BELFAST AND ARMAGH
THE stranger to Ireland will never imagine, as the result of his visit to Belfast, that the land is the home of the effete civilization that some English writers would have him believe.
Belfast, more than all other centres of population in Ireland, more even than Dublin, the capital, is the equal of any city of its size in the known world for transportation facilities of a thoroughly up-to-date order.
This, perhaps, does not aid in any way in the serious contemplation of its other charms; but it is a significant “sign of the times,” nevertheless.
Savants will tell one that here, at the head of Belfast Lough, was fought, in the year 665, a great battle between the Ulidians and the Cruthni. This event is sufficiently remote to have lost some interest, and appears somewhat lacking in appeal in view of what happened afterward, though the region in the immediate vicinity of Belfast does not abound in the wealth of interesting shrines which exist in most other parts of Ireland.
John de Courcy built a fortified castle here in 1177, after Ulster had been granted to him by Henry II., but no trace of it remains to-day.
The city really owes its rise, however, to the Scottish settlers who came here in large numbers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before which time, says one writer, “the town consisted of but one hundred and twenty odd huts, and a castle roofed with shingles.”
It is on record that the town made a vigorous protest against the execution of Charles I., as might have been expected from its religious and political tendencies. In connection with this protest the usually gentle Milton wrote contemptuously concerning “the blockish presbyters of Clandeboye.... The unhallowed priestlings of an unchristian synagogue.”
The town was incorporated in 1613, but was only given civic dignity in 1888, when its population had grown to 250,000 from its previous minute proportions. The name of the city is evolved from Bel, a ford or river-mouth, and fearsal, a sand-bank.
The chief features of interest in the city proper are unquestionably its attributes of modernity. With such aspects this book has little to do. This is not so, however, with its famous flax and linen industries, made familiar to children of all nations in their very earliest years, when they are given for playthings the spools or bobbins of Barbour’s linen thread, with the gaudy end label picturing the “bloody hand of Ulster.”
The linen industry in Ireland can be traced as far back as 1216, and, in the reign of Henry III., the spinning of linen thread was established as a definite branch of the trade. In 1665 the head of the house of Ormonde, the unfortunate duke, obtained an Act of Parliament for the encouragement of the industry.
Up to 1805 linen yarns appear to have been universally spun by hand. Then abortive attempts were made to introduce machinery, but it was only after 1828, when the industry was freed from the restrictive legislation which had been in force since Queen Anne’s time, that healthy competition among enterprising private firms finally did away with hand spinning.
From that time onward the Irish linen industry developed with great rapidity, especially in Belfast, which is the principal seat of the trade in the United Kingdoms.
The chief archæological treasures of Belfast are Cave Hill, three miles north of the city, which is a curious geological formation possessing three caves, which may or may not have more than a geological interest; and “the Giant’s Ring,” lying to the southward near Ballylesson. This latter is an object of antiquarian regard, consisting of a great circular earthwork, a third of a mile or more in circumference, which encloses a mound of earth about perhaps eighty feet in diameter.
There is also a stone altar, or cromlech, assigned by some to druidical inception, and again denied. At any rate, it is one of those curious artificial erections in which the British Isles and Brittany abound, and its actual significance may be great or little. It is impossible, apparently, for the doctors to agree among themselves.
There is also a castle at Belfast, — it’s an exceedingly impoverished town in Ireland that hasn’t a castle, — though in this case it is merely an imposing residence dignified, or glorified, by the more ancient name. It has, however, a wonderful outlook over the lough, showing, under certain conditions of the atmosphere, the Scottish coast and the Isle of Man.
It is, however, the note of modernity alone which sounds in Belfast, as one might naturally expect of a city which has now reached a population of around four hundred thousand souls and has doubled its numbers in thirty years.
One industry of general interest in these days of universal travel is the great shipbuilding works at Queen’s Island. Twelve thousand hands are employed, and the construction of such leviathans as the great White Star liners, the Oceanic, the Celtic, and the Baltic, of a tonnage exceeding twenty thousand, is an art of which their builders are apparently the sole possessors.
As might further be expected, the shipping trade of Belfast is considerable, and the city more than holds its own in progress in this line with any in the three kingdoms.
Within the immediate vicinity of Belfast — at least within the area of the great city’s influence — is the sleepy old town of Carrickfergus, once the site of one of the most powerful fortresses in Ireland. Now it is but a memory, so far as its impregnability goes, though its remains are suggestive enough of the position it once occupied; one of great strategic value when the means of ancient warfare are considered.
If the “bloody hand of Ulster” should ever grasp firearms and enter into warfare again, the result might be different to this old castle of Carrickfergus, one of the few in Ireland which are not claimed as having belonged to King John.
Southward toward Armagh one first comes to Lisburn, noted principally for its great damask industry. It is truly enough a busy manufacturing town, and has thrived amazingly since the linen manufacture was introduced by the Huguenots who fled to this refuge after the Edict of Nantes.
The cathedral here contains a monument to Jeremy Taylor, who was bishop of County Down. Referring to Taylor’s tenure in Ireland, it has been the custom to recount it thus:
“Under the restoration of Charles II. he was given a bishopric in the wilds of Ireland, in a sour, gloomy country, with sour, gloomy looks all around him ... which broke him at the age of fifty-five.”
Part of this is true, the latter part, but it was not the gloomy, sour wilds around Lisburn that did it, for the whole neighbourhood around about is a charming place, and must have been then. It seems, indeed, always to smile, and, though possessed of no great grandeur, such as rugged peaks and roaring waters, it in every way fulfils one’s idea of a busy town, charmingly environed.
Armagh is to-day a “cathedral town” which possesses two cathedrals. One is the ancient and venerable cathedral which belongs to the Established Church, and dates from the thirteenth century; and the other is the modern Roman Catholic Cathedral, which dates only from 1873.
Armagh is now, as it always has been, a most important centre of religious and churchly activity.
St. Patrick came here to preach the gospel in 432, and a quarter of a century later founded the Church of Armagh. The first edifice endured for nearly four hundred years when it was sacked by the Danes. Reërected again in 1268, it was burned by Shane O’Neill in the sixteenth century, and rebuilt and again burned inside the next half-century. The final rebuilding, or rather the building up from the old fire-swept remains of the ancient structure, took place at the instigation and expense of the Primate Margetson. Armagh is one of the metropolitan sees of Ireland, Dublin being the other; but the Archbishop of Armagh is Primate of Ireland.
The chief centre of interest in Armagh lies with the church and its foundation, though, of itself, Armagh is what many other towns of as great promise are not, — a charmingly unspoiled old-world spot which, in spite of the advent of the steam railway, the telegraph, and the telephone, apparently conducts its daily life much as it did three-quarters of a century ago.
It is a well-kept little city or town, with no great evidences of modern improvements, though nowhere are there any indications of squalor or decay.
In the year 685 Aldfred, son of Ossory, became King of Northumberland. He was educated at Armagh, then a world-famed school of learning, and had written some verses in the Irish tongue descriptive of his impressions of Ireland.
Translated into English his descriptions might apply to-day.“I travelled its fruitful provinces round,
And in every one of the five I found,
Alike in church and in palace hall,
Abundant apparel, and food for all.”
This sounds to-day somewhat like triviality. Perhaps, however, it has lost some of its virtues by translation. Another stanza reads somewhat more melodiously:“I found in Meath’s fair principality
Virtue, vigour, and hospitality;
Candour, joyfulness, bravery, purity,
Ireland’s bulwark and security.”