radicals and scoops
Where Bridge Street and Waring Street meet you can look across to an
empty building, which most recently has been a branch of the Northern
Bank and which is to be converted to a hotel.
In the 18th century this was the heart of Belfast, the site of an
exchange and assembly rooms. At one time all milestones out of Belfast
were measured from here.
The building was commandeered for a military tribunal in 1798 in the
wake of the failed rebellion by the United Irishmen and it was here
that Henry Joy McCracken was tried and sentenced to death.
His trial was the culmination of years of radicalism in the town, radicalism
that was fuelled by the French and American Revolutions whose declarations
of freedom, equality and self-determination struck a chord with many
in the town.
The anniversary of the fall of the Bastille was celebrated in this area
for many years. As part of those celebrations in 1792 the Belfast Harp
Festival was held in the assembly building.
Edward Bunting took the opportunity to transcribe for posterity the
old Irish airs played by the, mainly blind, harpers who had travelled
from all over Ireland for the event.
The harp festival became an annual event and part of a wider movement
to preserve Irish language and culture.
Henry Joy McCracken had been a resident of Rosemary Street (to the left
as you look at the assembly building) and publisher of the Belfast News
Letter which was first published, under the sign of the peacock, in
Bridge Street before moving to High Street.
Like other reformers and radicals McCracken was from a family made prosperous
and confident by Belfast’s success as a trading port but which
felt oppressed by English rule and Anglican religious authority and
They supported Catholic emancipation, although no Catholics lived in
Belfast at this time. When the town’s first Catholic church, St
Mary’s in Chapel Lane, was built most of the funds came from the
Among the progressive innovations of the Belfast Academy, a school they
set up near here, was the education of girls and women on the same basis
Perhaps as a result of this attitude and education there were women
among the leading players in the ’98 rebellion.
Their zeal for a better world also led the citizens here to block, in
these assembly rooms, an attempt to establish a slaveship company. The
citizens were familiar with the iniquities of slavery, having heard
about them first-hand from former slave Olaudah Equiano when he visited
The centre of this passion for reform, radicalism and revolution was
the Northern Whig club.
On this corner is the imposing Northern Whig building which was built
of grey Dublin granite between 1819 and 1821 and which was the home
of the Northern Whig newspaper from 1921 until 1963 when the paper folded.
The Whig had been published in the area from its founding in 1824, years
after the original club had vanished into history.
The award for the greatest scoop published in this area has to go to
the News Letter, whose enterprising publishers managed to intercept
the American Declaration of Independence on its way to London from Philadelphia
and print its contents before it reached king and parliament.
There are only a few buildings of any age in this part of Belfast because
the area was devastated in a German air raid on the night of 4/5 May
1941 and most of the buildings were reduced to rubble.
to Writers' Square for pints, performers and a half bap with
some Italian seasoning