- Hidden History: The Hanging of Henry Joy McCracken Duration: 04:20
- Hidden History: St George's Church Duration: 04:44
- Hidden History: Clifton Street Graveyard Duration: 01:31
- Hidden History: Belfast's Assembly Rooms Duration: 05:06
- Hidden History: Kelly's Cellars Duration: 02:50
- Hidden History: Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church Duration: 03:19
Hidden History Prog 1 - Belfast City Centre
We begin our journey at a well-known Belfast landmark, the Georgian St George’s Church at the foot of High Street. The present St George’s, named after King George III rather than the English saint, dates from 1816. Then, as since the earliest times, the Farset River flowed down High Street past its doors to disappear in the Lagan estuary. St George’s stands on the site of the medieval ‘Chapel of the Ford’ and here weary travellers offered thanks for the safe crossing of the Farset, the river which gave modern Belfast its name: ‘Beal Feirsde’ - the ‘mouth of the Farset’.
So we are standing at the very spot which marked the origins of this great city. It was here in the early 17th century that the Sovereign and Burgesses of the town worshipped. In those Plantation times, the small mainly Scots settlement was guarded by ramparts. The story of the church on this site reflected the tempestuous times. In 1649 it was closed by the Cromwellian army who converted it into a ‘citadel’. Thereafter it fell into a ruinous state and was finally pulled down in 1774 and replaced by St Anne’s Parish church.
On the 1685 map, High Street had quays on both sides of the river, crossed by a series of small foot-bridges. By the 1690s the street was known as ‘Front Street’ and hosted a market for butter, hides and tallow.
Éamon is joined by Belfast historian, Raymond O'Regan to discuss the appearance and development of High Street.
St George's Church
King William III in Belfast
From the early Plantation period until the 1860s, the High Street was the heart of the town with the Farset River flowing along its length until the early 1800s. Even when the present St George’s was built in 1816, boats were moored in front of its portico.
Éamon is joined by the present curate of St George's, the Reverend Odling-Smee who tells him more about the church's history, a visit by King Billy, and about the old cemetery on the site.
Éamon with Reverend Odling-Smee
King Billy's Chair
The original Belfast Castle
From Old St George’s we make our way along High Street to Castle Lane and the present British Home Stores. This was once the site of the Castle of Belfast. Built by the Anglo-Norman, John de Courcy around 1280, it was sacked many times by the O’Neills and O’Donnells and lay in a ruinous condition until Plantation times.
In 1603, Sir Arthur Chichester, the ruthless military commander who founded modern Belfast, was granted the castle. Chichester enlarged it and added ‘a strong bawn’ and flanker towers. The Tax Roll of 1666 recorded the Earl of Donegall’s castle – he was the descendant of Arthur Chichester - as having ’40 hearths’, surrounded by a bowling green and extensive orchards and gardens.
The Donegall family who dominated the town lived in the mansion which stood here until 1708 when it was burned down.
Next stop on our Hidden History tour is Crown Entry, one of the many lanes which wend their way between High Street and what was known as Back Street or Anne Street in the 18th century.
Pottinger's Entry, Belfast c.1790
Two gigantic events impacted with great force on the market town of some 20,000 people, mostly Presbyterians of Scottish descent. These were the American War of Independence of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789.
By 1778 the Irish Volunteers had been formed and successfully campaigned for ‘Free Trade for Ireland’. In 1782, their efforts were crowned with the achievement of legislative independence – an independent Irish parliament in Dublin. The Volunteers were a Protestant citizens’ army composed mainly of Presbyterian merchants, professional men and tenant farmers.
One relic of that pulsating era in Belfast’s history is still standing - the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street, built in 1783. Many of those involved in the United Irish movement in the town were members of its congregation.
1st Presbyterian Church, Belfast
Drawing of 1st and 2nd Presbyterian Churches
Raymond O'Regan who is an authority on 1st Presbyterian Church, Belfast in Rosemary Street, shows Éamon a portrait of the Reverend McBride who was lucky to escape an attack by the Mayor during Queen Anne's reign...
He also outlines some of the major families of Belfast who attended the church - which was one of no less than three Presbyterian churches in Rosemary Street.
Raymond & Éamon in the Session Room
Portrait of Reverend McBride
On the trail of the Irish Volunteers
On the trail of the Irish Volunteers we now cross High Street and make our way towards Bank Street and Crooked Lane – a place forever associated with Belfast’s golden age.
On our way, we come to Kelly’s Cellars, Belfast’s oldest public house. A plaque on the wall records that it was a meeting place of the United Irishmen before the 1798 Rebellion - and there is a legend that Henry Joy McCracken and his associates might have hidden out in the bar.
Interior, Kelly's Cellars
St Mary's Roman Catholic Church
We are now in sight of Old St Mary’s, Belfast’s first Roman Catholic church, built at the very close of the Penal Days. The present building stands on the site of the original chapel, built in 1784.
Remarkably, the original church was the gift of the Protestants of Belfast who raised more than half the costs of its erection.
Symbolically, its grand opening in May 1784 was marked by the attendance of the Irish Volunteers who, under their captain, Waddell Cunningham, a leading merchant of the town, presented arms as the priest entered the church and attended the first Mass.
'The Four Corners'
Next on our tour, we cross the High Street and approach a building at what was known in Georgian Belfast as ‘the Four Corners’.
Before us stands, closed-up and neglected, Belfast’s oldest public building and one of the few surviving monuments to the town’s golden age of radical politics, cultural renaissance and cross-community harmony.
At the intersection of North Street, Bridge Street and Waring Street is the town’s once grandiose Assembly Rooms. From the 1770s onwards, every major social, political or cultural event in the town centred on this building.
Belfast's Assembly Rooms
A Slavery Proposition....
In 1786, the Assembly Rooms were the scene of an attempt by Waddell Cunningham to launch a Belfast slave-ship company. The only written record of the event occurs in a letter - 20 years afterwards - from the Belfast radical, Dr William Drennan to his sister, Mrs Martha McTier in Belfast.
Cunningham's proposal was thwarted by Thomas McCabe who allegedly wrote in the proposal book, ‘May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea!’
Thomas McCabe denounces the Slavery Proposal
Formation of the United Irishmen
We are now crossing High Street towards Crown Entry again, one of those narrow lanes - and it was here in Peggy Barclay’s tavern, that a meeting took place on the 14th of October 1791.
That meeting was to change the course of Irish history. The gathering was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of the northern leaders of the radical reform movement and included Samuel Neilson, a prosperous woollen draper from Ballyroney, County Down, the brothers Robert and William Simms, Thomas McCabe, Henry Hazlett, Sam McTier and Thomas Russell.
The friends were already resolved to lay the basis of a totally new political movement, divorced from the religious divisions of the past: one which would include Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.
The Belfast reformers were greatly impressed by a young Dublin lawyer, Wolfe Tone who had just written a pamphlet in favour of Catholic emancipation. Tone was invited to speak at the secret meeting. He helped to draft their declaration and suggested a name for the new organisation: ‘The Society of United Irishmen.’
Within weeks of the Belfast meeting, branches of the United Irishmen had been formed in such diverse places as Templepatrick, Randalstown, Killead and Muckamore in County Antrim and at Saintfield in County Down. Dr William Drennan, the Belfast-born surgeon and a son of the manse, founded a Dublin society at the same time. Drennan had long advocated a political movement on radical and non-sectarian lines.
1793 Volunteer Demonstration
William Drennan Plaque
Henry Joy McCracken
The United Irishmen hoped to achieve sweeping reforms by peaceful persuasion. But they had reckoned without the inflexibility of the Ascendancy who dominated the Irish Parliament in Dublin. By 1795 the United Irishmen had been driven underground and were now a revolutionary conspiracy committed to an Irish Republic with the aid of French military assistance.
Among the leaders was Henry Joy McCracken whose name stares down at us from a blue plaque at the arched entrance to Joy’s Entry, where we’re now standing.
McCracken was the archetypal revolutionary hero and became in death the symbol of the 1798 Rebellion in Ulster. He was born in 1767 near this spot into one of the most respected Presbyterian families in Belfast. His father, Captain John McCracken was a ship-owner and sail-maker who had married Ann Joy, a member of a leading Huguenot family. Her grandfather had founded Ireland’s oldest newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter in 1737 and her brother was the Henry Joy who built the Poor House in 1774.
Henry Joy McCracken, who had been apprenticed to the growing linen trade, was a charismatic, handsome man whose sympathies lay with the movement for reform and Catholic rights. A close friend of Thomas Russell, librarian of the Linen Hall Library, he was admitted to the United Irishmen in 1792 and he began travelling throughout Ireland forging links between the Presbyterian radicals and the Catholic Defenders.
In October 1796 he was arrested by the authorities and imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail along with his brother, William and his minister, the Reverend Sinclair Kelburne.
Henry Joy McCracken's Uniform
Joy's Entry, off High Street
A few paces further at the junction of High Street and Corn Market we are standing at the site of the old Market House.
It was here on the 17th of July 1798 that Belfast witnessed the last act of the Ninety Eight Rebellion, following the defeat of the United Irish forces at Antrim and Ballynahinch. This was the public execution of Henry Joy McCracken following his court martial in the Assembly Rooms.
McCracken had commanded the insurgents at the Battle of Antrim and had almost managed to escape from the Port of Garmoyle when he was recognised and brought back to Belfast, a prisoner. His trial had been a formality - he refused an offer of his life in exchange for naming others.
Battle of Antrim, 1798
Clifton Street Graveyard
The final section of our walk brings us up Donegall Street, past a row of Georgian houses dating back to 1798 and past the former Poor House - now Clifton House - to the old Poor House burial ground in Clifton Street.
It is here that most of the 1798 radicals are buried. Here lie the remains of Doctor William Drennan, Thomas McCabe and Mary-Ann McCracken - Henry Joy’s faithful sister who has earned her own place in history as a feminist, philanthropist and social reformer …
Éamon and Raymond at Clifton Street Cemetery
Presenter: Dr Éamon Phoenix
Contributors: Raymond O'Regan
Producer: Laura Spence
Audio Engineer: Bill Maul
Readers: Cherrie McIlwaine and Miche Doherty
Admin: Cathy Moorehead, Roberta Truesdale & Lyn Davis
Thanks to Mr F Glenn Thompson and Mr Desmond Rainey for permission to reproduce images on this page.
Further Reading - see links at top of page