Ballymacarrett – From a Rural Village to a Shipbuilding Giant

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The Origins of Ballymacarrett

The Naming of Ballymacarrett

The townland of Ballymacarrett is located on the eastern banks of the River Lagan in County Down. It covers an area of 261 hectares and is in the Civil Parish of Knockbreda. The name comes from the Irish Baile-mhic Airt meaning ‘the place of the son of Art O’Neill’.

H&W Crane across the Lagan
H&W Crane view from the Lagan

The townland was originally part of the land ruled by the O’Neill clan. The last chieftain in the area was Conn O’Neill. Conn’s hill fort Castle Raie [the Grey Castle], though now completely gone, is remembered in the name of the Castlereagh district of east Belfast today.

“Not much more than two miles east of Belvoir, and about as much south-east of Belfast Bridge, are the ruins of an ancient castle, called Castle-Reagh, from whence the Barony of that name is nominated. It is situated on the top of a hill, and is one of those forts, the erection of which is usually ascribed to the Danes. This fort has a fosse which encompasses three fourths of it, and once probably surrounded the whole. In the midst of the fort stood the castle, formerly the seat of Con O-Neille, proprietor of that large tract of country”.

Walter Harris, The Ancient and Present State of County Down, 1744

The nearby shopping centre in the area is named after the local river, Connswater, literally Conn’s water. Other place names reflecting this ancient Irish clan are Avoneil – O’Neills River and Clandeboye – the clan of yellow-haired Hugh O’Neill.

The Imprisonment of Conn O’Neill

After decades of fighting between the English and the Irish clans Conn managed to stay on reasonable terms with the English monarchy. However, in 1602 what seemed to be a minor skirmish between Conn’s men and some of the Queen’s soldiers, resulted in Conn being arrested.

The story goes that Conn (who was famous for his hospitality) sent his servants to Belfast, 4 miles away, to fetch more wine during a feast. However, they were set upon by a group of English soldiers and returned empty-handed. When Conn discovered that the English attackers were fewer in number than his group of servants, he was furious

“Conn in great rage, reproached them bitterly, and swore by the oaths his father swore that not a man of them would ever serve him again if they didn’t go back and at once avenge the affront done to him and themselves by the Bodagh Sasonagh soldiers”.

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

The servants returned to the scene. This act led to Conn being charged with ‘levying war’ against Elizabeth 1. The Irish chieftain was imprisoned in Carrickfergus Castle and his estates forfeited to the Crown. The whole event may well have been ‘manipulated’ by Conn’s enemies. Indeed Arthur Chichester, who already held vast tracts of land in the north of Ireland, is said to have offered to execute the imprisoned Conn without the need of a trial – possibly hoping to be rewarded with the confiscated lands.

The O'Neills - Belfast Telegraph 17 November 1925
The O’Neills story – Belfast Telegraph 17 November 1925

Conn O’Neill’s Fate

However, with the accession of James 1 to the English throne, simultaneously being James VI of Scotland, Conn’s future looked a bit brighter. Conn’s, wife Alice O’Neill, secured the aid of Scotsman Hugh Montgomery in return for a promise of land.

Alice was the sister of the famous Irish general Owen Roe. She herself smuggled a rope into her husband’s cell hidden inside two large cheeses. Conn escaped though his cell window to a waiting boat and sailed to Bangor and from there to Scotland. From here he rode to England and secured a royal pardon.

However, the deal was a harsh one. Conn had to divide his realm into three with himself in control of one section while Hugh Montgomery and fellow Scot James Hamilton got the other two regions. Arthur Chichester was apparently livid!

Montgomery established his main port at Donagadee and settled in Newtownards. While Hamilton centred his power in Bangor, before moving to Killyleagh Castle. Both new landowners offered land at cheap rents to Scottish settlers. Many Presbyterians from Glasgow, Ayr and Irvine took up residence in the area.

Changing Ownership

In 1622 James Hamilton was created Viscount Clandeboye. In the same year he leased the townland of Ballymacarret to Richard and Henry Whitehead. Subsequently the 2nd Viscount, the Earl of Clanbrassil, rented the land to Scottish merchant William Kelso from Ayr at an annual rent of £32.

A further lease on 16th September 1669 was signed with John Kelso. In 1672 the townland of ‘Balle maccarrett alias Ballincrat’ was sold to Thomas Pottinger for £300 and a yearly rent of £30. The Pottingers were successful merchants in Belfast. The family home of Mountpottinger was built and the Pottingers remained here till 1779.

Growing Population of Ballymacarrett

Rural Landscape and Early Growth

The area at this time was still a rural landscape of fertile fields and verdant forest. A map published in 1744 shows the region as containing only two buildings Mountpottinger and a mill. This mill is probably Owen O’Cork’s mill, mentioned in the rental agreements.

Gradually small communities of white-washed cottages grew up one of which was Ballymacarrett Village. These cottages were mainly occupied by weavers who worked on handlooms in their own homes and sold their produce at local markets.

By the end of the eighteenth century the land was owned by the Marquis of Donegall. Then by his son Lord Spencer Chichester and his grandson Lord Templemore. Templemore Avenue is still one of the main streets in the district.

Templemore Avenue sign
Templemore Avenue sign
Templemore Hall
Templemore Hall

Industrialisation of Ballymacarrett

However, the following decades were to see great changes in these rural villages as industrialisation spread from Belfast to the east of the Lagan. A new bridge constructed over the river improved transport and communication, with commerce and manufacturing in its wake. The old ways were changing

“Hand-loom weaving was for years the stable industry of the village. There were hundreds of looms existing in weavers’ cottages, but these have been superseded by power loom factories, and at the present time there are not a dozen hand looms going”

Ballymacarrett Parish Church Bazaar 1893

Laganside Development

Businessmen soon saw the potential on this side of the river. In 1776 glass works were established, quickly followed by a large scale pottery factory.

The Lagan Foundry began business – producing steam engines and other machinery. In 1832 this firm was the first in Ireland to patent a paper-making machine.

Other industries followed, setting up on land reclaimed from the Lagan when an extensive embankment was constructed.

“Even poor land round the Lagan was worth reclaiming to meet the needs of rapid expansion…..”

Ruairi O’Baoill, Hidden History Below Our Feet, 2011

A large and successful ropeyard and sailcloth manufacturer established premises here. Starch manufacturers, two linen mills as well as wwo vitriol works all added to the changing landscape. Vitriol was used originally for metallurgical and medical purposes but, by the 1700s, was used to make strong acids (eg sulphuric acid). These had many industrial uses including dyeing clothes, cleaning agents and medical purposes, when combined with other chemicals. (Incidentally the word “vitriol” is more often used today to refer to biting or acidic comments).

The Emergence of Shipbuilding

With the deepening of the River Lagan, the work of civil engineer Edward Dargan, shipbuilding came to the fore. The development of the partnership of Edward James Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff led to Belfast becoming one of the world’s leading shipbuilding cities.

Playground and H&W shipyard cranes
Playground and H&W shipyard cranes
In the shadow of the shipyard cranes
In the shadow of the shipyard cranes

“It was an association (Harland and Wolff) which became part and parcel of the life of Ballymacarrett and added to the other industries located close by such as rope works, aircraft factory, engineering firms who earned famed reputations – Sirocco, Ritchie Hart, Albert Boiler Works – made this sector of Belfast the most man-intensive industrial locale in the city”

Fred Heatley, Belfast in County Down
The Yardmen at the park
The Yardmen at the park
The Yardmen with Samson & Goliath cranes
The Yardmen with Samson & Goliath cranes

The Growth of Ballymacarrett

All these new business offered employment opportunities. The little village of Ballymacarrett soon became a busy town.

In the Census of 1791 the village had expanded to 257 houses, a population of 1,208. By 1871 the population had swelled to 16,152.

Belfast Street Directory - Ballymacarrett 1856
Belfast Street Directory – Ballymacarrett 1856

“Ballymacarrett was in those days a centre of industry – the foundry, glass-blowing, watch-glass making, rope-making, weaving, lime-burning, vitriol and salt works were in operation.

At that time it could boast of having public gardens, an hotel, racket and ball courts, and all the roads leading out of it were paved in the centre”

Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1873

The Town of Ballymacarrett

A Growing Population

By the 1860’s Ballymacarrett had its own police constabulary barracks, four Protestant Churches and one Catholic Church.

St Patricks Chuch of Ireland
St Patricks Church of Ireland
Westbourne Presbyterian Church
Westbourne Presbyterian Church
St Mathews Church Entrance
St Mathews Church Entrance

The town also had five schools instructing 298 boys and 182 girls, as well as three private educational institutions. There were also grocery stores, a dispensary, pubs and spirit dealers and the Curds and Cream Gardens (proprietor James McCourt) situated on the Old Ballymacarrett Road.

The town featured some quaint street names such as Gooseberry Corner, Maidens Row, Pigtail Row and Love Lane. Other names reflected the newly established industries such as Brickfield, Foundry Row, Coopers Place, Hatters Row and Saltpan Row. Other streets harked back to Ballymacarrett’s history – Castlereagh Place and Mountpottinger Cottages.

Belfast Street Directory - Street Names page 296
Belfast Street Directory – Street Names page 296
Belfast Street Directory - Street Names page 297
Belfast Street Directory – Street Names page 297

Examples of Residents’ Occupations

Some of the residents of Ballymacarrett in 1856 included

  • Dr Murry – Surgeon
  • John Coyle – Blacksmith
  • William Main – Skinner
  • G Ferrari – Professor of Modern Languages
  • George Gemmel – Muslin manufacturer

Another, James Brown, is listed as a ‘superannuated tide waiter’. This meant he boarded boats to examine cargo and ensure the correct customs duty was paid.

John Canmer is recorded as the ‘collector of tolls’ on the Lagan Bridge.

It was also noted that there were around 100 houses considered too insignificant for individual mention ‘principally occupied by weavers’ or ‘labourers’.

Houses of the Wealthy

Some fine houses, the homes of wealthy businessmen, were constructed in the Ballymacarrett region. Beers Bridge House was occupied by James Frazer a provisions merchant, Belvoir Hall by James Major a sewed-muslin manufacturer, Shamrock Lodge by James Malcolmson of Malcolmson Brothers & Co and Ballymacarrett House by Joseph Patton, ‘a gentleman’.

“There was also the fact that at that time the Ballymacarrett and adjacent district had much to offer the bourgeois of Belfast. Relatively unspoiled, with its commerce wrapped around the approach roads and reclaimed land at the Long bridge, it offered what, from old illustrations, would be ideal conditions for those with money to live in”

Fred Heatley, Belfast in County Down

Lives of the Majority


However, the majority of folk who lived in Ballymacarrett Village were labourers and tradesmen.

Their accommodation was of a different nature entirely. It consisted of row upon row of tiny cramped damp houses with no indoor sanitation. These were the unnamed ‘small houses’ of McCrory’s Row, O’Kane’s Place and Scotch Row.

“Field after field formerly devoted to grazing, and in which many of the adults spent some of their pleasantest evenings, have fallen before the avarice of the builder, and instead of the ‘lowing herds’ there is now the forest of bricks and mortar”

Belfast Newsletter, 6th September 1892

In the same article the writer says “Some object to the odours of the Lagan, some to the manure heaps, others to the chemical works and the distillery refuse…

Working Conditions

Obviously the comforts or health of their workforce was not a priority with the entrepreneurs setting up foundries and factories in Ballymacarrett.

English poet, John Keats, in 1818 describes the district “..passing into Belfast through a most wretched suburb”.

“Working conditions in the manufactories that were now springing up were terrible in comparison to modern day standards. The homes of the workers were little more than mere shelters without sewers or running water… the staple food was potatoes and oatmeal”

James S Patton, Ballymacarrett 1980

It is said that the Marchioness of Donegall disliked having to be driven through this poverty-stricken area on her way into town. She was appalled at the dirty urchins who ran after her carriage and their ramshackle dwelling places.

In response a new road was built so her ladyship could be driven to Belfast without having to lay eyes on the poor. This throughfare, My Lady’s Road, still exists today.

“Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the townland grew up with spinning mills, foundries and finally rope working and ship building. However, despite the growth of industry, the working-class people lived in poverty, for them a job meant survival not wealth”

The Ballymacarrett Research Group Lagan Enclave 1997

Integration with Belfast

The last reference to Ballymacarrett as a separate village, in the street directory dates back to1868. It then consisted of over 100 streets from Anderson Street to Woodstock Street.

After this the village and surrounding areas became part of the town of Belfast.

In response Belfast Corporation, perhaps reluctantly, paid for improvements in sanitation, lighting, roads and so forth.

“The Corporation for a long time were loath to spend much money in the locality. By and bye, however, the pressure became so great that they were obliged to recognise the claims of the vast working population. Their first endeavour was to improve the throughfares, and in this, after years of outlay, they have succeeded so far as to make them suitable for the heavy traffic by which they are covered from six in the morning until the same hour in the evening. The lighting has also received attention, but a still more liberal treatment in this respect would not be misplaced….”

Belfast Newsletter, 6th September 1892
Belfast Street Directory - Ballymarcarrett 1868
Belfast Street Directory – Ballymarcarrett 1868

Ballymacarrett Today

Today the idea of Ballymacarrett as a separate entity to Belfast seems incongruous. We see the Lagan as running through the city, not its boundary.

Ballymacarrett is synonymous with east Belfast. It is hard to imagine this thriving industrial, commercial, working-class district as once being a rural idyll. Before industrialisation the County Down coast was a favourite for day-trippers from the town.

“The Belfast people always preferred the County Down side of the lough for health and retirement”

Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1885

Belfast has extended greatly on both sides of the River Lagan, so much so that that nowadays Ballymacarrett is considered an inner-city area and a hub of Belfast industry and enterprise – the towering Harland & Wolff shipyard cranes (Samson & Goliath) a testament to it’s rich Laganside heritage.

H&W Cranes with Goliath in the foreground
H&W Cranes with Goliath in the foreground

A number of these sculptures are shown in this post

Tribute to the H&W yardmen
Tribute to the H&W yardmen
St Patricks Church of Ireland Entrance
St Patricks Church of Ireland Entrance
View of Belfast Harbour
View of Belfast Harbour
Westbourne Presbyterian Church front
Westbourne Presbyterian Church front
Yardmen Sculpture
H&W Yardmen Sculpture
St Matthews Church
St Matthews Church
H&W Crane
H&W Crane
Yardmen and shipyard cranes
Yardmen and H&W shipyard cranes

Related post

Belfast features a range of sea sculptures in commemoration of it’s maritime history.

Belfast Sea Sculptures – Celebrating our maritime history

Titanica Sculpture
Titanica Sculpture

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John · 14 May 2023 at 2:44 pm

It’s in County Antrim not County Down. Clearly well researched but such a howler in the intro makes me question the research sadly

    P&P · 15 May 2023 at 7:53 am

    And yet the simple question “which county is ballymacarrett in?” on Google brings result after result saying County Down – e.g.

      John · 15 May 2023 at 9:29 am

      And yet my postcode and address says Co Antrim. Google or real life hmmm?

        P&P · 15 May 2023 at 9:45 am

        Google doesn’t write the answers – it links to other websites about Ballymacarrett and they all say County Down. I’m happy to stick with County Down on that basis. It’s interesting that your postcode suggests County Antrim. We can agree to disagree, I suppose.

          John · 15 May 2023 at 11:52 am

          We could agree but I know I’m right lol It comes on ALL mail delivered….Co Antrim.

            P&P · 15 May 2023 at 12:23 pm

            Fair play to the post office then.

Helen McCann · 18 January 2022 at 6:43 pm

What year was the 2 cranes erected?

John McMaster · 18 January 2022 at 4:28 pm

Nice to find out the origin of the name “My lady’s Road”. Grew up near there and walked the street many times wondering at the name.

    P&P · 18 January 2022 at 4:36 pm

    Yes John, I’d never heard that before either although my wife did know of it’s origin. A fascinating insight into society at that time. We did an an earlier post on O’Hanlon’s “Walks among the poor” that shed similar light on the plight of Belfast’s poorest.

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