Belfast, from Irish: Béal Feirste, meaning “mouth of the sand-bank ford” is the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, standing on the banks of the River Lagan on the east coast of Northern Ireland. It is the 12th-largest city in the United Kingdom and the second-largest on the island of Ireland. It had a population of 333,871 as of 2015.
By the early 19th century, Belfast became a major port. It played a key role in the Industrial Revolution, becoming the biggest linen-producer in the world, earning it the nickname “Linenopolis” . By the time it was granted city status in 1888, it was a major centre of Irish linen production, tobacco-processing and rope-making. Shipbuilding was also a key industry; the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the RMS Titanic, was the world’s biggest shipyard. Belfast as of 2019 has a major aerospace and missiles industry. Industrialization, and the inward migration it brought, made Belfast Northern Ireland’s biggest city and it became the capital of Northern Ireland following the Partition of Ireland in 1922. Its status as a global industrial centre ended in the decades after the Second World War of 1939–1945.
Belfast is still a major port, with commercial and industrial docks, including the Harland and Wolff shipyard, dominating the Belfast Lough shoreline. It is served by two airports: George Best Belfast City Airport and Belfast International Airport 15 miles (24 km) west of the city. The Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC) listed Belfast as a Gamma global city in 2018.
The name Belfast is derived from the Irish Béal Feirsde, which was later spelt Béal Feirste. The word béal means “mouth” or “rivermouth” while feirsde/feirste is the genitive singular of fearsaid and refers to a sandbar or tidal ford across a river’s mouth. The name therefore translates literally as “(river) mouth of the sandbar” or “(river) mouth of the ford”. This sandbar was formed at the confluence of two rivers at what is now Donegall Quay: the Lagan, which flows into Belfast Lough, and its tributary the Farset. This area was the hub around which the original settlement developed. The Irish name Béal Feirste is shared by a townland in County Mayo, whose name has been anglicised as Belfarsad.
An alternative interpretation of the name is “mouth of [the river] of the sandbar”, an allusion to the River Farset, which flows into the Lagan where the sandbar was located. This interpretation was favoured by Edmund Hogan and John O’Donovan. It seems clear, however, that the river itself was named after the tidal crossing.
In Ulster-Scots, the name of the city has been variously translated as Bilfawst, Bilfaust or Baelfawst, although “Belfast” is also used.
Although the county borough of Belfast was created when it was granted city status by Queen Victoria in 1888, the city continues to be viewed as straddling County Antrim and County Down.
The site of Belfast has been occupied since the Bronze Age. The Giant’s Ring, a 5,000-year-old henge, is located near the city, and the remains of Iron Age hill forts can still be seen in the surrounding hills. Belfast remained a small settlement of little importance during the Middle Ages. John de Courcy built a castle on what is now Castle Street in the city centre in the 12th century, but this was on a lesser scale and not as strategically important as Carrickfergus Castle to the north, which was built by de Courcy in 1177. The O’Neill clan had a presence in the area.
In the 14th century, Cloinne Aodha Buidhe, descendants of Aodh Buidhe O’Neill, built Grey Castle at Castlereagh, now in the east of the city. Conn O’Neill of the Clannaboy O’Neills owned vast lands in the area and was the last inhabitant of Grey Castle, one remaining link being the Conn’s Water river flowing through east Belfast.
Belfast became a substantial settlement in the 17th century after being established as a town by Sir Arthur Chichester. It was initially settled by Protestant English and Scottish migrants at the time of the Plantation of Ulster. (Belfast and County Antrim, however, did not form part of this particular Plantation scheme as they were privately colonised.) In 1791, the Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast, after Henry Joy McCracken and other prominent Presbyterians from the city invited Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell to a meeting, after having read Tone’s “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”. Evidence of this period of Belfast’s growth can still be seen in the oldest areas of the city, known as the Entries.
Belfast blossomed as a commercial and industrial centre in the 18th and 19th centuries and became Ireland’s pre-eminent industrial city. Industries thrived, including linen, rope-making, tobacco, heavy engineering and shipbuilding, and at the end of the 19th century, Belfast briefly overtook Dublin as the largest city in Ireland. The Harland and Wolff shipyards became one of the largest shipbuilders in the world, employing up to 35,000 workers. In 1886 the city suffered intense riots over the issue of home rule, which had divided the city.
In 1920–22, Belfast became the capital of the new entity of Northern Ireland as the island of Ireland was partitioned. The accompanying conflict (the Irish War of Independence) cost up to 500 lives in Belfast, the bloodiest sectarian strife in the city until the Troubles of the late 1960s onwards.
Aftermath of the Blitz in May 1941
Belfast was heavily bombed during World War II. Initial raids were a surprise as the city was believed to be outside of the range of German bomber planes. In one raid, in 1941, German bombers killed around one thousand people and left tens of thousands homeless. Apart from London, this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the Blitz.
Belfast has been the capital of Northern Ireland since its establishment in 1921 following the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It had been the scene of various episodes of sectarian conflict between its Catholic and Protestant populations.
In all, over 1,600 people were killed in political violence in the city between 1969 and 2001.
Belfast city centre has undergone expansion and regeneration since the late 1990s, notably around Victoria Square. In late 2018, it was announced that Belfast would undergo a £500 million urban regeneration project known as “Tribeca” on a large city centre site. However, tensions and civil disturbances still occur despite the 1998 peace agreement, including sectarian riots and paramilitary attacks.
Belfast and the Causeway Coast were together named the best place to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet. Tourist numbers have increased since the end of The Troubles, boosted in part by newer attractions such as Titanic Belfast and tours of locations used in the HBO television series Game of Thrones.
Belfast was granted borough status by James VI and I in 1613 and official city status by Queen Victoria in 1888. Since 1973 it has been a local government district under local administration by Belfast City Council. Belfast is represented in both the British House of Commons and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. For elections to the European Parliament, Belfast is within the Northern Ireland constituency.
Belfast City Council is the local council with responsibility for the city. The city’s elected officials are the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Deputy Lord Mayor and High Sheriff who are elected from among 60 councillors. The first Lord Mayor of Belfast was Daniel Dixon, who was elected in 1892. The Lord Mayor for 2019–20 is John Finucane Sinn Féin, while the Deputy Lord Mayor is an Alliance Party of Northern Ireland councillor. The Lord Mayor’s duties include presiding over meetings of the council, receiving distinguished visitors to the city, representing and promoting the city on the national and international stage.
In 1997, Unionists lost overall control of Belfast City Council for the first time in its history, with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland gaining the balance of power between Nationalists and Unionists. This position was confirmed in four subsequent council elections, with mayors from Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), both of whom are Nationalist parties, and the cross-community Alliance Party regularly elected since. The first nationalist Lord Mayor of Belfast was Alban Maginness of the SDLP, in 1997.
Belfast council takes part in the twinning scheme, and is twinned with Nashville, in the United States, Hefei in China, and Boston, in the United States.
Northern Ireland Assembly and Westminster
As Northern Ireland’s capital city, Belfast is host to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, the site of the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. Belfast is divided into four Northern Ireland Assembly and UK parliamentary constituencies: Belfast North, Belfast West, Belfast South and Belfast East. All four extend beyond the city boundaries to include parts of Castlereagh, Lisburn and Newtownabbey districts. In the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections in 2017, Belfast elected 20 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), 5 from each constituency. Belfast elected 7 Sinn Féin, 5 DUP, 2 SDLP, 3 Alliance Party, 1 UUP, 1 Green and 1 PBPA MLAs. In the 2017 UK general election, Belfast elected one MP from each constituency to the House of Commons at Westminster, London. This comprised 3 DUP and 1 Sinn Féin. In the 2019 UK general election, the DUP lost two of their seats in Belfast; to Sinn Féin in North Belfast and to the SDLP in South Belfast.
Belfast is at the western end of Belfast Lough and at the mouth of the River Lagan giving it the ideal location for the shipbuilding industry that once made it famous. When the Titanic was built in Belfast in 1911–1912, Harland and Wolff had the largest shipyard in the world. Belfast is situated on Northern Ireland’s eastern coast at 54°35’49?N 05°55’45?W. A consequence of this northern latitude is that it both endures short winter days and enjoys long summer evenings. During the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, local sunset is before 16:00 while sunrise is around 08:45. This is balanced by the summer solstice in June, when the sun sets after 22:00 and rises before 05:00.
In 1994, a weir was built across the river by the Laganside Corporation to raise the average water level so that it would cover the unseemly mud flats which gave Belfast its name (from Irish Béal Feirste, meaning ‘The sandy ford at the river mouth’). The area of Belfast Local Government District is 42.31 square miles (109.6 km2).
The River Farset is also named after this silt deposit (from the Irish feirste meaning “sand spit”). Originally a more significant river than it is today, the Farset formed a dock on High Street until the mid 19th century. Bank Street in the city centre referred to the river bank and Bridge Street was named for the site of an early Farset bridge. Superseded by the River Lagan as the more important river in the city, the Farset now languishes in obscurity, under High Street. There are no less than eleven other minor rivers in and around Belfast, namely the Blackstaff, the Colin, the Connswater, the Cregagh, the Derriaghy, the Forth, the Knock, the Legoniel, the Milewater, the Purdysburn and the Ravernet.
The city is flanked on the north and northwest by a series of hills, including Divis Mountain, Black Mountain and Cavehill, thought to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. When Swift was living at Lilliput Cottage near the bottom of Belfast’s Limestone Road, he imagined that the Cavehill resembled the shape of a sleeping giant safeguarding the city. The shape of the giant’s nose, known locally as Napoleon’s Nose, is officially called McArt’s Fort probably named after Art O’Neill, a 17th-century chieftain who controlled the area at that time. The Castlereagh Hills overlook the city on the southeast.
As with the vast majority of the rest of Ireland, Belfast has a temperate oceanic climate (Cfb in the Koeppen climate classification), with a narrow range of temperatures and rainfall throughout the year. The climate of Belfast is significantly milder than most other locations in the world at a similar latitude, due to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. There are currently five weather observing stations in the Belfast area: Helens Bay, Stormont, Newforge, Castlereagh, and Ravenhill Road. Slightly further afield is Aldergrove Airport. The highest temperature recorded at any official weather station in the Belfast area was 30.8 °C (87.4 °F) at Shaws Bridge on 12 July 1983. Belfast holds the record for Northern Ireland’s warmest night time minimum, 19.6 °C (67.3 °F) at Whitehouse on 14 August 2001.
The city gets significant precipitation (greater than 1mm) on 157 days in an average year with an average annual rainfall of 846 millimetres (33.3 in), less than areas of northern England or most of Scotland, but higher than Dublin or the south-east coast of Ireland. As an urban and coastal area, Belfast typically gets snow on fewer than 10 days per year. The absolute maximum temperature at the weather station at Stormont is 29.7 °C (85.5 °F), set during July 1983. In an average year the warmest day will rise to a temperature of 25.0 °C (77.0 °F) with a day of 25.1 °C (77.2 °F) or above occurring roughly once every two in three years. The absolute minimum temperature at Stormont is -9.9 °C (14 °F), during January 1982, although in an average year the coldest night will fall no lower than -4.5 °C (23.9 °F) with air frost being recorded on just 26 nights. The lowest temperature to occur in recent years was -8.8 °C (16.2 °F) on 22 December 2010.
The nearest weather station for which sunshine data and longer term observations are available is Belfast International Airport (Aldergrove). Temperature extremes here have slightly more variability due to the more inland location. The average warmest day at Aldergrove for example will reach a temperature of 25.4 °C (77.7 °F), (1.0 °C [1.8 °F] higher than Stormont) and 2.1 days should attain a temperature of 25.1 °C (77.2 °F) or above in total. Conversely the coldest night of the year averages -6.9 °C (19.6 °F) (or 1.9 °C [3.4 °F] lower than Stormont) and 39 nights should register an air frost. Some 13 more frosty nights than Stormont. The minimum temperature at Aldergrove was -14.9 °C (5.2 °F), during December 2010.
Areas and districts
Belfast expanded very rapidly from being a market town to becoming an industrial city during the course of the 19th century. Because of this, it is less an agglomeration of villages and towns which have expanded into each other, than other comparable cities, such as Manchester or Birmingham. The city expanded to the natural barrier of the hills that surround it, overwhelming other settlements. Consequently, the arterial roads along which this expansion took place (such as the Falls Road or the Newtownards Road) are more significant in defining the districts of the city than nucleated settlements. Belfast remains segregated by walls, commonly known as “peace lines”, erected by the British Army after August 1969, and which still divide 14 districts in the inner city. In 2008 a process was proposed for the removal of the ‘peace walls’. In June 2007, a £16 million programme was announced which will transform and redevelop streets and public spaces in the city centre. Major arterial roads (quality bus corridor) into the city include the Antrim Road, Shore Road, Holywood Road, Newtownards Road, Castlereagh Road, Cregagh Road, Ormeau Road, Malone Road, Lisburn Road, Falls Road, Springfield Road, Shankill Road, and Crumlin Road, Four Winds.
St Anne’s Cathedral
Belfast city centre is divided into two postcode districts, BT1 for the area lying north of the City Hall, and BT2 for the area to its south. The industrial estate and docklands BT3. The rest of the Belfast post town is divided in a broadly clockwise system from BT3 in the north-east round to BT15, with BT16 and BT17 further out to the east and west respectively. Although BT derives from Belfast, the BT postcode area extends across the whole of Northern Ireland.
Since 2001, boosted by increasing numbers of tourists, the city council has developed a number of cultural quarters. The Cathedral Quarter takes its name from St Anne’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) and has taken on the mantle of the city’s key cultural locality. It hosts a yearly visual and performing arts festival.
Custom House Square is one of the city’s main outdoor venues for free concerts and street entertainment. The Gaeltacht Quarter is an area around the Falls Road in west Belfast which promotes and encourages the use of the Irish language. The Queen’s Quarter in south Belfast is named after Queen’s University. The area has a large student population and hosts the annual Belfast International Arts Festival each autumn. It is home to Botanic Gardens and the Ulster Museum, which was reopened in 2009 after major redevelopment. The Golden Mile is the name given to the mile between Belfast City Hall and Queen’s University. Taking in Dublin Road, Great Victoria Street, Shaftesbury Square and Bradbury Place, it contains some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the nearby Lisburn Road has developed into the city’s most exclusive shopping strip. Finally, the Titanic Quarter covers 0.75 km2 (185 acres) of reclaimed land adjacent to Belfast Harbour, formerly known as Queen’s Island. Named after RMS Titanic, which was built here in 1912, work has begun which promises to transform some former shipyard land into “one of the largest waterfront developments in Europe”.Plans include apartments, a riverside entertainment district, and a major Titanic-themed museum.
In its 2018 report on Best Places to Live in Britain, The Sunday Times named Ballyhackamore, “the brunch capital of Belfast”, as the best place in Northern Ireland. The district of Ballyhackamore has even acquired the name “Ballysnackamore” due to the preponderance of dining establishments in the area.
The architectural style of Belfast’s public buildings range from a small set of Georgian buildings, many examples of Victorian, including the main Lanyon Building at Queen’s University Belfast and the Linenhall Library, (both designed by Sir Charles Lanyon). There are also many examples of Edwardian, such as the City Hall, to modern, such as the Waterfront Hall.
The City Hall was finished in 1906 and was built to reflect Belfast’s city status, granted by Queen Victoria in 1888. The Edwardian architectural style of Belfast City Hall influenced the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, India, and Durban City Hall in South Africa. The dome is 173 ft (53 m) high and figures above the door state “Hibernia encouraging and promoting the Commerce and Arts of the City”.
Among the city’s grandest buildings are two former banks: Ulster Bank in Waring Street (built in 1860) and Northern Bank, in nearby Donegall Street (built in 1769). The Royal Courts of Justice in Chichester Street are home to Northern Ireland’s Supreme Court. Many of Belfast’s oldest buildings are found in the Cathedral Quarter area, which is currently undergoing redevelopment as the city’s main cultural and tourist area. Windsor House, 262 ft (80 m) high, has 23 floors and is the second tallest building (as distinct from structure) in Ireland. Work has started on the taller Obel Tower, which already surpasses the height of Windsor House in its unfinished state.
The ornately decorated Crown Liquor Saloon, designed by Joseph Anderson in 1876, in Great Victoria Street is one of only two pubs in the UK that are owned by the National Trust (the other is the George Inn, Southwark in London). It was made internationally famous as the setting for the classic film, Odd Man Out, starring James Mason. The restaurant panels in the Crown Bar were originally made for Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic, built in Belfast.
The Harland and Wolff shipyard has two of the largest dry docks in Europe, where the giant cranes, Samson and Goliath stand out against Belfast’s skyline. Including the Waterfront Hall and the Odyssey Arena, Belfast has several other venues for performing arts. The architecture of the Grand Opera House has an oriental theme and was completed in 1895. It was bombed several times during the Troubles but has now been restored to its former glory. The Lyric Theatre, (re-opened 1 May 2011 after undergoing a rebuilding programme) the only full-time producing theatre in the country, is where film star Liam Neeson began his career. The Ulster Hall (1859–1862) was originally designed for grand dances but is now used primarily as a concert and sporting venue. Lloyd George, Parnell and Patrick Pearse all attended political rallies there.
A legacy of the Troubles are the many ‘peace lines’ or ‘peace walls’ that still act as barriers to reinforce ethno-sectarian residential segregation in the city. In 2017, the Belfast Interface Project published a study entitled ‘Interface Barriers, Peacelines & Defensive Architecture’ that identified 97 separate walls, barriers and interfaces in Belfast. A history of the development of these structures can be found at the Peacewall Archive.
Parks and gardens
Sitting at the mouth of the River Lagan where it becomes a deep and sheltered lough, Belfast is surrounded by mountains that create a micro-climate conducive to horticulture. From the Victorian Botanic Gardens in the heart of the city to the heights of Cave Hill Country Park, the great expanse of Lagan Valley Regional Park to Colin Glen, Belfast contains an abundance of parkland and forest parks.
Parks and gardens are an integral part of Belfast’s heritage, and home to an abundance of local wildlife and popular places for a picnic, a stroll or a jog. Numerous events take place throughout including festivals such as Rose Week and special activities such as bird watching evenings and great beast hunts.
Belfast has over forty public parks. The Forest of Belfast is a partnership between government and local groups, set up in 1992 to manage and conserve the city’s parks and open spaces. They have commissioned more than 30 public sculptures since 1993. In 2006, the City Council set aside £8 million to continue this work. The Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club was founded in 1863 and is administered by National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland.
With an average of 670,000 visitors per year between 2007 and 2011, one of the most popular parks is Botanic Gardens in the Queen’s Quarter. Built in the 1830s and designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, Botanic Gardens Palm House is one of the earliest examples of a curvilinear and cast iron glasshouse. Other attractions in the park include the Tropical Ravine, a humid jungle glen built in 1889, rose gardens and public events ranging from live opera broadcasts to pop concerts. U2 played here in 1997. Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park, to the south of the city centre, attracts thousands of visitors each year to its International Rose Garden. Rose Week in July each year features over 20,000 blooms. It has an area of 128 acres (0.52 km2) of meadows, woodland and gardens and features a Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Garden, a Japanese garden, a walled garden, and the Golden Crown Fountain commissioned in 2002 as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.
In 2008, Belfast was named a finalist in the Large City (200,001 and over) category of the RHS Britain in Bloom competition along with London Borough of Croydon and Sheffield.
Belfast Zoo is owned by Belfast City Council. The council spends £1.5 million every year on running and promoting the zoo, which is one of the few local government-funded zoos in the UK and Ireland. The zoo is one of the top visitor attractions in Northern Ireland, receiving more than 295,000 visitors a year. The majority of the animals are in danger in their natural habitat. The zoo houses more than 1,200 animals of 140 species including Asian elephants, Barbary lions, Malayan sun bears (one of the few in the United Kingdom), two species of penguin, a family of western lowland gorillas, a troop of common chimpanzees, a pair of red pandas, a pair of Goodfellow’s tree-kangaroos and Francois’ langurs. The zoo also carries out important conservation work and takes part in European and international breeding programmes which help to ensure the survival of many species under threat.
At the 2001 census, the population was 276,459, while 579,554 people lived in the wider Belfast Metropolitan Area.
This made it the fifteenth-largest city in the United Kingdom, but the eleventh-largest conurbation.
Belfast experienced a huge growth in population in the first half of the 20th century. This rise slowed and peaked around the start of the Troubles with the 1971 census showing almost 600,000 people in the Belfast Urban Area. Since then, the inner city numbers have dropped dramatically as people have moved to swell the Greater Belfast suburb population. The 2001 census population in the same Urban Area had fallen to 277,391 people, with 579,554 people living in the wider Belfast Metropolitan Area.
The 2001 census recorded 81,650 people from Catholic backgrounds and 79,650 people from Protestant backgrounds of working age living in Belfast. The population density in 2011 was 24.88 people/hectare (compared to 1.34 for the rest of Northern Ireland).
As with many cities, Belfast’s inner city is currently characterized by the elderly, students and single young people, while families tend to live on the periphery. Socio-economic areas radiate out from the Central Business District, with a pronounced wedge of affluence extending out the Malone Road and Upper Malone Road to the south. An area of deprivation is found in the inner parts of the north and west of the city. The areas around the Falls Road, Ardoyne and New Lodge (Catholic nationalist) and the Shankill Road (Protestant loyalist) are among the ten most deprived wards in Northern Ireland.
Despite a period of relative peace, most areas and districts of Belfast still reflect the divided nature of Northern Ireland as a whole. Many areas are still highly segregated along ethnic, political and religious lines, especially in working-class neighborhoods.
These zones – Catholic/Republican on one side and Protestant/Loyalist on the other – are invariably marked by flags, graffiti and murals. Segregation has been present throughout the history of Belfast but has been maintained and increased by each outbreak of violence in the city. This escalation in segregation, described as a “ratchet effect”, has shown little sign of decreasing.
The highest levels of segregation in the city are in west Belfast with many areas greater than 90% Catholic. Opposite but comparatively high levels are seen in the predominantly Protestant east Belfast. Areas where segregated working-class areas meet are known as interface areas and sometimes marked by peace lines. When violence flares, it tends to be in interface areas.
Ethnic minority communities have been in Belfast since the 1930s. The largest groups are Poles, Chinese and Indians.
Since the expansion of the European Union, numbers have been boosted by an influx of Eastern European immigrants. Census figures (2011) showed that Belfast has a total non-white population of 10,219 or 3.3%, while 18,420 or 6.6% of the population were born outside the UK and Ireland. Almost half of those born outside the UK and Ireland live in south Belfast, where they comprise 9.5% of the population. The majority of the estimated 5,000 Muslims and 200 Hindu families living in Northern Ireland live in the Greater Belfast area.
The IRA Ceasefire in 1994 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 have given investors increased confidence to invest in Belfast. This has led to a period of sustained economic growth and large-scale redevelopment of the city centre. Developments include Victoria Square, the Cathedral Quarter, and the Laganside with the Odyssey complex and the landmark Waterfront Hall.
Other major developments include the regeneration of the Titanic Quarter, and the erection of the Obel Tower, a skyscraper set to be the tallest tower on the island. Today, Belfast is Northern Ireland’s educational and commercial hub. In February 2006, Belfast’s unemployment rate stood at 4.2%, lower than both the Northern Ireland and the UK average of 5.5%. Over the past 10 years employment has grown by 16.4%, compared with 9.2% for the UK as a whole.
Northern Ireland’s peace dividend has led to soaring property prices in the city. In 2007, Belfast saw house prices grow by 50%, the fastest rate of growth in the UK. In March 2007, the average house in Belfast cost £91,819, with the average in south Belfast being £141,000. In 2004, Belfast had the lowest owner occupation rate in Northern Ireland at 54%.
Peace has boosted the numbers of tourists coming to Belfast. There were 6.4 million visitors in 2005, which was a growth of 8.5% from 2004. The visitors spent £285.2 million, supporting more than 15,600 jobs. Visitor numbers rose by 6% to reach 6.8 million in 2006, with tourists spending £324 million, an increase of 15% on 2005. The city’s two airports have helped make the city one of the most visited weekend destinations in Europe.
Belfast has been the fastest-growing economy of the thirty largest cities in the UK over the past decade, a new economy report by Howard Spencer has found. “That’s because [of] the fundamentals of the UK economy and [because] people actually want to invest in the UK,” he commented on that report.
BBC Radio 4’s World reported furthermore that despite higher levels of corporation tax in the UK than in the Republic. There are “huge amounts” of foreign investment coming into the country.
The Times wrote about Belfast’s growing economy: “According to the region’s development agency, throughout the 1990s Northern Ireland had the fastest-growing regional economy in the UK, with GDP increasing 1 per cent per annum faster than the rest of the country. As with any modern economy, the service sector is vital to Northern Ireland’s development and is enjoying excellent growth. In particular, the region has a booming tourist industry with record levels of visitors and tourist revenues and has established itself as a significant location for call centres.” Since the ending of the region’s conflict tourism has boomed in Northern Ireland, greatly aided by low cost.
Der Spiegel, a German weekly magazine for politics and economy, titled Belfast as The New Celtic Tiger which is “open for business”.
When the population of Belfast town began to grow in the 17th century, its economy was built on commerce. It provided a market for the surrounding countryside and the natural inlet of Belfast Lough gave the city its own port. The port supplied an avenue for trade with Great Britain and later Europe and North America. In the mid-17th century, Belfast exported beef, butter, hides, tallow and corn and it imported coal, cloth, wine, brandy, paper, timber and tobacco.
Around this time, the linen trade in Northern Ireland blossomed and by the middle of the 18th century, one fifth of all the linen exported from Ireland was shipped from Belfast. The present city however is a product of the Industrial Revolution. It was not until industry transformed the linen and shipbuilding trades that the economy and the population boomed. By the turn of the 19th century, Belfast had transformed into the largest linen producing centre in the world, earning the nickname “Linenopolis”.
Belfast harbour was dredged in 1845 to provide deeper berths for larger ships. Donegall Quay was built out into the river as the harbour was developed further and trade flourished. The Harland and Wolff shipbuilding firm was created in 1861, and by the time the Titanic was built, in 1912, it had become the largest shipyard in the world.
Short Brothers plc is a British aerospace company based in Belfast. It was the first aircraft manufacturing company in the world. The company began its association with Belfast in 1936, with Short & Harland Ltd, a venture jointly owned by Shorts and Harland and Wolff. Now known as Shorts Bombardier it works as an international aircraft manufacturer located near the Port of Belfast.
The rise of mass-produced and cotton clothing following World War I were some of the factors which led to the decline of Belfast’s international linen trade. Like many British cities dependent on traditional heavy industry, Belfast suffered serious decline since the 1960s, exacerbated greatly in the 1970s and 1980s by the Troubles. More than 100,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since the 1970s. For several decades, Northern Ireland’s fragile economy required significant public support from the British exchequer of up to £4 billion per year.
Belfast saw the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with nearly half of the total deaths in the conflict occurring in the city. However, since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there has been significant urban regeneration in the city centre including Victoria Square, Queen’s Island and Laganside as well as the Odyssey complex and the landmark Waterfront Hall. The city is served by two airports: The George Best Belfast City Airport adjacent to Belfast Lough and Belfast International Airport which is near Lough Neagh. Queen’s University of Belfast is the main university in the city. The Ulster University also maintains a campus in the city, which concentrates on fine art, design and architecture.
Belfast is one of the constituent cities that makes up the Dublin-Belfast corridor region, which has a population of just under 3 million.
Most of Belfast’s water is supplied from the Silent Valley Reservoir in County Down, created to collect water from the Mourne Mountains. The rest of the city’s water is sourced from Lough Neagh, via Dunore Water Treatment Works in County Antrim. The citizens of Belfast pay for their water in their rates bill. Plans to bring in additional water tariffs have been deferred by devolution in May 2007. Belfast has approximately 1,300 km (808 mi) of sewers, which are currently being replaced in a project costing over £100 million and due for completion in 2009.
Power is provided from a number of power stations via NIE Networks Limited transmission lines. Phoenix Natural Gas Ltd. started supplying customers in Larne and Greater Belfast with natural gas in 1996 via the newly constructed Scotland-Northern Ireland pipeline. Rates in Belfast (and the rest of Northern Ireland) were reformed in April 2007. The discrete capital value system means rates bills are determined by the capital value of each domestic property as assessed by the Valuation and Lands Agency. The recent dramatic rise in house prices has made these reforms unpopular.
The Belfast Health & Social Care Trust is one of five trusts that were created on 1 April 2007 by the Department of Health. Belfast contains most of Northern Ireland’s regional specialist centres. The Royal Victoria Hospital is an internationally renowned centre of excellence in trauma care and provides specialist trauma care for all of Northern Ireland. It also provides the city’s specialist neurosurgical, ophthalmology, ENT, and dentistry services. The Belfast City Hospital is the regional specialist centre for haematology and is home to a cancer centre that rivals the best in the world. The Mary G McGeown Regional Nephrology Unit at the City Hospital is the kidney transplant centre and provides regional renal services for Northern Ireland. Musgrave Park Hospital in south Belfast specialises in orthopaedics, rheumatology, sports medicine and rehabilitation. It is home to Northern Ireland’s first Acquired Brain Injury Unit, costing £9 million and opened by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in May 2006. Other hospitals in Belfast include the Mater Hospital in north Belfast and the Children’s Hospital.
Belfast is a relatively car-dependent city by European standards, with an extensive road network including the 22.5 miles (36 km) M2 and M22 motorway route. A 2005 survey of how people travel in Northern Ireland showed that people in Belfast made 77% of all journeys by car, 11% by public transport and 6% on foot. It showed that Belfast has 0.70 cars per household compared to figures of 1.18 in the East and 1.14 in the West of Northern Ireland. A road improvement-scheme in Belfast began early in 2006, with the upgrading of two junctions along the Westlink dual-carriageway to grade-separated standard. The improvement scheme was completed five months ahead of schedule on February 2009, with the official opening taking place on 4 March 2009.
Commentators have argued that this may create a bottleneck at York Street, the next at-grade intersection, until that too is upgraded. On 25 October 2012 the stage 2 report for the York Street intersection was approved and in December 2012 the planned upgrade moved into stage 3 of the development process. If successfully completing the necessary statutory procedures, work on a grade separated junction to connect the Westlink to the M2/M3 motorways is scheduled to take place between 2014 and 2018, creating a continuous link between the M1 and M2, the two main motorways in Northern Ireland.
Black taxis are common in the city, operating on a share basis in some areas. These are outnumbered by private hire taxis. Bus and rail public transport in Northern Ireland is operated by subsidiaries of Translink. Bus services in the city proper and the nearer suburbs are operated by Translink Metro, with services focusing on linking residential districts with the city centre on 12 quality bus corridors running along main radial roads,
More distant suburbs are served by Ulsterbus. Northern Ireland Railways provides suburban services along three lines running through Belfast’s northern suburbs to Carrickfergus, Larne and Larne Harbour, eastwards towards Bangor and south-westwards towards Lisburn and Portadown. This service is known as the Belfast Suburban Rail system. Belfast is linked directly to Coleraine, Portrush and Derry. Belfast has a direct rail connection with Dublin called Enterprise which is operated jointly by NIR and Iarnród Éireann, the state railway company of the Republic of Ireland. There are no rail services to cities in other countries of the United Kingdom, due to the lack of a bridge or tunnel connecting Great Britain to the island of Ireland. There is, however, a combined ferry and rail ticket between Belfast and cities in Great Britain, which is referred to as Sailrail.
In April 2008, the Department for Regional Development reported on a plan for a light-rail system, similar to that in Dublin. The consultants said Belfast does not have the population to support a light rail system, suggesting that investment in bus-based rapid transit would be preferable. The study found that bus-based rapid transit produces positive economic results, but light rail does not. The report by Atkins & KPMG, however, said there would be the option of migrating to light rail in the future should the demand increase.
The city has two airports: Belfast International Airport offering, domestic, European and international flights such as Orlando operated seasonally by Virgin Atlantic. The airport is located northwest of the city, near Lough Neagh, while the George Best Belfast City Airport, which is closer to the city centre by train from Sydenham on the Bangor Line, adjacent to Belfast Lough, offers UK domestic flights and a few European flights. In 2005, Belfast International Airport was the 11th busiest commercial airport in the UK, accounting for just over 2% of all UK terminal passengers while the George Best Belfast City Airport was the 16th busiest and had 1% of UK terminal passengers. The Belfast – Liverpool route is the busiest domestic flight route in the UK excluding London with 555,224 passengers in 2009. Over 2.2 million passengers flew between Belfast and London in 2009.
Belfast has a large port used for exporting and importing goods, and for passenger ferry services. Stena Line runs regular routes to Cairnryan in Scotland using its conventional vessels—with a crossing time of around 2 hours 15 minutes. Until 2011 the route went to Stranraer and used inter alia a HSS (High Speed Service) vessel—with a crossing time of around 90 minutes. Stena Line also operates a route to Liverpool. A seasonal sailing to Douglas, Isle of Man is operated by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company.
A new form of transport in Belfast was created in 2018 known as the ‘Glider’. It is Belfast’s new rapid transit which came into operation on 3 September 2018. The Glider links East Belfast, West Belfast and the Titanic Quarter from the City Centre.
The new 90 million pound bus service saw a 17% increase in its first month in Belfast, with 30,000 more people using the Gliders every week. The bus service is being recognised as helping to modernise the city’s public transport.
Belfast’s population is evenly split between its Protestant and Catholic residents. These two distinct cultural communities have both contributed significantly to the city’s culture. Throughout the Troubles, Belfast artists continued to express themselves through poetry, art and music. In the period since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Belfast has begun a social, economic and cultural transformation giving it a growing international cultural reputation. In 2003, Belfast had an unsuccessful bid for the 2008 European Capital of Culture. The bid was run by an independent company, Imagine Belfast, who boasted that it would “make Belfast the meeting place of Europe’s legends, where the meaning of history and belief find a home and a sanctuary from caricature, parody and oblivion.” According to The Guardian the bid may have been undermined by the city’s history and volatile politics.
In 2004–05, art and cultural events in Belfast were attended by 1.8 million people (400,000 more than the previous year). The same year, 80,000 people participated in culture and other arts activities, twice as many as in 2003–04. A combination of relative peace, international investment and an active promotion of arts and culture is attracting more tourists to Belfast than ever before. In 2004–05, 5.9 million people visited Belfast, a 10% increase from the previous year, and spent £262.5 million.
The Ulster Orchestra, based in Belfast, is Northern Ireland’s only full-time symphony orchestra and is well renowned in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1966, it has existed in its present form since 1981, when the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra was disbanded. The music school of Queen’s University is responsible for arranging a notable series of lunchtime and evening concerts, often given by renowned musicians which are usually given in The Harty Room at the university (University Square).
The Beatles emerging from the Ritz Cinema, Belfast following their concert, 8 November 1963.
There are many Traditional Irish bands playing throughout the city and quite a few music schools concentrate on teaching Traditional music.
Musicians and bands who have written songs about or dedicated to Belfast: U2, Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, Simple Minds, Elton John, Rogue Male, Katie Melua, Boney M, Paul Muldoon, Stiff Little Fingers, Nanci Griffith, Glenn Patterson, Orbital, James Taylor, Fun Boy Three, Spandau Ballet, The Police, Barnbrack, Gary Moore, Neon Neon, Toxic Waste, Energy Orchard, and Billy Bragg.
The City is the subject of the Boney M hit, “Belfast” which features the recognizable refrain, “Belfast/Belfast/Belfast”.
Further in Belfast the Oh Yeah Music Centre is located (Cathedral Quarter), a project founded to give young musicians and artists a place where they can share ideas and kick-start their music careers as a chance to be supported and promoted by professional musicians of Northern Ireland’s music scene.
Belfast has a longstanding underground club scene which was established in the early 1980s.
Like all areas of the island of Ireland outside of the Gaeltacht, the Irish language in Belfast is not that of an unbroken intergenerational transmission. Due to community activity in the 1960s, including the establishment of the Shaws Road Gaeltacht community, the expanse in the Irish language arts, and the advancements made in the availability of Irish medium education throughout the city, it can now be said that there is a ‘mother-tongue’ community of speakers. The language is heavily promoted in the city and is particularly visible in the Falls Road area, where the signs on both the iconic black taxis and on the public buses are bilingual. Belfast has the highest concentration of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. Projects to promote the language in the city are funded by various sources, notably Foras na Gaeilge, an all-Ireland body funded by both the Irish and British governments. There are a number of Irish language Primary schools and one secondary school in Belfast. The provision of certain resources for these schools (for example, such as the provision of textbooks) is supported by the charitable organization TACA.
In late August 2018, at least three groups were vying for the right to purchase the 5,500 RMS Titanic relics that were an asset of the bankrupt Premier Exhibitions. One of the offers was by a group including the National Maritime Museum and National Museums Northern Ireland, with assistance by James Cameron. Oceanographer Robert Ballard said he favored this bid since it would ensure that the memorabilia would be permanently displayed in Belfast (where the Titanic was built) and in Greenwich. A decision as to the outcome was to be made by a United States district court judge.
Belfast is the home of the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, and The News Letter, the oldest English-language daily newspaper in the world still in publication.
The city is the headquarters of BBC Northern Ireland, ITV station UTV and commercial radio stations Belfast CityBeat and U105. Two community radio stations, Blast 106 and Irish-language station Raidió Fáilte, broadcast to the city from west Belfast, as does Queen’s Radio, a student-run radio station which broadcasts from Queen’s University Students’ Union.
One of Northern Ireland’s two community TV stations, NvTv, is based in the Cathedral Quarter of the city. There are two independent cinemas in Belfast: the Queen’s Film Theatre and the Strand Cinema, which host screenings during the Belfast Film Festival and the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Broadcasting only over the Internet is Homely Planet, the Cultural Radio Station for Northern Ireland, supporting community relations.
The city has become a popular film location; The Paint Hall at Harland and Wolff has become one of the UK Film Council’s main studios. The facility comprises four stages of 16,000 square feet (1,000 m2). Shows filmed at The Paint Hall include the film City of Ember (2008) and HBO’s Game of Thrones series (beginning in late 2009).
In November 2011, Belfast became the smallest city to host the MTV Europe Music Awards. The event was hosted by Selena Gomez and celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Jessie J, Hayden Panettiere, and Lady Gaga travelled to Northern Ireland to attend the event, held in the Odyssey Arena.
Belfast has several notable sports teams playing a diverse variety of sports such as football, Gaelic games, rugby, cricket, and ice hockey. The Belfast Marathon is run annually on May Day, and attracted 20,000 participants in 2011.
The Northern Ireland national football team, ranked 23rd in August 2017 in the FIFA World Rankings, plays its home matches at Windsor Park. The 2017–18 Irish League champions Crusaders are based at Seaview, in the north of the city. Other senior clubs are Glentoran, Linfield, Cliftonville, Harland & Wolff Welders and PSNI. Intermediate-level clubs are: Dundela, Newington Youth, Queen’s University and Sport & Leisure Swifts, who compete in the NIFL Premier Intermediate League; Albert Foundry, Bloomfield, Colin Valley, Crumlin Star, Dunmurry Rec., Dunmurry Young Men, East Belfast, Grove United, Immaculata, Iveagh United, Malachians, Orangefield Old Boys, Rosario Youth Club, St Luke’s, St Patrick’s Young Men, Shankill United, Short Brothers and Sirocco Works of the Northern Amateur Football League and Brantwood and Donegal Celtic of the Ballymena & Provincial League. Belfast was the home town of Manchester United legend George Best who died in November 2005. On the day he was buried in the city, 100,000 people lined the route from his home on the Cregagh Road to Roselawn cemetery. Since his death the City Airport was named after him and a trust has been set up to fund a memorial to him in the city centre.
Belfast is home to over twenty Gaelic football and hurling clubs. Casement Park in west Belfast, home to the Antrim county teams, has a capacity of 32,000 which makes it the second largest Gaelic Athletic Association ground in Ulster. The 1999 Heineken Cup champions Ulster Rugby play at Ravenhill Stadium in the south of the city. Belfast has four teams in rugby’s All-Ireland League: Belfast Harlequins in Division 1B; and Instonians, Queen’s University and Malone in Division 2A.
Belfast is home to the Stormont cricket ground since 1949 and was the venue for the Irish cricket team’s first ever One Day International (ODI) against England in 2006.
In 2007, Pro Wrestling Ulster formed. This is wrestling promotion on the independent circuit, holding events and PPVs in Europa Hotel and The Mandela Hall. It runs to this day.
Belfast is home to one of the biggest British ice hockey clubs, the Belfast Giants. The Giants were founded in 2000 and play their games at the 9,500 capacity Odyssey Arena, where crowds normally range from 4,000–7,000. Many ex-NHL players have featured on the Giants roster, none more famous than world superstar Theo Fleury. The Giants play in the 10-team professional Elite Ice Hockey League which is the top league in Britain. The Giants have been league champions 5 times, most recently in the 2018–19 season. The Belfast Giants are a huge brand in Northern Ireland and their increasing stature in the game led to the Belfast Giants playing the Boston Bruins of the NHL on 2 October 2010 at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast, losing the game 5–1.
Other significant sportspeople from Belfast include double world snooker champion Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and world champion boxers Wayne McCullough, Rinty Monaghan and Carl Frampton. Leander A.S.C is a well known swimming club in Belfast. Belfast produced the Formula One racing stars John Watson who raced for five different teams during his career in the 1970s and 1980s and Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine.
Belfast has two universities. Queen’s University Belfast was founded in 1845 and is a member of the Russell Group, an association of 24 leading research-intensive universities in the UK. It is one of the largest universities in the UK with 25,231 undergraduate and postgraduate students spread over 250 buildings, 120 of which are listed as being of architectural merit.
Ulster University, created in its current form in 1984, is a multi-centre university with a campus in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast. The Belfast campus has a specific focus on Art and Design and Architecture, and is currently undergoing major redevelopment. The Jordanstown campus, just seven miles (11 km) from Belfast city centre concentrates on engineering, health and social science. The Coleraine campus, about 55 mi (89 km) from Belfast city centre concentrates on a broad range of subjects. Course provision is broad – biomedical sciences, environmental science and geography, psychology, business, the humanities and languages, film and journalism, travel and tourism, teacher training and computing are among the campus strengths. The Magee campus, about 70 mi (113 km) from Belfast city centre has many teaching strengths; including business, computing, creative technologies, nursing, Irish language and literature, social sciences, law, psychology, peace and conflict studies and the performing arts. The Conflict Archive on the INternet (CAIN) Web Service receives funding from both universities and is a rich source of information and source material on the Troubles as well as society and politics in Northern Ireland.
Belfast Metropolitan College is a large further education college with three main campuses around the city, including several smaller buildings. Formerly known as Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, it specialises in vocational education. The college has over 53,000 students enrolled on full-time and part-time courses, making it one of the largest further education colleges in the UK and the largest in the island of Ireland.
The Belfast Education and Library Board was established in 1973 as the local council responsible for education, youth and library services within the city. In 2006, this board became part of the Education Authority for Northern Ireland. There are 184 primary, secondary and grammar schools in the city.
Belfast is one of the most visited cities in the UK, and the second most visited on the island of Ireland. In 2008, 7.1 million tourists visited the city. Numerous popular tour bus companies and boat tours run there throughout the year, including tours based on the popular series Game of Thrones, which has had various filming locations around Northern Ireland.
Frommer’s, the American travel guidebook series, listed Belfast as the only United Kingdom destination in its Top 12 Destinations to Visit in 2009. The other listed destinations were Berlin (Germany), Cambodia, Cape Town (South Africa), Cartagena (Colombia), Istanbul (Turkey), the Lassen Volcanic National Park (US), Saqqara (Egypt), the Selma To Montgomery National Historic Trail (US), Waiheke Island (New Zealand), Washington, D.C. (US), and Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada).
The Belfast City Council is currently investing into the complete redevelopment of the Titanic Quarter, which is planned to consist of apartments, hotels, and a riverside entertainment district. A major visitor attraction, Titanic Belfast is a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard, opened on 31 March 2012. It features a criss-cross of escalators and suspended walkways and nine high-tech galleries. They also hope to invest in a new modern transport system (including high-speed rail and others) for Belfast, with a cost of £250 million.
2017 was a great year for Belfast in terms of tourism with nearly 1.5 million trips being made to the city, generating around 5 million bed nights and incredible tourism revenue of 328 million pounds.
In 2018, Belfast saw six new hotels being opened, with the biggest in Northern Ireland, the 53 Million Grand Central Hotel Belfast officially open to the public. The other hotels included AC Marriot, Hampton By Hilton, EasyHotel, Maldron Belfast City Centre and Flint. The new hotels have helped to increase a further 1,000 bedrooms in the city. Belfast was successful in attracting many conferencing events, both National and International to the city in 2018. Over 60 conferences took place that year with 30,000 people helping contribute to a record 45 million pounds for the local economy.
There is a tourist information centre located at Donegall Square North.
Twin towns – sister cities
Belfast has the following sister cities:
- Nashville, Tennessee, United States (since 1994)
- Hefei, Anhui Province, China (since 2005)
- Boston, Massachusetts, United States (since 2014)
- Shenyang, Liaoning Province, China (since 2016)