Our history – until 1798

Beginnings of a city

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Belfast is by no stretch of the imagination the oldest, settlement along what is now known as Belfast Lough, both Carrickfergus and nearby Bangor are older – indeed from Bangor in the 6th century travelled Christian missionaires who helped to convert much of pagan Europe. Within the area of what is now Belfast there had for many years (since medieval times) been a church in the Shankill district – indeed in Irish it means place of the old church.

As a town Belfast’s history really begins in the 17th century. There was no town where Belfast now stands at the start of the 1600s. The only buildings referred to in records are a castle near the mouth of the lagan – now Castle St and an old ecclesiastical building between the castle and the river which is thought to been an old Friary in the vicinity of St George’s church – now on what is High St. In centuries past Belfast had been used as an important crossing point (over the Blackstaff Farset and Lagan rivers which met the nearby tide) and for this reason the castle had been built – which was frequently burnt down or captured by armies passing enroute to somewhere more important.

In 1603 Belfast’s fortunes changed when Sir Arthur Chicester obtained a substanial grant of land and decided to establish a strong point – doubtlessly aware of the site’s strategic importance, using the old castle. In addition to the Castle he decided to have a retinue of supporting settlements on three parallel streets Ann St. High St and Broad St (now Waring St).

To initially build the settlement it is believed that first wood was used, however within a few years it was found satisfactory building brick could be made using the silt clay found within what is now Belfast. The production of brick using this clay stopped in the middle of the nineteenth century – to-day First Presbyterian Church is the only surviving building in Belfast made from this clay.

Beginnings of First Presbyterian Church Belfast

At the start of the 1600s (still pre-reformation) there was no church in Belfast – save the Shankill church. The area of what is now central/downtown Belfast was served by the Shankill Parish church. The old ecclesiastical building in the vicinity of what is now St George’s church is thought to have been possibly used for ther rest and refreshment of travellers waiting for low tide to sail from Belfast.

When Chicester’s settlement was occupied, the inhabitants did not like the journey to the Shankill, so they refurbished the old friary. The old friary was opened for worship in 1616. Since most of Chichester’s immediate followers (like himself) came from Devon, the church would have been protestant espiscopalian and was possibly regarded as a satellite of the Shankill church and supplied from there. The earlist reference to a minister is to a Mr Simon Chichester who died in the pestilence following the 1641 rebellion.

A change however was on the way for residents of this cosy little village. Scottish settlers had arrived in the larger towns and surrounding countryside and had brought with them a new type of religion and new clergy. This incursion was destined to impinge upon Belfast in the near future; but it was acclerated by events in England. Relations between Charles 1st and the English Parliament had been deterioraiating over the year sand came to open conflict in 1642. The row was over money, or rather the lack of it, forcing the the King to propose taxes which Parliament was unwilling to grant. Some historians suggest that this economic crisis was precipiatated by the cost of the Irish wars around the turn of the century.

Whatever the cause, a civil war broke out in England between King and the Parliament; and obviously a matter of great concern to the contestants was the attitude of Scotland. Both sides were anxious to get Scottish support or at least to stop Scotland supporting the other side. The King had unwisely, been at war with the Scottish presbyterians a few years earlier in his attempt to force them to accept Bishops; so Parliament had a head start in winning Scottish support. By renouncing Espicopacy in all three kingdomss, Parliament got support from the Scots in the form of a Scottish army located at Carrickfergus, ostensibly to deal with the aftermath of the Irish rebellion, since English troops could not be spared, but also to prevent an Irish army being brought over in support of the King.

When the chaplins of the Scottish army formed a Presbytery at Carrickfergus in June 1642 they were not merely providing the customary presbyterian courts but creating an instrument for the reform of whole church in Ireland, abolishing Episcopacy as well as Popery, as provided in the Solemn League and Covenant. In those days the various faction aimed to establish their brand of religion through the power of the state: they apparently lacked faith in their ability to convince others of the rightness of their views.

Unfortunately this attitude has not entirely died way in Ireland. When the English Parliament denounced Episcopacy, the Bishops and other dignitaries in the Irish church adopted a very low profile; indeed many fled to safer areas. This provided an opportunity for Presbytery to proceed with the conversion of parish churches to a presbyterian system. Their greatest problem in this goal was to find enough presbyterially qualified ministers to staff the parishes. A few presbyterian ministers had come from Scotland in previous years; but there were not nearly enough; so Presbytery appealed to the General Assembly in Scotland for help. Their initial response was to send over groups of ministers for a stint of six months to go around administering the the Covenant and establishing presbyterianism in them.

A member of one of these groups the Reverend William Adair, “erected” a session in the Belfast congregation in June 1644; but there appears to have been no full time minister at that time, the congregation having been supplied by army chaplins and other presbyterian ministers. In 1646 the Scottish General Assembly persuaded a group of younger ministers to come to Ireland with a view to settling permanently in congregations. One of these was the Reverend Anthony Shaw, who was called to the Belfast congregation in September. 1646; and another was the Reverend Patrick Adair who settled in Cairncastle.

After the victory of the Parliament over the King, an army under Cromwell arrived in Ireland in 1649. When Drogheda was reduced Cromwell headed south towards Wexford with the main army but detached a force under Colonel Venables to go north and secure the northern territory. In the meantime the presbyterians in England had suffered a severe reverse.

The Parliamentary party, being now less dependent upon Scottish sympathies and being disillusioned by the severe terms of the Confession of Faith produced by the Westminster Assembly of Divines, had opted for less aggressive and more liberal attitudes in religion; so when Venables arrived in Belfast the Reverend Anthony Shaw left. Whether he did so voluntarily as a matter of prudence is or was evicted is unclear; but it is said that eight hundred Scots were turned out of Belfast by the Cromwellian forces. Since quarters for that army were scarece in Belfast it occupied the church, preventing its use for religious purposes by the local inhabitants for several years; but by 1655 it was released from by the army and restored for town use.

There is no record of the congregation having a minister of its own choice at this time; but two ministers, the Reverend Essex Digby and the Reverend William Dix are mentioned as being ministers in Belfast. They were probably Independent ministers ministering to troops and civilian at various camps at Lisburn and Belfast.

By 1660 the Belfast congregation succeeded in obtaining a full-time minister the Reverend William Keyes. He was an English non-conformist said to have been secured through the influence of the Countess of Donegall, who was perhaps trying to steer a middle course between the presbyterian and episcopalain elements in the congregation. However, when the Church in England and Ireland and legislation passed requiring all inhabitants to conform to that Church, Keyes, with a number of other presbyterian ministers was deposed in gaol. Keyes was sent to Galway, perhaps because local prison were full of presbyterians and other miscreants.

In due course the bond necessary to secure Keyes’ release was provided. Some of his congregation in Belfast may have helped in in raising the considerable sum required, as he returned to Belfast when he got out of gaol in 1664. By this time a conforming minister would have been appointed; so there was no prospect of Keyes being able to return to the town church.

There must have been quite a strong presbyterian contingent in Belfast at that time; for within a few years a separate presbyterian congregation had been formed and provided its own meeting house. Whether this was a purpose built meeting-house or another building converted for the purpose is not clear, nor is its location definitely known. Alexander Gordon suggested that there was some evidence of its being located about the junction of the modern thoroughfares of North Street and Royal Avenue. Since this activity was officially illegal at that time, there is little on record about it; but different sources give the dates 1668 and 1672 for the opening of the first presbyterian church in Belfast.

In 1673 Keyes was called to a congregation in Dublin; and in 1674 the Belfast congregation called the Reverend Patrick Adair, who had been in Cairncastle for the past twenty-eight years. Adair had become one of the leading Presbyterian Divines in Ulster and frequently represented them in negotiations with the authorities. In 1690 he was prominent in the deputation of presbyterian ministers which received Regium Donum from William at Hillsborough on his way to the Boyne.

It must have appeared odd to the hierarchy of the established church which as attempting to to force the presbyterians to conform to it, that the King granted a subsidy for the support of presbyterian ministers. Patrick Adair died in 1694 and the congregation then called the Reverend John McBride, who was born in Ireland educated in Glasgow and minister in Clare. In spite of all the efforts to suppress the presbyterians, McBride managed to persuade the Marquis of Donegall to grant a site in Rosemary Lane to the congregation on which they built a new meeting house and manse about 1695.

The presbyterian element of the population of Belfast must have been increasing rapidly at that time; for two more churches both of them presbyterian were built in the first quarter of the next century; the Second and Third congregations also located in Rosemary Lane.

When the second congregation was formed in 1708 the original presbyterian came to be known as the Old or First congregation. Much of the above researched and compiled by T Moore is necessarily speculative because of the paucity of information from the time discussed and that the fact that it is often conflicting.

In 1705 it was decided by Synod that all those who had not yet signed the Westminster Confession should do so. The then minister of the church a Reverend John McBride refused to do so and was forced to flee to Scotland on several occcasion avoid arrest.. On one of these accasions the Sovereign of Belfast, sent to arrest McBride, on finding him gone, thrust his rapier through McBride’s portrait which was hanging in his bedroom in the nearby Manse. This portrait, with the mark of the rapier on his cambric band, hangs still in the Session Room.

In 1706 the Reverend Dr. Jame Kirkpatrick was appointed Assistant to McBride. Kirkpatrick was also a qualified physician and non subscriber. In 1717 George Benn says that the Meeting House in Rosemary Lane was rebuilt in this year. He suggested that the “inconvenient” building which had been demolished, had existed for a considerable time and been used as a meeting house since the end of the previous century. If there are good ground for these speculations it may be that the Congregation took over an existing building when they moved to Rosemary Lane in 1695.

In 1725 there was a re-organisation of the Presbyteries with the non-subscribers being placed in the Presbytery of Antrim a year later in 1726 the Presbytery of Antrim was expelled including the First and Second Congregations of Belfast. In 1798 there was a rebellion by the United Irishment against English rule in Ireland. Prominent amongst the rebels were Presbyterians First Church did not (as far is as known) produce any rebels who fought however it is certain that some members of the congregation would have offered ideological and moral support. The rebellion was quelled, roughly 30% of those who had participated were Presbyterians who felt that the rebellion would bring them religious freedom.