From Lios na gCearrbhach to Lisburn – The Story of a City

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Lisburn Market-House Cupola and Clock
Lisburn Market-House Cupola and Clock

Lisburn Location

The city of Lisburn sits on the river Lagan, the dividing line between Counties Antrim and Down. Situated in the barony of Massereene, less than 10 miles south-west of Belfast. The area has a long and varied history which is not widely known.

“No town on the line of railway between Belfast and Armagh possess so much historical and general interest as that of Lisburn, which is of very considerable antiquity, and one of the most prosperous inland boroughs in Ireland”

McComb’s Guide to Belfast 1861
River Lagan - Lisburn
River Lagan – Lisburn


The original name was Lios na gCearrbhach (Lis-na-garvoch), which in Irish means ‘fort of the gamblers’. There is evidence of at least two ringforts in the area. It was a convenient point for fording the Lagan and on an ancient north-south route.

The village was the stronghold of the Gaelic chieftain of Killultagh (Coill Ultagh – forest of Ulster). The region was under the control of a branch of the O’Neill clan. They were the descendants of Hugh Boye O’Neill, known as King of Ailech.

The End of the O’Neills

English invaders were determined to wrest control of Ulster; and Killultagh, described as an ‘untamed’ area was the setting of continuous warfare throughout most of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries.

“ order that all the noble issue of Hugh Boye O’Neill be avoided clere and expelled from the Green Castell to the Bann, and be assyneyed and sufferyd to have habitation and dwelling in the forest of Kylutagh and the Phewx, which habitation and places they hathe and dwellyth often befoe nowe, by compulsion”

The defeat of Hugh O’Neill in 1602 by Arthur Chichester, signalled the end of the O’Neill power in this part of Ireland. In 1605 Conn O’Neill was forced into circumstances whereby he had to surrender two thirds of his territory. Sir James Hamilton received one section while Hugh Montgomery the other (see Ballymacarrett post).

In 1609 Fulke Conway acquired the lands of Killultagh, including the small settlement of Lis-na-garvoch.

“….[Conway] was an English general who in the reign of Elizabeth, rendered valuable service against the Irish, particularly in Tyrone’s rebellion. His prowess gained for him the forfeited estate of the ‘Captain’ of Killultagh (O’Neill)”

McComb’s Guide to Belfast 1861

Fulke Conway

Fulke Conway was born around 1565 in Warwickshire, though his family had strong connections with Wales. He was the second son of John Conway and Eleanor Grenville.

As a knight in the English army, he was sent to Ireland to subdue the native Irish and take control of the land. Fulke was a close associate of Arthur Chichester, and was knighted in 1600.

“Chichester held him (Conway) in high regard and used his considerable influence on his behalf”

W I Craig, Presbyterianism in Lisburn from the Seventeenth Century, 1960

As well as the large estate of Killultagh, in 1614 Conway was also appointed governor of the fortress of Moira.

Fulke Conway set about hunting down and killing any remaining soldiers of Hugh O’Neill’s army, who were hiding in the dense woods and involved in a form of guerrilla warfare.


The village of Lis-na-garvoch now became known as Lisnagarvey as Conway invited settlers from Wales and northern England to occupy the Killultagh land.

“After having successfully put down the native princes and established comparative peace in his part of the country, Sir Fulke Conway resolved to devote all possible energy to the planting of his estate with such immigrants as he could induce to come over from Wales and settle on the lands of Killultagh”

Lisburn Standard 2nd February 1878

A record of the first 50 homeowners in Conway’s Lisnagarvey shows 2 Irish names and 1 Scots, the rest were English or Welsh. Conway built himself a large castle or manor house in the settlement. It is described as being extremely well fortified and westward facing. He also extended his holdings to land south of the Lagan.

“Sir Fulke had that peculiar genius for acquisition and arrangement quite indispensable to a successful settler. He had no sooner got matters quieted in Killultagh than he began to look across the Lagan on the greener and more attractive fields of Southern Clannaboy…… and obtained then that portion of the estate southward of the Lagan which forms a more valuable addition to the Killultagh lands, lying very snugly and compactly there”

Belfast Newsletter 14th December 1871

The Death of Fulke Conway

Fulke Conway died on 4th November 1624, without issue. He was succeeded by his brother Edward Conway, later 1st Viscount Conway. Edward’s first impressions of his inheritance were

“A curious place…..Greater storms are not in any place nor greater serenities: foul ways, boggy ground, pleasant fields, water brooks, rivers full of fish, full of game, the people in their attire, language, fashion: barbarous. In their entertainment free and noble”

Letter written by Edward Conway in 1621
Lisburn Cathedral
Lisburn Cathedral

The Conway Estates

The management of the Conway estates was left mostly to a Yorkshire man named George Rawdon (later 1st Baronet of Moira). The village was laid out in streets –Market Street, Bridge Street, Bow Street and Castle Street.

The Conway’s also built a church on the site of the present cathedral. The foundation of the church was laid in 1623, it was 80ft long and 25ft wide. The entrance porch was on the south side. It was named St Thomas’s and was originally a private chapel for the castle residents.

In 1628 Lisnagarvey was granted a charter by Charles 1 to hold a weekly (Tuesday) market. Even in the twentieth century Tuesdays remained market day

Tuesday Farmers Market February 12 1878 (Lisburn Standard)
Tuesday Farmers Market February 12 1878 (Lisburn Standard)

“….it was Market Day in Lis-na-Garvey, and Smithfield, a great wide square, had its stalls and booths and flowers, garden stuff. and groceries, and clothing, new and second-hand, all displayed and hung up and laid out in order-less tempting array”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946
Market Square
Market Square
Lisburn Market Square View
Lisburn Market Square View

Destruction of the Town 1641

During the Rebellion of 1641 the town of Lisnagarvey was attacked and burned to the ground. The rebel Irish forces were led by Phelimy O’Neill and Con Magennis. However, they were unable to capture the town and had to retreat suffering great losses.

“And after the houses were on fire, about 6 of the clock till about 10 or 11, it is not easy to give any certain account of the several encounters in diverse places in the town between small parties of our horse and those of the enemy, whom they charged as they advanced and hewed them down, so that every corner was filled with carcasses and the slain were found to be more than thrice the number that fought against them, as appeared next day when the constables and inhabitants employed to bury them gave up their accounts”

Cathedral Vestry Book, November 1641

The Town Rebuilt

The town was rebuilt to the same plan as before. Even though the church was destroyed in the blaze, by great good fortune the ecclesiastical record book was undamaged.

“The first church was destroyed by rebels in 1641. Yet how thankful we should be that though apparently the whole town, including the Castle and Cathedral, was burnt, the register was saved and is there today”

Rev W P Carmody, Lisburn Cathedral 1926

The area was to feature in yet more warfare in these turbulent times. The battle of Lisnagarvy was fought on 6th December 1649, between the Royalist Scottish army and Cromwellian troops. The Royalists led by George Munro and Lord Clandeboy, were routed by the more experienced forces loyal to the Commonwealth of England. More than 1,500 were killed or taken prisoner. This effectively marked the end of Scottish resistance to the Parliamentarians in Ulster.

The Cess of Killultagh, taken in 1659, records the area as consisting of 29,984 acres. (A cess is a tax record). However, less than half was arable, the rest described as mountainous, woodland and ‘great mosses’. At this time 357 townspeople were recorded on the poll tax, mostly English settlers tempted to Ireland by the low rents and promise of land.

The Naming of Lisburn

Exactly when or why the town became known as Lisburn is a matter of conjecture. Some suggest that the new name was adopted after the burning in 1641. However, the first time the word Lisburn appears in the parish register is a baptismal entry dated 11th January 1662.

Lisnagarvey is last recorded in a burial entry dated 13th February 1662. However, in the depositions taken after the Rebellion an English soldier recounts entering the town at “Louzy Burne”.

The Rev Carmody in his history of Lisburn cathedral contends that Lisnagarvey and Lisburn were two adjacent forts with Lisburn taking precedence in the 1660’s as it was easier for the English to pronounce

“….and finally Lisburn, being shorter and more easily pronounced by the English settlers, became the familiar name and Lisnagarvey gradually dropped out”

Rev W P Carmody, Lisburn Cathedral 1926

In 1662 Lisburn was granted a royal charter by Charles II, as a reward for its loyalty to the crown. It was also promoted to a parliamentary borough with the right to elect two members to the Irish parliament.

Destruction and Reconstruction 1707

Unfortunately, the town was once again razed to the ground by an accidental fire in 1707. Tradition has it that a fire broke out in a house at the western end of Bow Street. As it was a Sunday most of the town’s residents were at church. The flames swept rapidly through the rows of terraced thatched cottages.

The manor house was never rebuilt, though an enclosing wall and gateway still remain on the south-east side of Castle Gardens. The mansion gardens became a popular public park.

“It is a large pleasure ground on one side of Castle Street, and formerly belonging to Lord Conway’s noble castle, which burned in 1707. There is an excellent terrace affording the most agreeable promenade. It is the favourite walk of the ladies”

George Scott, Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1835
Lisburn - View up to Castle Gardens
Lisburn – View up to Castle Gardens

At one time the Castle Gardens were also famous for a pair of majestic 200-hundred-year-old elm trees, known locally as the Two Sisters. However, the trees were felled on the night of the Big Wind in 1839 (see this post).

After this conflagration Lisburn town adopted the Latin motto ‘Ex igne resurgam – out of fire I shall arise’.

The Linen Industry

With the advent of first water and then steam power, Lisburn in the Lagan valley, became a centre of the linen industry. The damp land around the river was ideal for growing flax while the fast-flowing water produced the power. When the Huguenots, refugees from France, settled in the area, new textile processes and techniques were introduced.

“That which particularly contributed to the rise of the town of Lisburn was the settlement of many French Protestant refugees here, who had been bred at the linen manufacture”

George Scott Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1835

In 1698 the English king William III appointed Louis Crommelin as Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture in Ireland. The Frenchman set up a textile business and bleach greens at Lisburn. He imported looms from Holland and is credited with establishing the town’s successful linen export trade. Crommelin died on 14th July 1727 and is buried in the graveyard at Lisburn Cathedral.

The linen industry continued to thrive in the town with many of Lisburn’s Quaker community taking a leading role in improving the enterprise. A vitriol works was erected in 1764 as part of the bleaching process by Messrs Boyd.

Also in 1764 William Coulson (1739-1801) from Lisburn set up a handloom linen workshop in the town. This was so successful that 2 years later he rented land from the Marquess of Hertford and established a damask factory close to the Union Bridge. The Coulson linen became world famous for its fine damasks and beautiful, intricate designs. Among Coulson’s customers were Grand Duke Michael of Russia, Crown Prince Gustaf of Sweden and Lord John Russell.

“William Coulson’s damask manufactory, built in 1766, brought distinction to the town as it developed a reputation for fine armorial table linen, of which it became the largest and most eminent producer in Ireland”

Brian Mackey Lisburn, the Town and its People 2000

Coulson’s sons, William and James, carried on the family business.

Coulson Grave
Coulson Grave
Coulson Grave in the Cathedral Grounds
Coulson Grave in the Cathedral Grounds

The Lagan Canal and Growing Prosperity

The industrialisation of the town was further enhanced with the opening of the Lagan canal in 1763. The first phase linked Lisburn to Belfast, the second was a waterway from Lisburn to Lough Neagh. The project was funded by an extra tax on alcohol sold in the districts through which the canal passed.

By 1800 Lisburn consisted of 800 houses and had around 4,800 residents. It was still mostly based along one long street, Bow Street with Market Square and the cathedral at one end.

“There is, probably, no town in Ireland where the happy effects of English taste and industry are more conspicuous than Lisburn. From Drumbridge to the banks of the Lagan on one side, to the shores of Lough Neagh on the other, the people are almost exclusively the descendants of English settlers”

Hall’s Ireland: Mr and Mrs Hall’s Tour of 1840

By the mid-nineteenth century the town boasted many fine houses and shops. The most desirable residences were on Castle Street. The thoroughfares were described as “airy and clean”.

“The general style of the houses in the town are 3 and 4-storeys, made of brick, all slated. There are some capital houses in Lisburn. The generality of the tradesmen have comfortable houses, well furnished. There are some very neat ones of 2-storeys high as you enter the town from Belfast. At the other extreme end ….they are not quite as good. The street gets narrower, but still they are better than the suburbs of any of the more northern villages I have been in”

George Scott, Ordnance Survey 1835
Castle Street Lisburn
Castle Street Lisburn

In 1837 the Lisburn Gas Light Company was established by an act of parliament to provide street lighting for the town.

Lisburn Market-House
Lisburn Market-House

Lisburn Town

The market-house was surmounted by a cupola with a clock and enclosed in wrought iron railings. This building, erected by the Marquis of Hertford, also contained a ‘gymnasium’ and assembly rooms for local businessmen. Fortnightly balls were held here during ‘the season’.

Lisburn Market-House Cupola and Clock
Lisburn Market-House Cupola and Clock

Most Lisburn inhabitants were employed in some aspect of the textile industry and occupied the area around Linenhall Street and Piper Hill. However, in the 1830’s there was also 17 bakers, 10 tailors, 5 saddlers, 4 apothecaries, 1 bookseller and 63 whiskey shops.

The town also boasted a court house on Castle Street, a police barracks, a fever hospital, a branch of the Northern Banking Company, a railway station and several schools and churches. The Dublin to Belfast mail coach stopped twice daily and travellers to Belfast could board a coach at 10:00am outside the Hertford Arms Hotel every day, except Sunday.

Wallace Memorial, Castle Gardens
Wallace Memorial, Castle Gardens

Sir Richard Wallace

Lisburn also benefitted from the generosity of Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890). Richard was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, descended from the Conway family. He was raised in Paris by his grandmother Maria Fagnai, 3rd Marchioness of Hertford. Here he acted as his father’s art advisor and curator of his art collection.

Wallace Memorial - Lisburn
Wallace Memorial – Lisburn

In 1871 Wallace married Julie Amelie Charlotte Castelnau, the mother of his 30-year-old son. The couple were renowned for their charitable works in the French capital, including vast donations to the destitute during the Siege of Paris (1870-71)

“When Paris was besieged by the Prussians and then devasted by the uprising of the Commune, Wallace gained a considerable reputation for his charitable works and gifts to humanitarian causes. He used his large reserves of capital to protect the English-speaking community in Paris and distributed money to impoverished districts of the city to relieve suffering. He set an example of courage and bravery in the face of adversity which bolstered the morale of the people. In recognition of his philanthropy Queen Victoria conferred on him a baronetcy in 1871”

J S Hanna & F G Watson, Lisburn, Past and Present 2018
Wallace Drinking Fountain in Castle Gardens
Wallace Drinking Fountain in Castle Gardens

The Wallaces had homes in London (Hertford House, Manchester Square) and Lisburn (Castle Street). Richard was also responsible for over 50 drinking fountains in Paris and Lisburn known as ‘Les Wallaces’. At his death Sir Richard left his Lisburn estate to the people of the town, it is known as Wallace Park. In 1897 his widow donated their huge European art collection to the state as a ‘bequest to the nation’.

Wallace Drinking Fountain
Wallace Drinking Fountain

Lisburn – From Town to City

Lisburn continued to thrive and expand and became a town of “considerable manufacturing consequence” mainly due to the linen industry.

“Altogether Lisburn may be pronounced one of the handsomest and cleanest towns in Ireland, and its inhabitants the most respectable”

Belfast and Ulster Street Directory 1852

In 2002 Lisburn was granted city status. It remains a popular commercial and residential area. The centre of the town still mostly retains the layout of the original town.

This is only a brief outline of the beginnings of this ‘phoenix’ of a city. More information to follow in future posts!

Wallace Memorial in Castle Gardens
Wallace Memorial in Castle Gardens
The Lisbrun Standard Advertisements Saturday July 26th 1884
The Lisbrun Standard Advertisements Saturday July 26th 1884

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