St Patrick’s Church, Belfast, has maintained a constant presence on Donegall Street since the early 1800s. This blog post will examine the development of this church, its reconstruction in the 1870s, and the history of the inner-city community that it served. St Patrick’s Church had the distinction of playing an important role in meeting the spiritual needs of many Italian migrants who chose Belfast as their home in the nineteenth century.
The original St Patrick’s Church opened in March 1815 at a cost of £2,811 – of which ‘£1,711 was raised by the Protestants of Belfast’. The building was considerably smaller than the current church and by 1859 was ‘for some time past … quite inadequate to the accommodation of the members of communion’. The Catholic population of north-east Ulster (and Belfast in particular) expanded rapidly in the decades after the Great Famine, which prompted the Down and Connor diocese to initiate a rapid church-building program. The situation became acute in June 1867 when, during Sunday afternoon mass, ‘a portion of the ground flooring, immediately in front of the altar, about sixteen feet in length and six feet in width, gave way with a loud crash’. Panic spread through the congregation ‘many of whom rushed terror-stricken to the doors, while others fainted’. Several parishioners required medical treatment, but loss of life was averted.
Temporary repairs to the building were completed and the church re-doubled its fundraising efforts to secure the ‘£12,000 to £13,000’ required to construct a new chapel. Local architects Timothy Hevey and Mortimer Thomson were commissioned to design a building reflective of ‘the sturdy, self-reliant Catholicism of the North’. The first ‘high mass’ was conducted in August 1877 in the presence of prominent members of the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy, in addition to overseas visitors including the Bishops of Detroit (USA) and Liverpool. Home Rule League MP Joseph Biggar was also in attendance, who organised a post-mass collection which raised £2,500. A reporter from The Nation newspaper poetically described the church interior as ‘of exceeding power and vigorous treatment, softened by an almost indescribable gracefulness, felt rather than seen’.
St Patrick’s Church was surrounded by a thriving inner-city neighbourhood until urban redevelopment in the 1970s dispersed much of this population. The residential streets surrounding St Patrick’s once comprised a working-class community living in tightly packed terraced housing stock. Little Patrick Street to the north-east of St Patrick’s Church was home to a sizeable Italian community which became known as ‘Little Italy’. Ironically, Little Italy tends to be reconstructed by non-Italians, who depict the area as one of Belfast’s lost communities.
Mid-century Italian migrants to Belfast tended to be skilled artisans who created ‘impressive monumental buildings with elaborate decorate interiors’. Their craftmanship can still be seen inside the National Trust-owned Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street. Italians began arriving in Northern Ireland in larger numbers from the 1880s. The vast majority of migrants came from Casalattico, a small town in the impoverished, agrarian Frosinone province to the south of Rome. The majority of these later arrivals were unskilled labourers. Census data reveals that by 1911 most had progressed from itinerant work such as organ-grinding to shop-keeping, 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. 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. Irish language services were also occasionally offered.
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. Although there was a discernible Little Italy in Belfast, the community never reached anything like the size of similar districts in other cities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of Belfast Italian families returned to the warmer climes of Casalattico after retirement. The community’s contribution to Northern Ireland’s retail scene is, nonetheless, still evident – the Fusco and Morelli families still own and operate ice cream parlours across the province.
Although Little Italy and the residential housing surrounding St Patrick’s are long demolished, the church stands largely untouched and still functions as a place of worship. As Frederick Street/Donegall Street braces itself for another wave of urban renewal courtesy of Ulster University’s expansion the area will, perhaps, once again regain its vibrant residential – albeit transient and student – character.
Further information about ‘Little Italy’ and connections to St Patrick’s Church can be found by viewing ‘Homelands to Townlands’ which has been digitised by Northern Ireland Screen: https://digitalfilmarchive.net/media/homelands-to-townlands-italian-2555
 Owen Kelly, ‘Know your Parish: St Patrick’s Donegall Street, Belfast’ in North Irish Roots, vol. 11, no. 2 (2000), p. 30
 The Freeman’s Journal, 12 July 1859.
 The Freeman’s Journal, 18 June 1867.
 The Freeman’s Journal, 18 January 1875.
 The Nation, 18 August 1877.
 The Nation, 28 July 1877.
 Sean Connolly (ed.), Belfast 400: people, place and history (Liverpool, 2012), p. 266.
 Brian Reynolds, Casalattico and the Italian community in Ireland (Dublin, 1993), p. 18.
 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).
 Irish Times, 6 November 1924.
 The Freeman’s Journal, 12 March 1909.
 Lucio Sponza, Italian Immigrants in nineteenth-century Britain: realities and images (Leicester, 1988), pp 322-323; Irish Independent, 23 July 1935.
 Jack Crangle, ‘The Italian Fascist Party in interwar Northern Ireland: political hub or social club?’ in Queen’s Political Review, vol 4, no. 1 (2016), p. 2.