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Belfast - History

Belfast History

Ireland's first settlers touched down near modern-day Belfast around 9000 years ago, just as the melting ice caps separated the island from the British mainland. The province of Ulster was established by Iron Age Celts who controlled Ireland for 1000 years and bequeathed their lasting legacies of swirly designs and the Irish language. The Celtic calm was shattered in 795 by the Vikings, and the English first entered the picture in 1169. Ulster became the focus of Irish opposition to English rule until it became the target of English colonisation known as Plantation in the 17th century. This ambitious appropriation of land would ultimately lead to Ulster's isolation, until then Ireland's most Gaelic and Catholic province. Unlike previous intruders, the new landowners didn't intermarry and rigorously kept their Protestant cultures intact, much to the anger of their impoverished Irish tenants.

The simmering resentment boiled over in 1641 with the murder of a number of Protestants - estimates vary between 2000 and 12,000. The psychological trauma of this event still haunts Ireland's Protestant population today, while for Ireland's Catholics Cromwell is an equally lasting symbol of dread. The different hopes of Ireland's Catholics and Protestants clashed in the late 1680s when Catholic James II was dethroned by the Protestant William of Orange. James turned to Ireland for support, with matters coming to a head when his Catholic troops were sent to replace the garrison at Derry. A swag of Protestant symbols entered Ireland's sectarian lexicon with the 13 Protestant apprentice boys who locked those Catholic troops out of the city, the subsequent siege by James' forces and the Protestant response of 'No surrender!' The inevitable conflict between James and William, Catholics and Protestants, took place at the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690 - that Glorious Twelfth still celebrated by Ulster's Orangemen.

Ulster became increasingly separated from the South, isolated by geography, religion and industrialisation. While Ireland's population was decimated by the Potato Famine and mass emigration to the USA and Australia, Belfast's population soared from around 20,000 in 1800 to 350,000 by the end of the century. The only Irish city to experience the Industrial Revolution, it became known for its shipyards and linen industry. Industrialisation tied Belfast into Britain's booming commercial economy, and it forged greater ties with Glasgow and Liverpool than with Dublin. With its characteristic rows of working-class terrace housing it took on the appearance of a similarly industrialised Northern English town. City status was granted in 1888, following Queen Victoria's visit of 1849, commemorated in the plethora of streets and monuments still named after her.

The movement for Irish Home Rule was rigorously opposed by Ulster's Unionist Party, formed in 1885 and led by Dublin lawyer Sir Edward Carson, whose opposition to Irish independence led directly to the country's partition.

Carson's Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was formed in 1913, and held a series of paramilitary rallies. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921 gave independence to 26 counties and offered the six largely Protestant Ulster counties the chance to opt out. They did, and Ireland's partition was the result. The North's links with the South were broken completely in 1949 with the creation of the Republic of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Parliament sat from 1921 until 1972, when direct rule was imposed by the British government. Belfast was hit hard by the 1930s depression and social indicators were low. Catholics, the 30% minority of the North's population, were particularly affected, and felt frustrated by an apparently discriminatory Protestant-dominated government. Prime Minister Terence O'Neill's tentative steps towards bridging the gap propelled Reverend Ian Paisley to front stage as personification of Protestant extremism. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was created to campaign for the North's Catholics. Tension came to a head with a violent clash between civil rights marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Derry in October 1968 - that marked the beginnings of the Troubles. The 25 years between 1969 and the short-lived cease-fire of 1994 were punctuated by a nightmare succession of tit-for-tat bombings and murders, and Belfast's image was marred by urban conflict.

The 1997 cease-fire and 1998 Good Friday Agreement have given Belfast the security to rebuild and reinvent itself. There have been setbacks to the peace process, with feuding paramilitary splinter groups, disarmament difficulties and outbreaks of violence experienced regularly (particularly during the Loyalists' marching season), but troop numbers are currently the lowest since 1970 and as part of ongoing reforms the RUC has now become the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Belfast is thriving, with higher employment, massive investment and booming tourism. The River Lagan has been cleaned up, inner-city areas such as the Cathedral Quarter have been trendified, million-pound riverside apartments are being constructed, and upmarket hotels, stylish restaurants and slick bars and cafes are popping up all over the city in the hope that the grimness of the past is over.

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