huge influx of investment, especially from the EU. Massive swathes of the city centre have been (or are being) redeveloped, unemployment is low, house prices continue to rise faster than in any other UK city, and tourism has taken off.
A historic milestone was passed on 8 May 2007 when the Reverend Ian Paisley (firebrand Protestant preacher, and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party) and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein MP and former IRA commander) were sworn in at Stormont as first minister and deputy first minister of a new power-sharing government.
There are still plenty of reminders of the Troubles – notably the ‘peace lines’ that still divide communities – and the passions that have torn Northern Ireland apart over the decades still run deep. But despite occasional setbacks there is an atmosphere of determined optimism that will hopefully propel Belfast towards a peaceful future.