A castle appears to have been erected here at an early period of the occupation of Ulster by the English, supposed to have been founded by the well-known John de Courcey, to whom this part of Ireland was allotted, or by some of his followers. No historical record of its foundation, however, is to be found. It seems to have been held by the English in connexion with the castle of Carrickfergus, a strong hold, of vastly greater grandeur and importance, and their extensive possessions in the part of the county of Down, called the Ards. The first mention in history of Belfast relates to its destruction by Edward le Bruce, who, invited by O'Neil and other Irish chieftains, came over to Ireland in 1315, with a force of 6,000 men, and devastated the northern parts of the English pale, which, according to Spencer, then extended to Dunluce. Among the good towns and strong holds belonging to the English which he wasted and sacked, was Belfast, which thus fell into the hands of the Irish, who long after continued to hold undisturbed possession of almost the entire of Ulster, the attention of the English nation being diverted by the civil wars of the Roses, as well as by their French expeditions, from attempting to regain their lost possessions in the North of Ireland.
In the reign of Henry VIII., Gerald, Earl of Kildare, then Lord Deputy, finding it necessary to check the growing power of the O'Neils, made several expeditions into Ulster; in one of which in 1503, he took the castle of Belfast, but unable to hold his ground there, he dismantled it before his return to Dublin. This is the first distinct historical mention of the castle. Upon his retreat it was again repaired and occupied by the Irish, till in 1512, it was once more taken and destroyed by the same Earl of Kildare. In 1552, the Lord Deputy, Sir James Crofts, fortified the castle and garrisoned it. At this time it seems probable that the outworks were erected, considerable traces of which remained until a few years ago. They do not appear, however, to have consisted of any regular fortifications, but merely strong earthen ramparts and a deep fosse. To the custody of Hugh Mac Neil Oge, of Clan-hugh-boy, the castle was soon after confided, upon his swearing allegiance to the Crown of England; but he having soon after lost his life in a conflict which took place with a body of Scots, who made a predatory descent on the neighbouring coast, Randolphus Lane, an Englishman, was next appointed to the command of the castle; but the possession of the surrounding territory by the descendants of O'Neil, continued until in 1571, Elizabeth made a grant to Sir Thomas Smith and Thomas Smith his son, of a considerable tract of country, within the territories of Claneboy and the Great Ards, which had been vested in the Crown by act of parliament for the attainder of Shane O'Neil. Of this grant, the particulars are fully given in a valuable manuscript called -- "The Grand Inquisition of the County of Down," taken in 1621. In it the castle of Belfast is included with several others. The inquisition recites that "in the Queen's Earldom of Ulster, there be divers parcels of land that be waste, or inhabited with a wicked, barbarous, and uncivil people, some Scottish, and some wild Irish;" and that "the Smiths, with a power of Englishmen, agree to subdue all, and them plant with faithful subjects." It then recites various covenants on the part of the Smiths, to the effect, that all the adventurers who accompanied them should have certain portions of land, on certain tenures; that they (the Smiths) should have for every plow-land, one able English foot-soldier, well armed and furnished like the men of England; or for every two town-lands, a light English horseman accoutred in the same manner; and that on fifteen days notice they should appear before the Deputy at every general hostings, with a third part of all the horsemen and footmen they were bound to provide; that they should grant; no estate to any of the mere Irish or Scottish Irish, nor intermarry with them without permission. The Inquisition then states that Thomas Smith, the son, did, in 1572, enter the earldom of Ulster, but did not subdue it. It then proceeds to allege the violation of the various covenants in the grant, and the non-payment of the Crown rent; and that, therefore, the whole grant reverted to the King. (James I.)
It is a remarkable proof of the slight importance that Belfast had attained previous to 1586, that in Hollinshed's Chronicle, printed in London, in that year, there is no mention whatever made of it in the enumeration of the chief towns and havens of the Counties of Down and Antrim, among which are mentioned more than one, which at this day are but mere fishing villages.
Many forfeitures having taken place about the close of the 16th century, in the northern counties of Ireland, extensive plans were brought into operation by James I. and his ministers, for the settlement and plantation of them. The Lord Deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester, having been most active in forwarding the King's views, was rewarded by considerable grants of land, and "as a further mark of his Majesty's lasting favour, he did, by letters patent, bearing date at Westminster 23d February, 1612, create him Baron of Belfast." -- In the year following a charter was granted to Belfast, constituting it a corporation, consisting of a sovereign, twelve burgesses, and commonalty, with the privilege of sending two members to Parliament. From this period may Belfast date its rise, not only in political but also in commercial importance; the latter, however, received decisive assistance from the purchase by Lord Strafford, on the part of the Crown, from the Corporation of Carrickfergus, in 1637, of their privilege of receiving one-third of the duties payable on goods imported into that town, and other extensive monopolies which it enjoyed; in consequence of which, the trade of Carrickfergus rapidly transferred itself from thence to Belfast. The unsettled state of the kingdom during the succeeding years, and the well-known rebellion of 1641, greatly retarded the advancing improvement of the town; which was successively occupied, during the contest between Charles I. and his parliament, by the Scottish troops under General Monroe, and the Parliament forces, under the celebrated General Monk. From them it was retaken by the Royalists by stratagem; and shortly after the arrival of Cromwell in Ireland in 1649, and the subsequent reduction of Drogheda, he sent Colonel Venables to reduce Belfast, which, after a resistance of four days, surrendered to him, having thus sustained four sieges, and as many times changed masters, in the lapse; of not more than six years.
In 1688 a new charter was issued hy James the II. in which the number of burgesses, was increased to thirty-five, and the privileges of the Corporation were much abridged; a power being invested in the chief governor and privy council of removing a sovereign, burgess, or other officer at pleasure. Our lips, are, in a great measure, sealed upon the subject of the political part which Belfast took in the great struggle which terminated in the establishment of William the III. upon the throne of these kingdoms. Certain, however, it is that in this town the cause of James was by no means popular, and the arrival of Duke Schomberg, in 1690, was hailed with joy. On the 9th of June following, William himself landed at Carrickfergus, from whence he proceeded immediately to Belfast, where he was received with enthusiasm, and remained there nearly a week, being lodged in the house of Sir William Franklin; the site of which is now occupied by the principal hotel in the town, the Donegal Arms.
The advantages derived from tranquillity soon began to manifest themselves in the increased prosperity of Belfast, which from this period advanced with rapid strides to the place it now holds among the commercial towns of Ireland. Its history, for many succeeding years, presents but few striking incidents; but it is quite obvious that this is by no means inconsistent with advancement in populations in trade, and in wealth. In the spring of 1692, seven arches of the Long Bridge fell in, it having been much shaken by the drawing of the heavy cannon of the Duke of Schomberg over it. This bridge, the foundation of which had been laid in 1682, but the completion of which was delayed for several years after by the unsettled state of the country, is generally supposed to occupy the site of the ancient ford across the Lagan, from which, as we have before mentioned, Belfast is said to have had its origin. The bridge consists of twenty-one arches, and is 2,562 feet in length. It has long been in a tottering condition, and its final removal, and the substitution of a modern one in its place, has long been contemplated. -- In 1708, the castle of Belfast was destroyed by fire, by the carelessness of a servant, and three daughters of Arthur, third earl of Donegal, unfortunately perished in the flames. Till lately some vestiges of the castle were to be seen, but now all trace of it has vanished, and its site is chiefly occupied by a fish and vegetable market. It is thus described by an English gentleman, who visited Ireland in 1635:-- "At Belfast, my Lord Chichester hath a dainty stately palace, which is indeed the glory and beauty of that town, where he is mostly resident."
The descent of the French squadron under Thurot, in 1760, and his occupation of Carrickfergus, naturally excited great alarm in Belfast, which it was his intention to have entered and plundered; but some delay having been fortunately occasioned by a difference of opinion with his colleague, M. Flobert, the inhabitants of the town and the neighbouring district, rapidly got under arms, a body of troops were quickly despatched to their aid, and the excellent Lord Charlemont, as Governor of the County of Armagh, proceeded to take the command of the militia of that county. The result was, that Thurot was obliged to abandon the enterprise, and re-embark; the three frigates composing his little squadron were afterwards captured or dispersed before they could get out of the Irish channel. From the apprehension of a repetition of such attempts upon the part ot the French nation to make descents upon the coast, arose the celebrated military associations known as the Volunteers; but it was not, however, till the year 1778, that these associations assumed a definite shape and name. In their formation Belfast took a leading and distinguished part; and here were held some reviews of the entire Volunteer force of the North of Ireland, upon a scale of great magnitude and splendour. It would be impossible for us now to enter upon the history of this celebrated body, which makes so conspicuous a figure in the annals of this country. We have already alluded, in the biographical memoir of Lord Charlemont in our 33rd Number, to its having effected the removal of various commercial restraints, and afwards [sic] established, in 1782, the independence of the Irish Legislature. This body finally ceased to exist in 1793.
At the earlier period of the memorable French Revolution, a powerful sensation was produced in Belfast, where it was hailed by many as the dawn of a new era in the history of the civil and religious interests of mankind. Imbued with an ardent love of liberty, they were caught by the enthusiasm, of the day, and until undeceived by the frightful scenes of bloodshed which rapidly followed, they hailed the progress of the revolutionists with unrestrained demonstration of the liveliest sympathy and joy. Addresses to the French people, expressive of such feelings, were rapidly prepared, and numerously and respectably signed. The fermented state of the public mind consequent upon these proceedings, afford we think the clue to the formation in Belfast of the secret societies, so well known afterwards by the designation of United Irishmen. But a narrative of their proceedings must not be expected from our columns; in the memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, not long since published, are to be found the details of their objects and plans. The government, whose subversion they sought to effect, took active measures in self-defence, for their suppression, and in consequence Belfast was visited by many of the calamities necessarily resulting from the steps taken to provide against the anticipated conspiracy. Many arrests took place, and martial law was proclaimed. -- At length the rebellion of 1798 broke out; but we learn that to such a state of subjection were the conspirators here reduced by the unremitting vigilance and exertion of the civil and military powers, that, while insurrection was blazing forth in various parts of Ireland, not the slightest commotion betrayed itself here. The lapse of a few years restored peace to this distracted country; and Belfast once more restored her rapid advance to her present state or commercial prosperity, which no untoward events have since occurred to interrupt.
Having already much exceeded the limits to which we had intended to have restricted ourselves for the article, we are compelled to postpone our notice of the present state of Belfast, with regard to its trade, manufactures, public institutions, &c. to a future number.
This article is reproduced from The Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 44 (Apr. 27, 1833), pp.349-350