Belfast lies in a valley created by the two rivers, Lagan and Farsett, the latter of which is piped and channelled beneath the city streets. The soft red Triassic sandstones, from which their watercourses were eroded, are responsible for the bright red colour of Belfast's local brickwork.
Belfast originated as a cluster of forts built to guard the river crossings, and the early settlement that grew-up around the fortifications developed slowly at first. In fact, a traveller passing this way in the 12 th century would have found little to see other than a solitary Norman fortress established there in 1177.
The Norman sphere of influence here was always limited and within a hundred years of the fort's construction the region had reverted firmly back to Gaelic/Irish control; the principal warlords of the area were the O'Neill's of Clandeboye whose stronghold was to the south in the Castlereagh Hills.
This political/military situation changed very dramatically in the early 17 th century, when the period of ‘Plantation' was imposed upon Ulster by London to the detriment of traditional Irish pastoral community life. In 1604, Sir Arthur Chichester, a Devonshire knight whose son was to be the first Earl of Donegall, was ‘planted' in the area by James I, from whom he had received a Royal Charter giving him the right to create a borough. By 1660, when the English monarchy had been restored, the fledgling Belfast settlement had grown into a town - albeit, still moderately small in population. Carrikfergus, the town and port located at the mouth of Belfast Lough, at this time, held the monopoly on trade.
In the late 17 th century, however, Belfast's population expanded rapidly as French Huguenots, fleeing persecution in France, emigrated to the Belfast area, bringing with them skills that quickly improved the fortunes of the local linen industry. The burgeoning city now had to expand of necessity as new workers were attracted in by the opportunities afforded and the wealth being created. Apart from linen production, rope-making, shipping and the export of beef, corn and butter to Britain and France saw Belfast become the fourth largest town in Ireland by the turn of the century.
In 1708, the town was almost completely annihilated by a fierce conflagration, but such was the vigour and vitality of its people that the devastation caused was very soon rectified. Throughout the rest of the 18 th century Belfast's cloth trade and shipbuilding expanded tremendously and its population increased ten-fold. Unlike other areas of Ulster, Belfast was noted for its liberalism and was inhabited by both Catholics and Protestants who lived in harmony throughout most of this century. In 1784, Protestants gave generously to help build a Catholic church and in 1791 three Presbyterian Ulstermen formed the society of United Irishmen, a cross-denominational nationalist organisation embracing Catholics and Protestants. It was of course stamped-out, inevitable given what horrors were about to follow; thirty of the Presbyterian ministers from its ranks were accused of taking part in the rebellion of 1798 and six were hanged. The period of liberality, generosity of spirit and religious tolerance died with the turn of the century.
The next fifty years increasingly witnessed the development of sectarian differences in Belfast, as the initial apathy amongst N. Ireland's Protestants, following the eradication of the United Irishmen, turned to insecurity as Catholic militancy took a hold throughout Ireland. In the 1820's Protestant-only clubs were established all over Ulster and most particularly in Belfast. After Catholic emancipation in 1829 an Orange Order parade, designated for 12 th July, was banned, resulting in mob riots throughout the city as simmering hatreds were given rein - Belfast as sectarian town came of age.
When agricultural prices slumped and the Industrial Revolution came to Belfast in the 19 th century, thousands of rural poor, of both denominations, flocked to the city resulting in a huge unemployed workforce that far outweighed the job openings available. However, Catholic and Protestant no longer worked on an equal basis - all public offices were now held by Protestants, who at the same time owned most of the industry in the city. They were increasingly reluctant to share their power base in view of the rise in Catholic militancy, which they felt threatened them. The Great Potato Famine of 1845/6 drove even more people to the city out of desperation, and the inevitable outcome occurred in 1857 and again in 1864 as open sectarian hatred resulted in violent riots across Belfast. Despite the bitter rivalries amongst its populace, 19 th century Belfast still managed a healthy commercial and industrial expansion. In 1888, Queen Victoria granted Belfast ‘city' status; the city fathers' gratitude to her is evident everywhere in statues, plaques and buildings of dedication. By the turn of the new century the city population had risen to over 200,000 and now exceeded that of Dublin.
Partition in 1922 resulted in Belfast being recognised as capital of Northern Ireland, thereby increasing the city's status both at home and abroad. However, after the Second World War, when Belfast suffered severe damage, decline in its fortunes was fairly constant. This decline was, of course, hugely exacerbated by the excesses of sectarian violence visited upon the city throughout the latter half of the 20 th century. Now, in the early years of the 21 st century, with finances pouring in from Britain and the European Union, Belfast is struggling hard for revitalisation and a more hopeful future.
The physical heart of Belfast is Donegall Square, and dominating the square is the massive City Hall, a huge edifice of elaborate Victoriana, adorned with turrets, saucer domes, scrolls and pinnacle pots. Built in 1906 of white Portland stone and covering 11-acres of prime site, it is an imperial statement of power fronted by the inevitable statue of Queen Victoria, standing larger than life and imperiously surveying an outpost of the British Empire.
That being said, City Hall offers a rare opportunity to be shown around one of Belfast's many Neoclassical buildings - guided tours last 45-minutes and advance booking is necessary. Inside, the main dome arches 173 ft above you and includes an unreachable whispering gallery; not surprisingly it is modelled on St Paul's Cathedral in London, and is completed by zodiac signs adorning the rim of the dome. The marbled entrance hall is palatial, with staircase pillars, colonnades and bronze and marble statues. The tour includes the robbing room where visitors can try on the gown of some unsuspecting council dignitary. Perhaps the highlight of City Hall is its oak-decorated council chamber with hand-carved wainscoting and councillor's private pews, the visitor's gallery is also something to admire.
Another building of some interest in Donegall Square is Belfast's oldest functioning library, the Linen Hall Library, established in 1788. The Irish Literature collection occupies much of the first floor, while the second floor contains the ‘Political Collection', a unique accumulation of over 80,000 publications dealing with every aspect of Northern Irish political life since 1966. The Linen Hall is not a public library but visitors are free to examine its collection, there are daily tours. The library also boasts excellent facilities for tracing family trees.
Squeezed in behind City Hall is the strange and wonderful Catholic St Malachy's Church. Built in 1844 and topped-off with turrets, it is arguably the finest Victorian structure standing in the city today. The beautifully designed fan-vaulted ceiling is modelled on that of Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey; the canopied pulpit and carved marble altar both date from a 1926 restoration.
Northwest of City Hall and close to the River Lagan is another cluster of late 19 th century buildings, including the Prince Albert Memorial Clock Tower. Built between 1867-9, the clock tower leans a little more from the perpendicular as each year passes. This is not from any ill treatment caused by bombers, but the result of its being constructed upon gradually sinking wooden piles. Walk a block to the north of the clock tower and you reach the Ulster Bank in Waring Street. Built in 1860 and based on St Mark's Library in Venice, its architect indulged in every architectural idiosyncrasy of the time - Doric and Corinthian columns, allegorical sculptures, ornate railings and Victorian lamps.
Take a turn off Waring Street into Donegall Street and you can't fail to see the monolithic St Anne's Cathedral, a neo-Romanesque basilica, the construction of which began in 1899. The Cathedral's most significant feature is the solitary tomb located there, marked by a single slab on the floor of the south aisle. Here lies entombed the earthly remains of Lord Edward Henry Carson (1854-1935), the bodily symbol of Partition - seen either as a hero who saved Ulster or the villain who sabotaged his country's independence. A Dubliner, Carson took the decision in 1910 to accept the leadership of the opposition to Home Rule, thereby allying himself to the Ulster Unionist resistance movement. He abhorred religious intolerance and sincerely believed that Ireland couldn't prosper without Britain. In his other role he was a brilliant barrister who in 1895 brought about the humiliating destruction of Oscar Wilde at his trial.
Standing on the River Lagan waterfront is the fully restored Custom House. Originally built between 1854-7 it still functions as the city's custom building. Designed by Charles Lanyon, who was responsible for several of the city's finest buildings, it is decorated with ornate Corinthian columns. The 19 th century novelist Anthony Trollope once worked here as a surveyor's clerk - the man who, incidentally, invented the pillar-box. Located on nearby Donegall Quay is the ambitious Laganside development project, charged with fulfilling the dual purpose of regenerating the rundown waterfront and constructing the Lagan Weir to protect the city from flooding. The Lagan Lookout is a ‘hands-on' exhibition centre very informative about the project. In summer, boat trips are available on the Lagan starting from the Sinclair Seaman's Church, full of maritime memorabilia.
Grand Victoria Street, known locally as the ‘Golden Mile', is dominated by the much-bombed Europa Hotel, an ugly chunk of architecture that wouldn't have been missed if bombed to a state of collapse. In the same street is the Grand Opera House, opened in 1895 but now composed mostly of restoration thanks to being bombed twice by the IRA in 1991 and 93; it remains in constant use with concerts, operas and plays staged in defiance of terrorism. Cross the road to the Crown Liquor Saloon, one of the greatest Victorian gin palaces left standing anywhere. Built for renowned publican Patrick Flanagan in 1839, the Crown was later encased in glittering tiles and decorated internally with rich High Victorian stucco work, encompassing scrolled ceilings and carved wooden snugs.
The University quarter is a highly characteristic area with many of the terraces leading up to the complex representing the final flowering of Georgian architecture in Belfast. The Upper Crescent is a magnificent curved neoclassical terrace built around 1845; perversely, the Lower Crescent is straight. Queens University is the architectural centrepiece, flanked by the most satisfying example of Georgian terrace in Belfast, University Square. Constructed by Lanyon in 1849, the mellow red brickwork of the square remains mostly intact.
Situated to the south of the University are the popular Botanic Gardens, first opened to the public in 1827. Standing serenely in the grounds is the Palm House, a rather fine structure that predates its more famous cousin in Kew Gardens but is very similar in style; it was the first such hot house in the world, the inspiration of the architect Lanyon. Perhaps the most satisfying section of the Gardens is the reconstruction of a tropical ravine, begun in 1889 and extended twice in 1900 and 1902 to include the heated pond where giant water lilies reside.
The Botanic Gardens is also home to the Ulster Museum, probably the least stressful place to visit in Belfast, as here there is no mention of the Troubles - it is as if they never occurred. Re-sited here in 1929 and expanded in 1972, the museum contains a massive collection of exhibits. Its most illustrious collection and its undoubted showpiece is the Girona exhibition - gold and silver treasure recovered by divers in 1968 from the Spanish Armada treasure ship Girona , which was wrecked off the Giant's Causeway in 1588.