History of Northern Ireland 3

From the Act of Union to the Great Revival

The Act of


Even as the rebellion of the United Irishmen was being brutally suppressed by Lord Lieutenant Charles Cornwallis, he accompanied the use of military force with political action, bringing a bill to unite the Irish and British parliaments before the Irish House of Commons, in January 1799.


Union was rejected by two votes. Cornwallis and the chief secretary, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, set about persuading opponents of the union. Whilst Catholic interests were swayed by promises of a rapid move towards emancipation, much of the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ opposed the erosion of their authority.
linen drapers were attracted by the prospect of free trade between the two kingdoms and the Orange Order opposed union, fearing the political influence of newly emancipated Catholics.


The Irish Parliament effectively dissolved itself when it passed an Act of Union early in 1800. The Act was passed into law by the
parliament on January 1, 1801. George III vetoed the promise of emancipation and both Cornwallis and Prime Minister William Pitt resigned.


The Industrial Revolution in


According to historian Jonathan Bardon, ‘It was the success of the linen industry that made Ulster the most prosperous part of
’ in the century following the 1801 Act of Union.


While flax spinning and weaving had long been practised in
, impetus for growth was provided by the removal of English import duties on unbleached Irish linen in 1696, and by the establishment of Louis Crommelin’s colony of French Huguenot weavers at Lisburn, Co Antrim, in 1698.


An Irish Linen Board was set up in 1710 to promote the fledgling industry and even though weaving linen yarn into cloth did not yet become mechanised, output increased from 2.5m yards in the 1720s, to 17m yards in the 1800s.


Following the introduction of mechanised spinning processes after 1825, linen started to overtake cotton as the major local textile industry. However, the linen and cotton industries remained prone to severe recession.

In 1861, the outbreak of the American civil war obstructed the supply of raw cotton to English mills. Adapting the recently developed power looms to weave cotton, the linen industry in and around
and in towns such as Ballymena, Newry, Lisburn, Lurgan and Portadown, reached the peak of its prosperity in 1867.


Although small scale shipbuilding and ship repair work had been carried out in Belfast Lough from at least the sixteenth century, the modern industry received its crucial impetus with the arrival of William Ritchie. Ritchie arrived from Saltcoats, Ayrshire, with 10 men and enough materials to found a boat yard. The first vessel was built on a site near modern

Corporation Street

and was launched in 1792.


With the creation of Queen’s
Island in the middle of the nineteenth century, a major development in the industry was the opening of Robert Hickson’s yard. Hickson, an ironmonger who had expanded into shipbuilding, employed Edward Harland as shipyard manager. In 1855, Hickson sold Harland ‘my interest and goodwill in the shipyard at the Queen’s Island,


In 1870, Harland signed a contract with the White Star Line, which set the course for his company to become one of the best known shipyards in the world. The next 50 years saw Harland and Wolff construct the first transatlantic ocean liner, the Oceanic and enter into a ‘golden age’ of ship building.


Other nineteenth century industrial enterprises in the north of
included, at various times, ironworks, glassworks and an embryonic chemical industry. The period also saw the development of transportation systems, docks, roads, railways and canals that supplied raw materials and carried away finished goods. However, much of
outside of the Lagan valley remained predominantly agricultural and even key industrial enterprises were prone to recession


The Great Revival


In the wake of ‘Revivalist’ movements among evangelical Protestants in the US, 1857 to 1858, Presbyterian communities in
experienced a wave of intense religious demonstrations during the summer and autumn of 1859. The phenomenon, known ‘The Great Revival,’ began in the Co Antrim villages of Kells, Connor and Ahoghill, but spread rapidly to
. Crowded prayer meetings were held in churches and in the open air, most notably in June and August when thousands crowded into
’s Botanic Gardens.


The physical symptoms of the Revival included faintings, visions, trances and physical paralysis and were most common among women and children. These were the subject of intense debate on the nature of the upsurge of religious fervour. A number of clergymen were disturbed by what they saw as a display of mass hysteria, where others saw proof of divine intervention. Later commentators noted the stressful social context of a rapidly modernising economy, as well as a presence of an evangelical tradition within Scots Presbyterianism. 


Whatever the causes, the Great Revival was a central cultural phenomena of the early industrial age in
,and indelibly shaped the character of local Protestantism for many decades to come.


Belfast: An Illustrated History (1982) by Jonathan Bardon; Belfast: 1000 Years (1985) by Jonathan Bardon and Stephen Conlin.