The Early City

One of the most exciting periods in the city's history

'The wee black bird settles
In a whin bush
On the slope of the hill
Then opens
Its yolkyellow bill
- now its fresh
song rises up and fills
the sky over Belfast Lough'

Quoted by Tom Paulin in his introduction to John Hewitt’s 'Rhyming Weavers'

The beginnings of Belfast were dominated by the exertions of Hugh O’Neill to resist the power of the Elizabethan plantation of 1603. His downfall led to the capitulation of the Clandeboye O’Neills, who controlled the castle which had stood on the site of modern day Belfast since the 12th century.

The Clandeboye O’Neills gave way to the domination of Sir Arthur Chichester who was granted the lands of Belfast in 1612. It was he that Jonathan Bardon describes as ‘the true founder of the town of Belfast’.

The 17th century city was a rough and disturbed town full of anxious settlers who fought outsiders, agitated against their landlord, now named Lord Donegall, and generally had little time for poetry or literary endeavours.

As the city began to grow, however, two events happened that would change the nature of the city. Firstly,

 The Belfast Newsletter was created in 1737; the first newspaper in the city was founded by Francis Joy ‘at the sign of the Peacock’. The News Letter, as it is now known, is the oldest existing English language newspaper still printing in the British Isles.

In 1757, Lord Donegall, crippled by debt, began to sell 99-year leases, allowing the inhabitants of the town to invest and create the wider city. This period marks the change from colonial settlement to a fully fledged town.

The period 1750-1801 was perhaps the most exciting and interesting of Belfast’s history. In 1750, the population was a mere 8,000. By the turn of the century the population had mushroomed to 20,000.

The writing of this time is scant, with most of the printing being limited to religious pamphlets, political newsletters and tracts concerning the making of money. However, this period was to see the town develop a social infrastructure that would allow a writing culture.

The town’s first coffee shop was created, Tim’s, in the Assembly rooms, theatres were built, and clubs and pubs began to proliferate. Perhaps most importantly, this was the time that reading societies were formed, one of which, the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, went on to become The Linen Hall Library - still in existence today.

‘And shall the muse refuse the call
From theme so fair as Linen Hall,
Where old respectables resort,
Reviewing many a past report…’

Sam Lyons (1822)