The Industrial Heritage of Northern Ireland

Kathleen Neill gives an overview of Northern Ireland’s industrial past

Northern Ireland's industrial heritage is largely a result of its geographic position and physical attributes. Situated on the outer western edge of a continental shelf, Ireland is noted for its gentle rainfall, temperate climate and lush greenery. In addition, the low lying nature of the island, combined with few major waterways, meant there was little opportunity to generate the large quantities of power needed for major industrial businesses.

Agriculture and fishing were always primary occupations. However, many minor mills with simple water wheels were established to mill grain and scutch flax. A few specialist spade makers also used waterpower. Wind power was exploited to a lesser extent, mainly for milling. Little evidence remains of these smaller premises as many of the sites were later expanded or redeveloped.

Until the mass emigration following the great famine of 1845 to 1849, labour was plentiful and cheap. Protectionist laws forbade export to the English market, and the production of wool, cotton and linen was mainly a cottage industry. Waterpower was not widely used for spinning or weaving.

The manufacturing and repair of the machinery required by these cottage industries was largely carried out by the craftsman himself, or by a local smith or carpenter. It was not until the introduction of waterpower to the bleaching and finishing trades that some of these smiths became millwrights, concentrating on the manufacture of specialist equipment.

As the trade in Irish linen developed internationally, some major retailers built up their own workshops for the processing and finishing of goods. These included Robinson and Cleaver’s in Banbridge, Co Down, and Liddell in Donacloney, Co Armagh.

These small operations were gradually replaced by large steam powered outfits. This increasing scale of industrialisation, first of cotton and later linen, led to the development of foundries and machinery manufacturers who replaced previously imported items.

The roads were unable to handle the increasing loads and coastal areas became central. Lack of natural resources in terms of coal or iron ore also meant these initial developments were restricted to coastal towns or those on navigable waterways.

The Newry Canal was opened in 1758 to exploit a small deposit of coal at Coalisland, Co Tyrone. Although it has only a rise of 18m, it was the first summit fed canal in the United Kingdom, and as such is an important landmark. It was followed by the Ulster Canal and the Lagan Navigation Canal, both of which successfully opened up their hinterlands to trade until surpassed by the railways.

The introduction of steam power led to the rationalisation of the cotton industry through the development of larger spinning mills and weaving factories. Around the same time, cotton gave way to linen as the predominant product.

The coming of the railways increased the speed of this development. Towns in the Lagan valley such as Lisburn, Lurgan, Portadown, Waringstown and Banbridge all flourished with the industry, and Belfast was greatly expanded. Many millwrights around the country turned out machinery to supply local demand, and some developed unique products. John Rowan of Doagh, Co Antrim, built a steam carriage in 1836, and later developed a steam pipe sealing system still used today in nuclear power plants.

Although the recorded history of shipbuilding in Belfast begins in 1636, the industry received its first real impetus in 1791 with the establishment of William Ritchie’s boatyard. The reclamation of Queen’s Island out of the Lagan river between 1841 and 1846 provided land for further dockland development.

Other spin off industries from agriculture prospered. Meat was initially exported as live produce, but the canning of meat and curing bacon became increasingly popular, followed by chilling of beef carcasses. The export of fresh fruit was augmented by jam manufacturing. Every town had its own bakery, although a few Belfast firms came to dominate the trade once distribution networks were established in conjunction with the development of railways.

Small breweries were also once common. Bushmills distillery, founded in 1604, is one of the oldest and best known, and Dunvilles built one of the largest in Belfast. Many varieties of mineral water were produced and exported worldwide by companies probably better known in the export market than at home. The manufacture of cigarettes and tobacco products was also undertaken. 

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