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Belfast Emigration and Immigration

An historical survey of the population movements that shaped Belfast

Updated: 14/07/2008

Immigrant Settlement in the Seventeenth Century

The origins of the town of Belfast lie in the migration of Anglo-Norman adventurers, who built the first castle near the Farset river in the twelfth century. They were followed by English adventurer Arthur Chichester, who oversaw the first settlement of English and Scottish planters ‘situate in the Lower Clandeboye’, granted to him for services to the crown.

By 1606, Scots settlers had begun to stream across the sea into Ulster. With James VI of Scotland on the English throne, these Protestant lowland Scots offered a loyal bulwark against the Catholic native Irish. By 1611, ‘The towne of Bealfast is plotted out in good forme, wherein are many famelyes of English, Scotch and some Manksmen.’

The Presbyterianism of the Scots settlers was to shape the character of Belfast and to influence the flow of population into and out of the town in unexpected ways. Refusing to submit to Anglican orthodoxy in 1636, the five clergymen who set out for America on the Belfast built Eagle’s Wing were only the first of many who would leave the north of Ireland in search of religious freedom.

Nevertheless, the growth of Belfast during the seventeenth century as a marketplace and port servicing the successful plantation of Ulster ensured that its Scots population continued to increase.

Scottish-Irish Emigration from Belfast: The Eighteenth Century

The influx of Scots came to an end with the accession of George I. Faced with restrictive leases on Lord Donegall’s lands in and around Belfast, and with renewed Anglican hostility to Presbyterianism, thousands of Scots-Irish left for the American colonies in the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1792, one writer noted, ‘The humour of going to America still continues, and the scarcity of provisions certainly makes many quit us. There are now seven ships at Belfast that are carrying off about 1000 passengers thither.’

Between 1750 and 1775, at least 143 ships left Belfast for America. Nevertheless, in the same period the town’s population grew from 8500 to 13,000. The expansion of the town as a mercantile and then industrial centre drew people in from the rural hinterland, as well as from Scotland and England, in a movement that would accelerate throughout the following century.

Emigration and Industrialism in the Nineteenth Century

The single most important demographic event of nineteenth century Ireland was the famine of the late 1840s and its accompanying wave of emigration. In Ulster especially, the contraction of the rural linen industry accounted for larger numbers of people choosing to leave the land. The mechanisation of spinning, and later weaving, disrupted an industry that had been based on the family unit and substituted individualist values, which may have encouraged movement.

Whether movement took the form of emigration or migration within Ulster depended on a number of factors. Belfast acted as a ‘dam’ or barrier to further movement on the part of those leaving the countryside by offering industrial employment. This barrier was, however, a selective one, probably retaining skilled or semi-skilled Protestants more effectively than unskilled Catholics. Moreover, the decision to emigrate was not shaped solely by economic or socio-religious factors. Many agencies—from shipping companies to hard-pressed Poor Law Guardians—worked to encourage emigration.

Edward Senior, Poor Law Inspector for the north, recommended paying for the emigration of the poor as a way of reducing the numbers in workhouses. In effect, emigration could be used as a cost cutting measure as well as a form of social hygiene. This system backfired when 64 Belfast women who sailed to Australia on the Earl Grey in 1848 were deemed to be ‘notoriously bad … well known in Belfast as public girls … addicted to stealing and to using the most obscene language.’

America and Australia were not the only or even the most likely destinations for emigrants. Two or three sailings left Belfast for Great Britain every week in the late 1840s, and the descendants of these emigrants gave cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool their distinctive character, as well as a difficult heritage of sectarian conflict.

Crucially however, Belfast’s population continued to grow, and its importance relative to the rest of Ulster increased. In 1821, perhaps 2% of Ulster’s population lived in the town. By 1911, the city held almost a quarter of Ulster’s total population.

Postscript: Immigration at the end of the Twentieth Century

Belfast at the end of the twentieth century, like most large towns and cities in Ireland and Great Britain, plays host to numerous small immigrant communities. Figures from the Multi-Cultural Resource Centre suggest that Belfast is an important centre for Northern Ireland’s 8000 strong Chinese community, for up to 2500 people of Asian origin, for 1500 of African origin, and some 1600 Arabic speakers.

Further Reading:
Atlantic Crossroads: Historical Connections Between Scotland (2001) by Patrick Fitzgerald and S Ickringill; New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora (2000) by Charles Fanning; ‘The Scotch-Irish and the Eighteenth Century Diaspora,’ History Ireland, vol 7.3 (1999) by Patrick Fitzgerald; The Hungry Stream: Essays on Emigration and Famine (1997) by EM Crawford; The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America 1846-51 (1996) by Edward Laxton; Migrations: the Irish at Home and Abroad (1990) edited by Richard Kearney; An Economic History of Ulster 1820-1939 (1985) by Liam Kennedy and Philip Ollerenshaw; Ulster Sails West: the story of the great emigration from Ulster to North America (1976) by WF Marshall.


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