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16 October 2014
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point five: between the bridges
Queens Bridge

A tale of two bridges

When the Queen's Bridge was officially opened in 1849 by Queen Victoria, Belfast was still a town but one that had embraced industrialisation with enthusiasm and was expanding rapidly.

Listen to an audio guide to this section of the walk

The solid piece of Victorian engineering, named in honour of Queen Victoria and that still spans the Lagan here, replaced the Long Bridge.

Several versions of the Long Bridge had linked the town of Belfast, on the County Antrim side of lough and river, with County Down and the quays on that side.

One version of the Long Bridge had been destroyed by Williamite troops passing over it. The weight of the cannons being hauled over it proved too much for the bridge.

The Long Bridge had also been a favourite spot for promenading citizens, as Edward Willes reported in 1759:

'The bridge over which we pass into the town is the longest in his majesty's dominions. It is built over an arm of the sea and a lough, which is great part of it dry at low water; they say it is a mile long, but it is really I believe three-quarters of an English mile. This bridge is the mall where all the company of Belfast take the air in a summer's evening.'

When Victoria opened the Queen's Bridge, times had changed and the bridge had become a vital link between the old town and its quays and Ballymacarrett, on the County Down side, which was already well on its way to becoming the industrial heartland of the city.

This was to be home to the world's biggest ropeworks, shipyard, aerated water manufacturer and manufacturer of tea-drying machinery among other things.

The linen mills, shipyards, engineering works, foundries and factories all needed labour and Catholics and Protestants poured in from rural areas bringing all their political and religious animosities and grievances with them.

These differences had already exploded into violence in the overcrowded poverty of the streets of hastily-built houses when Victoria opened the Queen's Bridge and a pattern had been set for generations.

When rural migrants came to Belfast they settled in areas already occupied by fellow Catholics or Protestants and the pattern of working-class Catholic or Protestant neighbourhoods remains broadly the same today.

For example, employment, and the housing that went with it, in the industries of east Belfast was dominated by Protestants and today, long after those industries have disappeared or declined, the Westminster constituency of East Belfast is the most Protestant in Northern Ireland.

When Queen Elizabeth II opened the Queen Elizabeth bridge in 1967 she was reminded of the tensions that were never very far beneath the surface and had not gone away since her ancestor had opened the neighbouring bridge more than 100 years before.

The very name of the bridge had been a bone of contention in the city. The unionist-dominated Belfast city council wanted to name the bridge after unionist hero Lord Carson but nationalist politicians were bitterly opposed to it.

Queen Elizabeth II was a compromise, agreed to by republican councillors, but there was still a sharp reminder of the differences in the city when the Queen's car was struck by a concrete block as it drove along Great Victoria Street.

On to Customs House Square where orators battled for the hearts, minds and souls of Belfast.

  The Walk

Map of Belfast Belfast City Hall Cornmarket
intro part 1 part 2

St Georges
Donegal Quay
Queen's Bridge
PART 3 part 4 part 5

Customs House
Four Corners
Writer's Square
part 6 part 7 part 8

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