Belfast is Ireland’s only example of a major industrial city. But it was also, at its peak, an urban centre of international importance. Already in the eighteenth century it was a significant Atlantic trading port; by the early twentieth it had become one of the world’s leading centres of shipbuilding and linen manufacture. Yet the story of its remarkable rise, with all the far-reaching social and cultural changes that came with it, remains largely untold. Instead attention has focused narrowly on the origins and development of the city’s sectarian and political conflicts, as seen from the vantage point of the events of the past few decades. The four hundredth anniversary of the granting of the town’s charter in 1613, coming at a time when new research has at last begun to explore the full range of developments that make up this distinctive urban history, provides the opportunity to redress that imbalance.
The aim of the project is to produce a new volume, Belfast 400, that will bring together the results of new work in an accessible overview. It will explore the reasons behind Belfast’s early emergence as a settlement, its development into a prosperous trading centre, with strong links to North America and the Caribbean, and the subsequent rise of the industrial town, following the classic trajectory from shock city to mature industrial centre, and then to urban decay and renewal. It will show how these different stages of urban development were reflected in the experience of the inhabitants – in changes in housing and physical environment, in new types of regulation of time, space and public behaviour, in the formation of different types of community, in new patterns of leisure and consumption. None of this implies an attempt to ignore the sectarian and political conflict that constitute the uglier side of the city’s past; nothing is to be gained by producing a sanitised history. But these must not be allowed to overshadow other aspects of an urban experience that is unique in Irish terms, and at the same time represents an important and neglected part of the history of the British industrial city.
Belfast 400 will be published by Liverpool University Press, building on the success of their earlier Liverpool 800, which was also supported by The Leverhulme Trust. The City Council and Queen’s University have both contributed to the production costs. The support of the Trust will ensure that the volume is a truly comprehensive history, bringing out the full potential of both literary and visual sources to reconstruct a rich, multilayered urban history that transcends contemporary political and sectarian divisions.
Director: Professor Sean Connolly, Professor of Irish History, Queen's University Belfast
Belfast 400: People, Place and History, edited by S.J. Connolly, was published in November 2012 by Liverpool University Press. It was launched at Belfast City Hall by the lord mayor, Alderman Gavin Robinson, on 24 January 2013 to mark the start of the city's celebration of its 400th anniversary as a corporate town.
QUB contributors include Sean Connolly, Gillian McIntosh, Sean O'Connell and Dominic Bryan.