The Farset – Belfast’s Hidden River

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The Farset

River Farset, High Street, Belfast c.1830

Of all the changes that have happened in Belfast over the years, perhaps the greatest is the difference in one of its major thoroughfares – High Street.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century ships could sail up this street and unload their cargoes on the quayside. The Farset was one of the main rivers in Belfast. The town was laid out around it with the old Belfast Castle (Castle Place) at one end of High Street near Cornmarket and the Chapel of the Ford at the other, at the point where the Rivers Lagan and the Farset met.

Source of the Farset

The name Farset comes from the Gaelic word ‘fearsad’ meaning sandbank. The source of the Farset is two springs on the slopes of Squire’s Hill, not far from the Horseshoe Bend on the Crumlin Road. It then flows under the Crumlin and Shankill Roads and along the Falls Road until it reaches High Street and flows out into Belfast Lough. The Farset is a ‘spate’ river which means its waters are low in summer but can be torrential in winter. Historically this can cause problems with crossing.

Belfast High Street Map -©-OpenStreetMap
Belfast High Street Map -©-OpenStreetMap

Industrial Influence

As the water flowed through the countryside it provided not only water for the locals, but power. Farmers would bring their corn to Manor Mill, situated on the south side of the river, to have it ground into flour. The millstone was driven using the power generated by the river’s water passing through the waterwheel.

As time passed the river was harnessed for other trades and industries. The Farset supplied water for various mills and factories well-known in Belfast, including Ewarts Mill on the Crumlin Road, Glenwood Corn and Flour Mill on the Shankill Road, Cupar Street Weaving Factory and the Falls Foundry.

“The Farset, combined with other tributary streams emanating from the South Antrim Hills, ensured west Belfast would become an industrial suburb by providing both power and clean water for the numerous linen mills, distilleries and foundries along its course”.

Des O’Reilly: Rivers of Belfast 2010

Animal Welfare – The Belfast Pound

The Farset was dammed or some water diverted for other purposes also. At Divis Street the river was divided with some of the water being directed to the Town Pound. The Pound Loney district grew up around here.

“…where it was divided, and a small tributary flowed across Mill Street, and through the Pound, situated at the north side of Barrack Street and Durham Street, as it does today. But in that early time it was a little, clear flashing stream of sweet water which the keeper of the Pound was bound to preserve carefully for the use of the animals impounded”

Cathal O’Byrne: As I Roved Out 1946


The Farset Within Belfast

Embankments Added

As the river entered the environs of the town, the Corporation in 1663 decreed that it should be contained within embankments. Fines for not building or maintaining these retaining walls could be imposed.

“it is ordered cause to be builded up and the topt ye bankes of ye River of this Towne of Bellfast with brick or stone or lime above ye streets or pavements such hight as some parte of ye said Riverwall is already made and ye compleated and finished before the last day of June….”

R. M. Young: The Town Book of Belfast 1892

Farset Bridges

In the following year the Corporation declared that bridges could be built over the river to aid access.

“It is ordered by ye Sovereign and Burgesses…that any person inhabitating in the High Street shall have liberty against his house to erect and build over ye River a Bridge for coaches….”

The Town Book of Belfast

River Pollution

However, by the late seventeenth century the Farset River was becoming polluted. The town’s inhabitants, with little alternative, used it to dispose of human and household waste. As commerce and industry increased so did the pollution. The butchers of Hercules Street also appear to have discarded offal and carcasses into the open waters of the river.

“That whereas dayly complaintes are made severall inhabitants of the said Borough that great annoyance is comitted by the Butchers of the Towne by killing and slaughtering of Catle they suffer the Blood and Garbage of their slaughter houses…to run into severall channels and ditches of this Towne to the corruption and putrefaccon of the River”.

Town Book

The problem was made even worse because the river water could not enter the estuary at high tide but was washed back up into the town.

Covering the Farset

By the early 1800’s Belfast Commissioners, forced by public opinion, decided to build over the Farset and enclose it from sight (and smell). The tunnel was circular and over 2m wide with an arched brick-built vault reinforced with timber. By 1804 the river was covered as far as Princes Street. The final stretch was enclosed by 1848. It is said that the Farset tunnel is big enough to take a bus.

It is amazing to think that as you walk along High Street, past St George’s Church and the Albert Clock, that just 60cm below the surface the Farset still silently flows. Street and pub names in the area bring to mind the bustling quaysides lined with sailing ships unloading cargoes of wine, spices and tobacco – Skipper Street, Bridge Street, the Capstan, the Spaniard and the Mermaid Inn.

Meeting the Lagan

The culverted river Farset can now only be seen as it empties from the darkness into the River Lagan at Donegall Quay at the Big Fish. This forgotten river, that gave Belfast its name (originally Béal Feirste or the ‘mouth of the sandbank ford), was once at the very heart of the city’s commercial and industrial success. Without the Farset, Belfast would be a very different place today.

The Big Fish - Where the Farset enters the Lagan
The Big Fish – Where the Farset enters the Lagan
Belfast's Iconic Big Fish
Belfast’s Iconic Big Fish

See Also:

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From Capello de Vado 1306AD to St George’s Church, Belfast

St George’s Church is a place of peace within Belfast’s city centre that visitors cherish, on a site used for worship since Capello de Vado Read more

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1 Comment · 10 September 2021 at 4:45 am

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