Celebrating Diversity: Past and Present

Our upcoming feature: ‘Celebrating Diversity: Past and Present’ will delve into the ideas of culture, community and identity that remain so dominant in Northern Ireland. We’ll look at these topics through the members of the North Belfast Heritage Cluster, a diverse group of voluntary organisations that own or care for a historic building in north Belfast.

In this opening post, we aim to explore the patterns of immigration, past and present, into North Belfast and explore the impact they had on our part of the city. Patterns of emigration often feature in discussions of community island-wide but migration, local and international, is just as revealing about societal change. We hope that identifying and exploring the different communities that have made North Belfast home over the past three centuries will contextualise future posts in the ‘Celebrating Diversity’ series, where we will hear from individuals in more detail.


Unlike many towns and cities, Belfast does not have deep medieval roots. Instead, it is a relative ‘latecomer in the story of European urbanization.’[1] The city we know today has its origins in the seventeenth century. By 1613, when Belfast was granted a royal charter by James I, the policy of appropriating Catholic lands and ‘planting’ lowland Scots and English settlers (known as the Plantation of Ulster) was well underway.[2] Over the next century, 200,000 Scottish Presbyterians arrived in the province and Ulster’s distinctive, predominantly Protestant culture was formed.[3]

Belfast has a rich maritime history, owing its existence to the sea and the surrounding rivers. Even the city’s name comes from the Irish, Béal Féirste, meaning ‘the mouth of the Farset’.[4] As the town developed in the seventeenth century, its potential as a port was recognised. Before the development of Queen’s Island in 1849, the port was situated at the foot of High Street. After the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, Belfast experienced a trading boom, dealing principally with France, Spain, and the American colonies. This led to the development of a wealthy, erudite and predominantly Presbyterian mercantile elite around the city in the latter half of the seventeenth century. An era that also marked the emergence of Belfast port as being ‘at the centre of a network of migration patterns.’[5]

Map showing the town of Belfast c.1798.

For most of its existence, Northern Ireland has been a ‘net exporter of people’.[6] Until 1990, the number of people leaving the north far exceeded those arriving or returning. Estimates put the net loss from the period 1871-1990 alone at nearly one million people! The devastating impact of The Great Famine (1845-52), years of communal conflict and widespread deindustrialisation cause many to emigrate. However, the city has also been shaped by immigration. Sean Connolly and Gillian McIntosh state, ‘any discussion of identity or community, belonging and exclusion, must also take into account of the extent to which Belfast, at the late nineteenth-century peak of its success, was a city of newcomers.’[7] The importance of immigration is clearly reflected in the names of the duo who helped shaped Belfast into an industrial powerhouse: Harland (England) and Wolff (Germany).[8]


Patterns of immigration in North Belfast first emerge in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century, as the town experienced the early stages of industrial, economic, and societal growth.

Quakers (1790s):

The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakerism, was founded by George Fox in the 1640s and the first recorded meeting in Ireland was held in 1654 in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. The first Quaker meeting place in Belfast was recorded in 1682. However, regular Quaker meetings did not commence until 1790 when they were held ‘in a loft tannery belonging to Mr Samuel Alexander, one of their members, now No. 155 North Street a few doors above Union Street’.[9] Mr Alexander later presented a plot of ground in Frederick Street to the Society of Friends, where a purpose-built meeting house was constructed in 1814. Incredibly, the present-day meeting house sits on the same site! In 1820 the congregation numbered approximately sixty members and their numbers steadily increased. 264 Belfast citizens reported as being of Quaker faith in the 1891 census, with North Belfast being home for the majority.

The Quaker movement was founded on the principles of tolerance, peace, and charitable assistance. In an Irish context, the Quakers were instrumental in providing relief during the potato famine of the 1840s and later programmes to diversify crop farming. They have also played an active role in calming political tensions in Ireland and facilitating peace initiatives during the 1798 Irish Rebellion, in 1922 in response to the aftermath of the 1921 Partition of Ireland and throughout the Troubles.

Catholic (1810s):

The growth of industry and commerce attracted large numbers of Ulster’s predominantly rural population to the town in search of employment in the docks and mills.  As a result, Belfast’s population radically increased from 20,000 in 1800 to over 53,000 by 1831.[10]

This influx of migrant workers caused a rapid increase in Belfast’s Catholic population, particularly in the west and north, where most of the mills were located. By 1861 Roman Catholic’s made up 33.9% of the town’s population.[11] This demographic shift ‘placed extreme pressure on the churches responsible for serving those areas’.[12] During Bishop Patrick Dorrian’s ministry as the Bishop of Down and Connor (1865-85), twenty-six new churches were built, reflecting a wider expansion of Catholicism throughout the nineteenth century. Catholic Church building doubled decade on decade from 1820 to 1880 and as Caroline McGee argues ‘by 1900 almost every town and village in the country could boast a substantial newly built, extended or renovated Catholic church.’[13]

The expansion of Belfast’s Catholic community is reflected in the development of St. Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street. The previous church, built on the site in 1815, no longer sufficed for the increasing congregation. It was decided to construct a new, larger church around the old to allow services to continue without interruption! The foundation stone of the current church was laid by Bishop Dorrian on 18th  April 1875 and was completed for blessing on the 12th of August 1877.[14]

Sir Otto and Lady Paula Jaffe.

Jewish (1870s):

The Jewish community in Belfast was established by German linen merchants in the mid-nineteenth century, principally the Jaffe family. Daniel Jaffe’s business interests brought the family to Belfast, by then known as ‘Linenopolis’, in 1851. Jaffe funded the city’s first purpose-built synagogue in 1864 which was located at 71 Great Victoria Street and is commemorated by an ornamental drinking fountain that still stands beside the Victoria Square shopping centre.

Daniel’s son, Sir Otto Jaffe, became one of the most prominent citizens in Belfast at the turn of the century, serving two terms as Lord Mayor in 1899-1900 and 1904-5. As a councillor he ‘was an active member of the committee which got the Public Libraries Act extended to Belfast, leading to the first free library being established’.[15] Like his father, Otto Jaffe also made a significant contribution to the local Jewish community. By the 1890s the congregation of the city’s first synagogue on Great Victoria Street had increased from fifty-five to over one thousand and was too small to accommodate the community’s needs. In 1904 Jaffe contributed £4,000 towards the construction of a new synagogue in Annesley Street near Carlisle Circus.

Later phases of Jewish migration to Northern Ireland included those escaping persecution elsewhere. The 1911 census recorded 424 Russian migrants in Belfast, the majority of whom were Jewish families from Eastern Europe fleeing persecution from the Russian Tsars.[16] During the Second World War, approximately 300 unaccompanied refugee children arrived in Northern Ireland as part of the Kindertransport, a rescue operation founded in collaboration between Jewish and multi-denominational Christian volunteers transporting children from mainland Europe to the United Kingdom. Some of the refugees were fostered by local Jewish families and others were housed at a hostel at Cliftonpark Avenue and at a disused farm in Millisle. By 1951, the Jewish community was 1,500 strong and was strongly centred around the upper Antrim Road.’[17]

This banner was unfurled in July 2019 on the site of the former Corporation Street social security office, marking the area’s Little Italy origins. The street is now being redeveloped with student accommodation

Italian (1880-1940):

The residential streets surrounding St Patrick’s once comprised a working-class community living in tightly packed terraced houses. The 1850s and 1860s saw the development of an Italian community around Little Patrick Street: an area that became known as ‘Little Italy’. The first Italian migrants were highly skilled craftsmen and sculptors, many of whom arrived to assist in the construction of new Catholic Churches.[18]

Italians began arriving in Northern Ireland in larger numbers from the 1880s. The vast majority came from Casalattico, a small town in the impoverished agrarian Frosinone province to the south of Rome. Among the later arrivals, the majority were unskilled labourers. Census data reveals that by 1911 most had progressed from itinerant work such as organ-grinding to shopkeeping, namely fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours. The vast majority of Belfast Italians were devout Roman Catholics and St Patrick’s Church (along with St Joseph’s in Sailortown) provided a social space and reassuring source of familiarity for the community.

Unfortunately, Belfast’s Italians faced intermittent xenophobia and ‘othering’, particularly during the two World Wars, when many were classed as ‘enemy aliens’ and interned on the Isle of Man.[19] For first-generation migrants, the language barrier could prove to be a formidable obstacle to integration. St Patrick’s accommodated this demand and held a small number of Italian language services for its parishioners.[20] Whereas London (11,668 Italians in 1911) and Glasgow (2,114 Italians in 1911) had large Italian communities, Belfast’s Italian population peaked at around 300 in the mid-1930s.

Indian (1930s-2000s):

Over the last century, migrants to Northern Ireland have arrived from further afield. Indian migration to Northern Ireland dates back almost a century. During the 1930s, many of the early migrants came to Northern Ireland to escape increasing communal conflict in their home nation. These newcomers predominantly came from the northern states of India, specifically Punjab and Gujarat and were in search of a better life and improved business prospects. In the 1950s and early 60s, the Indian community was the largest ethnic minority in Northern Ireland.[21]

As the Indian community in Belfast continued to grow during the 20th Century, they sought to establish a centre where their members could meet and worship. The building we know as the Indian Community Centre (ICC) today was formerly the Church Halls of the neighbouring Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church. The building was purchased in 1979 and inaugurated two years later in 1981. On 16th May 1982, sacred Deities were installed in the Laximinarayan Hindu temple, which is situated inside the centre. The centre’s community development and outreach programmes are designed to promote integration between the Indian community and local residents. Crucially, the ICC also aims to provide facilities for the members of the community to maintain their heritage and cultural values.

On 16th May 1982, sacred Deities were installed in the Laximinarayan Hindu temple, which is situated inside the Indian Community Centre.

Chinese (1960s-70s):

Chinese people began arriving in Northern Ireland in the early 1960s in search of work and have since become one of the largest immigrant groups in Northern Ireland, making up 0.35% of the population.[22] The majority of the first arrivals set up trade in the catering industry with the first recorded Chinese restaurant, The Peacock, opening in Belfast in 1962.[23] African migrants are also increasing in number with at least 1,500 now calling Belfast home. Organisations like the Horn of Africa People’s Aid (HAPANI) work to support and empower individuals from the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan) in Northern Ireland.

Eastern Europe (2010s – present):

In more recent years, patterns of migration have reflected our membership of the European Union. Since 2000, the newest communities have predominantly arrived from central and eastern Europe. The 2011 census revealed that, after English, the top three main languages recorded for Northern Irish residents, were Polish (1.02%), Lithuanian (0.36%), and Irish (0.24%) reflecting both the newest wave of international migration and the continued existence of two national cultures.

The Future:

Although ideas of culture in Northern Ireland are complex and at times contradictory, the societal importance of ‘culture’ can offer opportunities for connection and communication with newer communities. Ruth McAreavey states the importance of immigration in transforming Northern Ireland’s cultural landscape:

‘…the arrival of migrants to a fairly conservative community brings with it many new opportunities – economic, social and cultural. The perception of culture as something that is alive and as having transformative values would be of great benefit to Northern Ireland where long-standing debates on essentialised notions of community have created blind spots.’[24]

We hope that by ‘Celebrating Diversity: Past and Present’ we will go a small way to explore and challenge the traditional ideas around culture, community, and identity in Northern Ireland today.



[1] Liam Kennedy, Lucia Pozzi and Matteo Manfredini, ‘Edwardian Belfast: Marriage, Fertility & Religion in 1911’ In Olwen Purdue (Ed.) Belfast: The Emerging City, 1850-1915: p.182.

[2] See https://www.libraryireland.com/HullHistory/Plantation1.php

[3] http://motherearthtravel.com/united_kingdom/belfast/history.htm

[4] https://niarchive.org/trails/maritime-belfast/

[5] Olwen Purdue, ‘Introduction’ in Olwen Purdue (ed.) Belfast: The Emerging City, 1850-1915: p.xx.

[6] http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/raise/publications/2016-2021/2016/general/3916.pdf

[7] S. J. Connolly and Gillian McIntosh, ‘Whose City? Belonging and Exclusion in the Nineteenth Century Urban World’ in S. J. Connolly (Ed.) Belfast 400: People, Place and History (2012): p. 265.

[8] S. J. Connolly and Gillian McIntosh, ‘Whose City? Belonging and Exclusion in the Nineteenth Century Urban World’ in S. J. Connolly (Ed.) Belfast 400: People, Place and History (2012): p. 266.

[9] For more see https://greatplacenorthbelfast.com/projects/the-quakers-and-the-troubles/

[10] Figures taken from the 1831 census return.

[11] Liam Kennedy, Lucia Pozzi and Matteo Manfredini, ‘Edwardian Belfast: Marriage, Fertility & Religion in 1911’ In Olwen Purdue (Ed.) Belfast: The Emerging City, 1850-1915: p.189.

[12] Olwen Purdue, ‘Introduction’ in Olwen Purdue (ed.) Belfast: The Emerging City, 1850-1915: p.xxii.

[13] Caroline M. McGee, ‘A noble Church in the most Catholic quarter of a bitterly Protestant and Presbyterian city: the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Clonard, West Belfast’ in Olwen Purdue (ed.) Belfast: The Emerging City, 1850-1915: p159 & 177.

[14] https://saintpatricksbelfast.org.uk/our-parish/history/


[16] Liam Kennedy, Lucia Pozzi and Matteo Manfredini, ‘Edwardian Belfast: Marriage, Fertility & Religion in 1911’ In Olwen Purdue (Ed.) Belfast: The Emerging City, 1850-1915: p.187.

[17] Sean O’Connell, ‘An Age of Conservative Modernity, 1914-68’ in S. J. Connolly (Ed.) Belfast 400: People, Place and History (2012): pp. 271-316.

[18] S. J. Connolly and Gillian McIntosh, ‘Whose City? Belonging and Exclusion in the Nineteenth Century Urban World’ in S. J. Connolly (Ed.) Belfast 400: People, Place and History (2012): pp. 266 and 276.

[19] Jack Crangle, ‘Foreigners, Catholics and “enemy aliens”: Italian internment in Northern Ireland’s Protestant state’ in Prisoners in the era of the World Wars (Forthcoming, Kentucky, 2021).

[20] Irish Times, 6 November 1924.

[21] https://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/heritage/indian-community-northern-ireland

[22] From the 2011census. ttps://www.nisra.gov.uk/sites/nisra.gov.uk/files/publications/2011-census-results-key-statistics-northern-ireland-report-11-december-2012.pdf

[23] https://www.culturenorthernireland.org/article/721/the-chinese-community-in-northern-ireland

[24] https://www.community-relations.org.uk/sites/crc/files/media-files/The%20Experience%20of%20recent%20migrants%20to%20northern%20ireland.pdf

Members Involved

YEAR: 1774

Location: Clifton Street

YEAR: 1888

Location: Clifton Street

YEAR: 1830

Location: Frederick Street

YEAR: 1833

Location: Antrim Road

YEAR: 1815

Location: Donegal Street

YEAR: 1904

Location: Somerton Road