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River Farset: Belfast’s Forgotten River

The city of Belfast in Northern Ireland looked very different when it was a thriving industrial city in the 18th century. A large river flowed through the heart of the city flanked by mills and factories that produced the finest linen in the world. But then the river was bricked up and it disappeared forever underneath the city. Now many Belfast residents look incredulous when they are told that there is a river flowing under their feet.

When Belfast was founded, it was little more than a village located at the confluence of two rivers—Farset and Lagan. There was a narrow sandbar here that provided a natural crossing over River Farset when the tide was low. This area would later develop into the intersection of High Street and Victoria Street. A little over two hundred meters to the east, the Farset emptied into the Lagan. The settlement’s original Irish name Béal Feirste alludes to this sandbar; it means “the sandbar across the river’s mouth”.

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River Lagan in Belfast. Photo credit: William Murphy/Flickr

Up until the 1600s, Belfast was pretty much an insignificant village. Then in 1640, the Lord Deputy of Ireland bestowed upon Belfast significant custom rights and also relocated the customs house to Belfast, and new trade flooded into the town. Belfast grew throughout the 17th century, and the banks of the Farset soon developed into the first quaysides of the burgeoning merchant town. Around this time, the linen trade in Northern Ireland blossomed and by the middle of the 18th century, one fifth of all the linen exported from Ireland was shipped from Belfast. By the turn of the 19th century, Belfast had transformed into the largest linen producing center in the world earning the nickname "Linenopolis".

As Belfast began to develop into a big industrial town, rivers Farset and Blackstaff—another principle tributary of river Lagan—began to suffer. The rivers that helped propel Belfast into the industrial age became an open sewage. Waste materials from factories and distilleries as well as garbage and refuse from homes were conveniently dumped into the flowing waters. Before long the smell from the polluted river became so bad that the town unanimously decided to bury the rivers under a culvert.

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The river on High Street, c 1830.

There is some discrepancies regarding the dates of exactly when this happened. According to the The Town book of the Corporation of Belfast, published in 1892, the High Street section of the Farset was buried in 1770, while the final section, close to Princes Street, was covered over in 1804, as per George Benn’s A history of the town of Belfast, published in 1877. But it wasn’t until 1848, according to BBC, that the last section of the Farset disappeared underground. River Blackstaff was also culverted over in 1881.

Running silently under the feet of Belfast’s residents, Farset has been mostly forgotten but its legacy still lives on in the city above in the names of streets and pubs that echoes the city’s sea-faring heritage. There is a Skipper Street, so named because that’s where the ships’ captains lodged while their ships unloaded and loaded on what is now High Street. The Bridge Street gets its name from a small footbridge that once crossed the Farset. The Crow’s Nest in Skipper Street, The Morning Star in Pottinger’s Entry, and the Mermaid Inn, Wilson’s Court, for example, are some of the pubs here that reflect this connection.

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Then there is the Albert Memorial Clock, the city erected in memory of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, which is one of the city’s most recognized landmarks. The 35-meters-tall sandstone tower leans 4 feet off the vertical because it was built on swampy land reclaimed from the Farset.

Belfast linen trade started to decline after World War I following the rise of mass-produced cotton clothing. Belfast’s traditional heavy industry, including shipbuilding—Belfast had the world’s largest shipyard; the historic RMS Titanic was built here—also suffered serious decline since the 1960s following the outbreak of the ‘Troubles’, a violent thirty-year conflict between the Republican and the Loyalist regarding the status of Northern Ireland. Belfast’s shipbuilding and textile industries are now replaced by shopping complexes, universities, hotels and airports. Belfast is now a popular tourist destination in the UK.

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The Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast. Photo credit: William Murphy/Flickr

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