Early History - Story of Belfast

Portrait of the Earl of Belfast

THIS book is to tell the simple story of the places familiar to us all, for even the names of the streets have a meaning of their own. How many people know why Donegall Pass has such a curious name? For whom was St. Anne's Church named? It was not for Queen Anne. There were five Annes and five Arthurs in the Marquis of Donegall's family and that explains why these names were so frequently used in Belfast. How many know why there is a King John's Road in Holywood, and a King William's Road on the Holywood Hill? Why is there a "Joy" Street in that particularly joyless neighbourhood, or a Fountain Street where no water is now seen?

Why should a road high and dry above the city be called The Falls? We shall find why these things are so in Belfast, and then see what is interesting in the places near us.

The first idea which suggested itself was to take the City Hall as a starting point, and in imagination take a walk along each road leading from it out to the suburbs. This is impossible, for in old times the place where the City Hall stands was surrounded with extensive fields and meadows for grazing, where we now have streets and houses.

We cannot go to the Lisburn Road or the Shore Road when there was no road there, so we must give up that plan and take the places as we can make the best out of them.

Belfast has no very ancient history as we know it in Ireland. Derry, Armagh, Newry, Carrickfergus and Bangor are richer in memories of the olden times, and these neighbouring places are filled with tales of thrilling interest.

Some one has truly said "Happy are the people who have no history," and we know the best times are the years when nothing particular happens. So our fair city has been spared the bloodshed, the cruelties, and the destructions that were so painfully familiar to some more ancient cities.

It is mentioned in the "Four Masters"—a wonderful old book,—that there was a king's residence about ten miles from Belfast and a great fort called Rathmore about the year 680. A little while before that time, Bel-Feirste was the scene of a battle which took place on the banks of the Lagan. St. Patrick was very near us when he was in County Down, but we are not told if he ever really came to Belfast.

The next mention of the town comes with the famous John De Courci, who arrived with a small army in the year 1177. He built a great many castles and churches, and lived in regal state in Downpatrick. He is said to have built the first castle in Belfast and a church where the old graveyard of Shankill is now. It was called the "White Church," and the "Chapel of the Ford " where St. George's Church now stands was a minor building.

De Courci was made the first Earl of Ulster, and he built twenty strong fortalices round Strangford Lough, and great castles and churches at Ardglass and Greencastle, Dundrum, Antrim, and Grey Abbey all owe something to his masterful guiding hand. King John next came in 1210. He arrived at Jordan's Castle in Ardglass on the 12th of July. He visited Dundrum, Downpatrick, and Carrickfergus and crossed the Lough to Holywood on the 29th of July, where the road he passed along is still known by his name. The O'Neills were for one thousand years great warriors in Ulster, and the story of that powerful family would fill volumes. One branch of the clan was intimately connected with Belfast, Clannaboy Clan-Aod-Buide—children of yellow Hugh O'Neill.

The principal stronghold was the Grey Castle, at Castlereagh, which was in existence long before the name of Belfast was on any document, and was once called "The Eagle's Nest" from its situation and the powerful influence of Conn O'Neill. The coronation stone chair of the O'Neills is now in the Museum in College Square. It was found among the ruins of the Old Castle, and was brought to Belfast in the year 1755, but the chair of state had many adventures. It was built into the wall of the Butter Market. No doubt many a farmer's wife found it a resting place. Afterwards for some unknown reason it was taken to Sligo. Then it was brought back, and has found a home in the Belfast Museum. King Conn O'Neill has left his name at Connswater and Connsbridge. Many a story is told of him, and his end was very sad. He was imprisoned in Carrickfergus, but he managed to escape to Scotland. In order to save his life he was obliged to transfer his property to Sir James Hamilton and Sir Moses Hill, for he was the owner of 244 townlands. In the year 1606, he gave seven townlands to Sir Hugh Montgomery and seven to Sir Fulke Conway. His vast estates were taken from him, and he died in great poverty in a small house at Ballymenoch near Holywood. All the land as far as the eye could see had once belonged to him, and, at the end of life, he could claim only a grave in the old Church that once stood at Ballymachan.

A view of Belfast from Castlereagh

View of Belfast from Castlereagh

Not a vestige of it now remains, but when "The Moat" was built some years ago several tombstones were taken out of the old graveyard which is now the orchard belonging to " The Moat." One of these stones bore traces of carving, and it is said to have been the top stone of Conn O'Neill's tomb. There was a leather pouch found in Westminster a hundred years ago. Inside the pouch was a taxation roll with "Hibernia" marked on it. The roll is dated 1307. Edward II. claimed the tenth of the ecclesiastical revenues of Ireland and an entry occurs "Ecclesia de Ballymichan 4 marks, £2 13s. 6d.," the valuation of that time. Several old writers mention the ancient church at Ballymachan, and it was there that poor Conn O'Neill found his last resting-place. His life was a long battle, and he never knew peace until he was laid in the quiet grave on the lovely hill-side at Belmont.

The changes that have taken place in Belfast seem now almost beyond belief. At an early period, when an open river ran down the centre of High Street, which was crossed by six bridges, the three principal buildings in the town were the Castle, where Castle Place is now, the market house at the corner of High Street and Corn Market, and the Church or Chapel of the Ford, where St. George's Church at present stands. Small thatched houses occupied the ground at each side of the river. Six hundred years ago, we are told that Belfast was a dismal swamp. Unrestrained tidal water mingled with two rivers, and floods of water from the mountains pouring down added to the swamp.

All higher ground was a primeval forest. The narrow point of land between the two rivers formed a peninsula on which the first buildings were erected from St. George's Church to Castle Street. The Blackstaff or Owynvarra flowed as a broad estuary into the Lagan, forming a complete defence for the south side of the Castle. It was crossed by an embankment made with piles, hence the Irish name "Owynvarra," River of the Stake or Staff," changed afterwards to the English word Blackstaff, and the Forth River still runs down under High Street.

High Street, Belfast, in 1730

Old High Street Belfast in 1730

Let us take the three great buildings of three hundred and fifty years ago and look at the contrast. The town in the year 1663 found that a Town Hall was required to keep up the "splendour and majesty of the town." So the upper part of the Market House was used and the yearly rent paid was the enormous sum of £5. The Lord Mayor of the time was for a great many years called the Sovereign, and his duties were decidedly varied, as we shall find later on. This Sovereign was regardless of the expenditure, for he ordered seats for the Corporation. One wonders how they did before the seats were made?

He made a "pair of stayres" adorned with His Majesty's Arms at the total cost of £20 16s. 9d. Considering that it was the upper part of the Market House that was used, the stairs appear to have been really required. The first Sovereign was appointed in the year 1612, and we have no record of where the Corporation met before the Market House was used. There was a Town Book kept from this time, but the early entries are very few, and but scanty information can be gathered from these shadowy records. The ancient book was in a dilapidated condition, worn out by constant use and want of care, and it was lost sight of altogether for many years. The Marquis of Donegall found it in a chest in his own house. He got it rebound, and it is now in Belfast.

In 1668, there was a tax levied by the Corporation of £4 to pay for a plush cushion, but we are not informed who used this cushion.

About the same time it was arranged that all the fines of Grand Juries and Petty Customs not exceeding ten shillings were to go towards keeping up the expenses of the Sovereign. This was repealed three years later, and a town purse was raised for his expenses. A curious perquisite belonged to the Sovereign and there is no explanation of it to be found. Every butcher in the town who killed a cow was to give one tongue every week to the Sovereign, who must often have been thankful that cows generally have only one tongue; but even so, the diet would become monotonous. Four butchers once refused to pay this tribute—perhaps they were sorry for the Sovereign; but they had to pay twenty shillings and one tongue every week.

The Sovereign had to attend the Corporation Church every Sunday followed by the burgesses and freemen in state, and every person over thirteen years of age was obliged also to go to Church under a penalty of being fined in the sum of sixpence or up to five shillings, which was a serious amount in 1632. In this manner religious discipline was encouraged. Another curious law was enforced for a period of fifty-six years, that no Sovereign during the time he held office was to sell wine or spirits, or, if he did, a fine of one hundred pounds was enforced.

Evidently the Sovereign of Belfast was expected to set a good example, and his course of life was strictly marked out for him, including his Sunday behaviour.

"The Mace" had some curious adventures. It was made of silver, seven and a half inches long and it was hollow, with a round top, which was greatly disfigured and battered. On one side was engraved "The Burrogh of Belfast, 1639 C. R." and Charles I.'s motto and arms. After a long and mysterious disappearance, it was found in a pawnshop. History remains silent on this strange episode. Sometimes history is discreet, and we shall never know now who the sinner was who pawned the Town Mace. As Belfast grew in importance, so also did the Mace, for the next was seventeen inches long, made of silver with "W. R." engraved with the Royal arms and motto. The ball surmounting it has the rose, thistle, Irish harp and lily. The Baton is eight inches long, with a small crown on the top It was formerly carried by the town sergeant, but the Lord Mayor now carries it himself. The Town Seal was also lost, and another provided. A gold chain for the Mayor was presented by Lord Donegall in the year 1787. The badge has the arms of Chichester on one side, and the arms of Belfast on the other. This "Regalia" of Belfast has lately been replaced by articles of more imposing magnificence, and more suited to the dignity of the present City Hall.

The Sovereign had a pleasing variety in the performance of his duty. An advertisement in the year 1767 says "The Company at the Mill Gate will give a benefit to the Poor. Pit and Gallery 2s. 6d. each. The Sovereign will attend to take the tickets." But the most extraordinary order was issued and one that if suggested now would cause a tremendous commotion. He ordered that all swine wandering about the streets if not provided for by their owners in houses within five days would be destroyed. The keeping of pigs is still a troublesome matter in Belfast even in this twentieth century. Many a bye-law has been passed, but pigs continue to be kept. In the year 1768, the Sovereign applied a drastic remedy. Armed with a blunderbuss, he sallied forth on the 24th of October, 1768, and he shot two wandering, homeless pigs! Tired of the slaughter, he then offered a reward of thirteen pence for every porker slain! Imagine the picture! I wonder if he wore his robes of office and the golden chain and badge! Was he attended by the Town Councillors? Or did he stand lurking at the corner of Castle Place alone in all his glory to take deadly aim at the unfortunate animal?

If such a slaughter took place now, what a gala day it would be for the city. All the traffic would be stopped. Silence would reign supreme, and a long, long retinue of street arabs and newspaper boys would watch and wait with bated breath until the fatal shot rang out and the misguided victim fell, his dead body a warning to all other erring swine. Imagination fails,—let us draw a curtain over the sad picture! With harrowed feelings we leave the touching scene.

On the whole, perhaps the City fathers have more important duties to perform now than collecting tickets at the Play House, or even the royal sport of boar hunting.