Flanking the River Lagan estuary, Belfast has an exceptionally attractive setting, with the Castlereagh Hills to the east and a striking escarpment of the Antrim plateau to the west. Belfast also has the unenviable reputation of being the most continuously disturbed city in western Europe since the end of World War II.
Until the twelfth century Belfast was no more than a crossing-place at the mouth of the river where mud banks were exposed at low tide—hence its name, Béal Feirste, which means "approach to the sand-bank crossing." A modest village that grew up around a castle built there by Normans all but disappeared when the Clandeboye O'Neills overwhelmed the earldom of Ulster in the fifteenth century.
Granted Lower Clandeboye (a Gaelic lordship encompassing south County Antrim) at the close of the Elizabethan conquest, Sir Arthur Chichester, the principal architect of the Ulster plantation, encouraged English and Scots to settle in Belfast, and he ensured that it became an incorporated town in 1613. Belfast came through the turbulence of the seventeenth century remarkably unscathed, coming under siege only once. Neglected by Chichester's descendants, the earls of Donegall, the town languished in the first half of the eighteenth century, and its recovery and development thereafter were largely due to the initiative of Presbyterian entrepreneurs. By setting up powered machinery to spin cotton, these men made the town the most dynamic industrial center in the island. Fired by news of the American and French revolutions, they also turned Belfast into the most radical town in Ireland, and it was in Crown Entry in October 1791 that the Society of United Irishmen was founded. The reality of violence in 1798, however, quickly extinguished radical fervor in the town.
More than anywhere else in Ireland, Belfast prospered under the union and was arguably the fastestgrowing urban center in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century. The town's population was a mere 19,000 in 1801; it rose to over 70,000 in 1841; and by 1901 it was the largest city in Ireland, with almost 350,000 citizens. Belfast was given official status as a city in 1888, by which time it was the third most important port in the U.K., after London and Liverpool. The sumptuous city hall, opened in 1906, was in part an expression of pride in Belfast's achievement in producing the world's largest shipyard, ropeworks, aerated-waters factory, linen mill, tea machinery and fanmaking works, handkerchief factory, spiral-guided gasometer, linen-machinery works, and tobacco factory.
Though Belfast had much in common with British city ports such as Liverpool, Glasgow, and Newcastle-on-Tyne, it was an Irish city with Irish problems. The tens of thousands coming in from rural Ulster to seek employment in Belfast had recollections of dispossession, massacre, confiscation, and persecution etched into their memories. By the 1830s about a third of Belfast's citizens were Catholics, though the proportion fell to around a quarter by the beginning of the twentieth century. The unstable and invisible lines dividing Protestant and Catholic districts frequently became sectarian battlegrounds, notably in the protracted riots of 1857, 1864, 1872, and 1886. Such conflicts were intensified by the debate over Ireland's political future. Between 1912 and 1914 Belfast was the pivot of resistance to the third Home Rule bill, and as the Anglo-Irish War got under way, intercommunal hatreds gushed to the surface. Between 1920 and 1922, as Northern Ireland was brought to birth, 416 Belfast citizens lost their lives in a vicious conflict.
The deep scars left by the violence might have healed in time had Belfast enjoyed a long period of prosperity after 1922. However, the economic slump that had begun in the winter of 1920 developed into a protracted depression as the city's traditional staple industries of linen, shipbuilding, and engineering continued to contract. The German air raids of the spring of 1941 demonstrated the failure of the city government to provide the most basic air-raid protection for citizens, and the corporation was suspended and placed under the control of commissioners for more than three years. By mid-1942, however, Belfast was making a notable contribution to the Allied war effort in the production of ships, weapons, ammunition, and uniforms. In the quiet years after 1945 there was a steady increase in living standards, and when traditional industries declined again in the late 1950s, overseas firms, many of them manufacturing synthetic fibers, began to set up in Belfast's periphery.
Sectarian violence in the city led to fatalities on 14 and 15 August 1969, propelling whole districts of Belfast into chaos. For years much of Belfast resembled a war zone: Barricades blocked the entrances to working-class enclaves; hundreds of families were forced from their homes; the rising death toll was composed mainly of innocent citizens; familiar landmarks were destroyed as paramilitaries detonated bombs directed at commercial premises and installations; gun battles raged almost every night; and the city center was almost deserted after 7 p.m. and on weekends. A formidable security fence ringed the city center, and eventually twenty-six peacelines, high-security walls erected at the request of local people, separated the most troubled enclaves. Nevertheless, a significant reduction in violence beginning in the late 1970s encouraged the government to clear dilapidated dwellings, and by the early 1990s much of the city had been transformed, with the quality of planning, building design, and construction attracting well-warranted praise from housing experts around the world. The city center remained a shared space and nightlife made a rapid recovery there in the early 1980s. After decades of decline, Belfast's population rose modestly to 279,237 for the area administered by the city council, and to 475,967 for the greater Belfast area in 1991. Though mutual distrust and occasional confrontations proved impossible to eliminate, following the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 there was a gradual realization that a new era in the city's history was arriving. Nowhere was the transformation of Belfast more apparent than by the River Lagan: There the Waterfront Hall—a concert hall and conference center without rival in Ireland—was opened in 1997; well-lit walkways were constructed along the river; and a Hilton Hotel and entertainment and commercial complexes sprang up on previously derelict sites. Confrontations in the Ardoyne district during 2001 nevertheless indicated the enduring character of Belfast's intercommunal problems.
SEE ALSO Cork; Dublin; Factory-Based Textile Manufacture; Landscape and Settlement; Shipbuilding; Towns and Villages; Primary Documents: On Presbyterian Communities in Ulster (1810, 1812); From Belfast Fifty Years Ago (1875)
Bardon, Jonathan. Belfast: An Illustrated History. 1982.
Brett, C. E. B. Buildings of Belfast, 1700–1914. 1985.
Maguire, W. A. Belfast. 1994.
The swift expansion of Belfast partly determined its politics. Rapid, uneven growth was accompanied by an alteration of the sectarian demography: the proportion of catholic citizens grew from virtually nothing at the beginning of the 18th cent. to one-third by the late 19th and 20th cents. A shifting denominational balance in company with rapid growth brought fluid sectarian frontiers within the city, and political instability: intercommunal violence, notably in 1857, 1864, 1886, and 1921–2, became almost endemic. The industrial growth of the city—unique in an Irish context—brought closer links with the British economy and with the empire: this, in combination with a protestant domination of capital, helped to determine the predominantly unionist character of the city's politics.
BELFAST , capital of Northern Ireland. The earliest reference to Jews in Belfast dates from 1652. Mention of a "Jew Butcher" in 1771 suggests the existence of the nucleus of a community. Jews are again recorded in the 1840s. D.J. Jaffe, who settled in Belfast in 1851, established a congregation in 1869 and built its first synagogue in 1871–72. Joseph *Chotzner was the first minister (1869–80; and again 1893–97). After 1881 the community increased with the arrival of Jewish refugees from Russia. These at first formed their own congregation but in 1903 joined the main congregation. A municipal Jewish elementary school was established in 1898. Sir Otto *Jaffe, twice lord mayor and once high sheriff, served for many years as the congregation's president and built its second synagogue in 1904. Isaac *Herzog served as rabbi of Belfast from 1915 to 1919, followed in 1926 by Jacob Shachter, and in 1954 by Alexander Carlebach (who served until 1965). In 1967 the Jewish population numbered about 1,350. In that year, a new synagogue building was consecrated. In the mid-1990s the Jewish population dropped to approximately 550, and in 2004 to about 500. An Orthodox synagogue and a Jewish community center continue to exist.
B. Shillman, Short History of the Jews in Ireland (1945), 134–6; Carlebach, in: jhset, 21 (1968), 261ff.; idem, in: JC, Suppl. (July 30, 1965); L. Hyman, Jews of Ireland (1972). add. bibliography: jyb, 2004.