The Industrial Heritage of Co Antrim

An overview of the industrial heritage of Co Antrim.

Co Antrim’s chief town is the port city of Belfast. Its west coast is situated in Antrim and its east coast in Co Down. Due to the growth of industry in the Lagan valley, there was a substantial influx of population into the city and its surrounding area in the nineteenth century.

Indeed, Belfast was the only city in Ireland to experience the industrial revolution. Situated on the River Lagan at the head of Belfast lough, it enjoyed easy access to Scotland by sea, importing coal and iron to support thriving linen and shipbuilding industries. The world’s largest dry dock is located in Belfast, and giant shipyard cranes are still part of the city skyline.

Most of Lough Neagh is contained within Co Antrim, the largest fresh water lake in the British Isles, covering 154 square miles and with a 129km circumference. It is historically one of the most important eel fisheries in Europe.

Carrickfergus is an old walled town, 16km north of the city. A strategic port on the shores of Belfast lough, it was defended by a Norman castle, used up to 1928 as an armory and magazine. The rail link between Belfast and Carrickfergus was extended to Larne in the 1860s by the Larne and Carrickfergus Railway Company.

The establishment of numerous textile mills, associated bleaching and dyeing works, salt mines, tanners, brewers and distilleries, fisheries and brick manufacturing factories combined to ensure that Carrickfergus retained a commercial focus. In Neolithic times, the Curren near Larne was an important site for the manufacturing of flint implements.

Textile Industries
Many Scottish and English planters established themselves in Co Antrim in the seventeenth century. They were encouraged by the government to engage in the cultivation of flax for local linen production and for use in yarn for export. Further encouragement was given to the industry at the turn of the century when Huguenot refugees, fleeing France on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), received grants enabling them to instruct in methods of flax cultivation and linen manufacture. By the late eighteenth century, Co Antrim was responsible for almost half the total Irish export of brown linens.

One Huguenot, Louis Crommelin, obtained a patent for the manufacture of linen, and is regarded as the father of the modern linen industry in Ireland. There were numerous bleach-greens throughout the county, some of which, it was reported in 1837, could finish 80,000 pieces of linen annually. The history of the linen industry in Co Antrim is recreated by the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum. and Lisburn Museum.

The cotton trade came to Belfast in 1777, and by 1784 there was a mill functioning near the city for spinning twist by water. By 1800, about 27,000 persons were employed in and around Belfast in various branches of the cotton industry and, ten years later, 22,000 were employed in spinning, 25,000 in weaving, and a further 5,000 in auxiliary trades.

Co Antrim is mainly rural, with fishing, cattle and sheep, oats, flax and potato farming its economic mainstays. A traditional salmon fishery is located at Carrick-a-rede, near Ballintoy. The name means ‘rock in the road’, referring to an isolated island divided from the mainland by a deep, 18m wide chasm.

The channel provides fertile fishing ground as it obstructs migrating salmon. Some 24m above swings a narrow, frail-looking cable bridge. The bridge has been used for the transportation of salmon for 200 years. Farmers also carry sheep across to graze during spring and summer. The harvesting of an edible seaweed called dulse is an agricultural industry unique to the area.

Hugh Boyd erected Ballycastle Glassworks in 1775 on a site near the shore currently occupied by tennis courts. The site was surveyed in the summer of 1973, although the kiln had suffered from extensive water erosion. The main flue was exposed in the eroded cliff and defensive works dug during the first world war had heavily disturbed the working floor. The main kiln wall was 1.10m thick, with an internal diameter of 18m, supported by a brick cone structure around 27m high. A lean-to annealing house adjoined an arched entry leading to the oven. Artifacts uncovered included fragments of five types of bottles, crown window glass, and a fine flagon.

There were also five coalmines in the Ballycastle area, owned by the Belfast Coal and Iron Company Ltd. These were Ballyway, West Mine, Griffin, White Mine and North Star, managed by Kirkwood H McNeill and John Herkie. By 1908, all but Griffin and North Star had been abandoned. To the right of Holy Trinity Church of Ireland, on the Diamond, Ballycastle, Hugh Boyd built some 20 almshouses for old or disabled workers from the glassworks, coalmines and local industries.

Bushmills developed alongside the water powered industries of the seventeenth century, becoming a major producer of corn, flax, spade and whiskey. One of the first mills in Co Antrim was situated on the River Bush, which came to power seven mills in total. Bushmills Distillery is the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery, dating from 1608. The distillery is now open as a major tourist attraction.

There are also numerous thriving market towns in Co Antrim, including Antrim town itself, Randalstown, Ballymena, Broughshane, Ballymoney, Glenarm and Portrush.