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Victorian Belfast: technology and arts

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The progressive ideas of the Victorian era, both in technology and social awareness, were also very much present in Belfast, to some degree in opposition.  Much as in the rest of the Victorian world, the fervor of new technological advances and the concept of Progress had both its advantages and its drawbacks.

However, it is the advantages of the Victorian spirit that earned Belfast the poetic name of the "Athens of the North" in the nineteenth century; it was quite a progressive city in terms of technology and the liberal arts.

The rise in shipping and shipbuilding helped to spur the advancement of technology, as well.  As the demand came in for more iron ships, the iron foundries in the city had to grow and develop more machinery, including engines and boilers for the ships; by 1870 there were 20 foundries in Belfast (1).  These foundries also turned out factory machinery, linen machinery, tobacco spinning machinery, and various other items needed for the industrial age.  All of this soon had Belfast as not only the only major industrial city in Ireland, but one of the most major industrial cities in the UK.

The first railway in Ulster opened between Belfast and Lisburn in 1839, and "by the early [eighteen] sixties the main railway network in Ulster was almost complete (2)."  All lines in the North converged on Belfast, and by the 1880's, three railway companies were operating services in Belfast: the Great Northern Railway, which was the largest; the Belfast and County Down Railway; and the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway (3). 

The arts were also an important part of Belfast's designation as the "Athens of the North."
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Belfast's cultural flavor was very much influenced by the sons of early Scottish settlers, many of whom would go to school back in Scotland and return filled with the ideals of what was called the Scottish Enlightenment.  An emphasis was placed on education and in 1845, Belfast was selected as the site for a new Queen's College, which opened in 1849.  Several more colleges soon followed (4).

Artists and poets provided a counterpoint to the smoke and din of the industrialized city, and often gave voice to the political stirrings of the day.  The Belfast Association of Artists was formed in 1836, and though it collapses only two years later, it opened the door for Belfast artists to form a community of sorts. In 1870, after the failure of another such school earlier, the Government School of Art was opened at Belfast's Academical Institution, and "by the mid 1870's it was competing successfully with its British equivalents, with its pupils winning many prizes and awards in national examinations (5)."  An art club founded in 1879 became the Belfast Art Society in 1890, and today is known as the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.

Although art and literature did not advance as quickly or cohesively in Belfast as in other cities like Dublin, many important artists and writers of the time came out of that city, and helped add to its exponential growth in the nineteenth century, not only in terms of population and industry, but in terms of culture as well.


(1) Bardon, Belfast: An Illustrated History, p. 132.

(2) McCracken, "Early Victorian Belfast," p. 90.

(3) Bardon, Belfast: An Illustrated History, p. 136.

(4) McCracken, "Early Victorian Belfast," p. 92.

(5) Beckett, et al, Belfast: The Making of the City, p. 94.


Trolley takes workers to Shankill Rd.





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