Architecture in North Belfast

An architectural survey of the north of the city

If, according to CEB Brett, Belfast lost its ‘focus’ when Belfast Castle burned in April 1706, the city subsequently revived its architectural heart and castle in the north.

Indeed, like the fire that deprived the third Earl’s widow of a home and three daughters, the area spread, fuelled by the misfortunes of the Chichester family. In the nineteenth century, the Antrim Road grew from the old enclave at New Lodge to lands freed by a bankrupt Donegall estate. Later, electric tramways led from the mills up to a leafy colony where the emergent middle class would hope to ‘produce to live and not live to produce’ (Noever). As a result, north Belfast is a complex district that is fractured not only by the parish lines of its many churches, but also by an ambition beyond industrialism.

Belfast Castle

Although Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex, may have built a fort at Fortwilliam during Elizabeth I’s reign, it would be more than 300 years before a major seat of power would be established in the north of the city.
Following the loss of Belfast Castle and the family fortune, the early nineteenth century found the third Marquis of Donegall in a modest farmhouse at Ormeau. By 1857, his daughter and son-in-law, the eighth Earl of Shaftesbury, had guaranteed an £11,000 payment for the building of a residence in the Deerpark at the base of Cave Hill.

Belfast Castle on the Antrim Road was designed by Charles Lanyon, a young English engineer who was to become a major force in the development of the city. Complete with turrets and oriel windows, the castle was erected in 1870 in what Brett calls ‘the fullness of the Scottish Baronial style’.

Although the interior has been converted into a number of public function rooms, the structure remains a striking focus on the romantic mountainside. Notable features include a baroque spiral staircase on the garden front added in 1894 by an unknown architect, original bow windows supported by carved stone corbels, and a six-storey square tower in the manner of the castle at Balmoral.

Ecclesiastical Structures

At the far end of the middle class enclave at Fortwilliam, on grounds once included in the vast Chichester estate, lies Lanyon’s Belfast Castle Chapel, erected in 1869. Though now deconsecrated and in virtual ruin, the church, with its semicircular apsidal interior, stands as a reminder of what was, according to Brett, ‘the golden age for ecclesiastical architects’.

Of the 90 ecclesiastical structures built in Belfast during Queen Victoria’s reign, Lanyon and WH Lynn were responsible for several parish churches in the north of the city, including the octagonal-spired St Paul’s on the York Road (1850), the gothic revival St Mark’s on the Ligoniel Road (1854), and St James’ on the Antrim Road (1871). Lynn also designed the now disused Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church at Carlisle Circus (1868) in gothic revival style, employing red Dundonald sandstone.

William Barre also designed a number of churches in Belfast in this period. Having secured his first commission for the Unitarian Church on York Street in 1855, the architect honed his eccentric, eclectic style in designs for the Duncairn Presbyterian Church on the Antrim Road in 1860.

Although the structure has since been altered by Young and McKenzie with the addition of an organ chamber (1906) and new rear hall (1914), Barre’s tower—the first of its kind to hang a ‘Presbyterian bell’—survives alongside his ship-like, hammer beam roof.

Other Victorian ecclesiastical buildings in north Belfast include JJ McCarthy’s red and blue brick St Paul’s Convent of Mercy (1859), William Slater’s cruciform St Mary’s Church of Ireland (1868), both on the Crumlin Road, and Henry Chappell’s rose-windowed Presbyterian Church in Fortwilliam Park (1885). Later structures include Anthony Jackson’s disused, double-galleried, St Enoch’s Presbyterian Church at Carlisle Circus (1872), and SP Close’s Gothic revival St Peter’s Church of Ireland on the Antrim Road (1881), which currently houses fittings rescued from the Belfast Castle Chapel.

The Edwardian era saw the completion of the Church of the Holy Cross on the Crumlin Road (1902), described by Brett as ‘one of the best ecclesiastical buildings of these years’. Designed by the Dublin firm Walter G Doolin and RM Butler, this Romanesque revival addition to the existing 1881 monastery features twin square towers and external carvings by James Owens, a planked vaulted roof, interior frescoes painted by a Brother Mark, and mosaics by JF Ebner of London. Regrettably, the twentieth century failed to present north Belfast with any important ecclesiastical structures, excepting Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall’s synagogue on the Somerton Road, according to Brett ‘arguably the most distinguished work of modern architecture of the city’.


While Fortwilliam may have boasted an Elizabethan seat, there can be no doubt it was the mills of the industrial revolution that truly inspired the city’s development into the northern reaches.

In the valley just north of the rampart’s vanished boundary, the early industrial building at Jennymount Mill, North Derby Street (1856) grew to include a massive seven-story extension complete, according to Williams, with ‘articulated upper floors sprouting corner flues and a spiral staircase tower’. Predictably, Barre then extended his practice in 1865 to construct the era’s largest linen mill, the former Edenderry Mill on the Crumlin Road. In contrast to the lavish Jennymount, Williams notes the mill’s ‘brutal simplicity anticipates twentieth century functionalism’.


In the years between 1800 and 1901, Belfast’s population grew from 20,000 to 350,000. Keen to flee the famine in the countryside, migrant workers flocked to the mills and, according to Brett, a ‘gridiron of working class housing spread swiftly outwards from the city centre in every direction up the hillsides towards the Antrim escarpment’.

The enclave at New Lodge, however, was not to develop the usual tedium of redbrick kitchen houses and second-rate mill accommodation. From the 1830’s onwards, the Antrim Road with its parlour terraces would fracture all architectural homogeneity.

Near Belfast Zoo and the old pleasure grounds of Bellevue, two triumphal approaches on the Antrim and Shore roads remain partially intact.

Public Buildings

According to Brett, ‘it had been thought fitting since classical times that public buildings should display a dignity emblematic of their functions’. Thus, Lanyon designed a fortress at Crumlin Road Gaol in 1846 complete with a radial layout and menacing exterior of rusticated sandstone. Disused and poorly reconstructed after bomb damage, it is now almost derelict.

Linked to the jail by a corridor under the Crumlin Road is Lanyon’s County Courthouse (1850). Although the original Italian Renaissance facade has been compromised by bad paintwork and the 1905 renovations of Young and Mackenzie, the Corinthian entrance portico and Joseph Kirk’s figure of Justice survive.

Other important public buildings in north Belfast include the redbrick Mater Hospital on the Crumlin Road, with its now vanished rooftop lawns and gardens designed by William Fennell (1900), the Gothic revival St Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road by John O’Neill (1868), and the Scrabo sandstone Belfast Royal Academy on the Cliftonville Road, designed by Young and Mackenzie (1880).

The Troubles

Like most of the city, north Belfast has been greatly changed by the onslaught of the Troubles. Isolated from neighbouring communities by both religious and class divides, enclaves at the New Lodge and Ardoyne have seen inter- and intra-community violence destroy buildings on the working class streets, including the burned terraces of Farringdon Gardens in 1971. Today what remains is an urban locale characterised not only by its remarkable natural setting, but by its tiny, village-like districts, whose corrugated peace walls, fortifications and derelict zones both obscure and protect a valuable architectural history.

Further Reading
Architecture in Ireland 1837-1921 (1994) by Jeremy Williams; Modern Architecture: A Critical History (1992) by Kenneth Frampton; Architecture in Transition: Between Deconstruction and New Modernism (1991) edited by Peter Noever; Buildings of Belfast: 1700-1914 (revised edition 1985) by CEB Brett; Belfast: An Illustrated History (1982) by Jonathan Bardon; The Architecture of Ireland (1982) by Maurice Craig; An Introduction to Ulster Architecture (1975) by Hugh Dixon.

© Natasha Cuddington 2004