BELFAST, a sea-port, borough, market-town, and parish, partly in the barony of LOWER, but chiefly in that of UPPER BELFAST, County of ANTRIM, and province of ULSTER, 8 miles (S. by W.) from Carrickfergus 13? (S. E. by E.) from Antrim, and 80 (N.) from Dublin; containing, in 1821, 44,177, and in 1831, 60,388 inhabitants, of which latter number, 53,287 were in the town and suburbs, and 48,224 in the borough ; and within three years after the latter census the population of the parish had increased nearly 7000 more. At a very early period this place obtained, according to some writers, the appellation of Beala-farsad, which has been supposed to signify "Hurdles-ford town," and according to others that of Bela-fearsad, "the town at the mouth of the river ;" which latter is accurately descriptive of its situation on the river Lagan, near its influx into the lough or bay of Belfast. But, perhaps, a still more probable conjecture is that which ascribes its etymology to the Irish Ball-Fosaght, signifying "the town with a ditch or foss," which, from its low situation, were anciently constructed round the town, to protect it from the tide. Previously to the English conquests in the province of Ulster, it appears to have been a fortified station commanding the passage of the river, which is here fordable at low water, and important also from its position on the line between the ancient stations of Carrickfergus and Ardes, respectively in the counties of Antrim and Down, between which the Lagan has ever been regarded as the boundary. The original fort, of which the site is now occupied by St. George's church, was taken and destroyed about the year 1178, by John de Courcy, who soon after erected a noble castle on a more eligible spot. King John marched his army to this place, in 1210; but no notice of any town occurs till the year 1316, when the destruction of the town and castle by Edward Bruce is recorded. The Irish chieftains, having by his aid recovered their ancient possessions, rebuilt the castle, of which, through the intestine divisions in England and their union with the English settlers in Ulster, they kept uninterrupted possession for nearly two centuries, till the reign of Hen. VII., when the Earl of Kildare, at the head of a large army, in 1503, took and destroyed the town and castle; but the latter was soon afterwards repaired by the native chieftains, from which, however, their forces were again driven by the earl, in 1512, and compelled to retire to the mountains. From this period Belfast remained in a ruined and neglected state, till the year 1552, when Sir James Crofts, lord-deputy, repaired and garrisoned the castle; and during the same year the Irish of Ulster again appeared in arms, under the command of Hugh Mac Nial Oge, but the English government offered terms of accommodation which that chieftain accepted, and, swearing allegiance to Hen. VIII., he obtained a grant of the castle and town of Belfast, with other extensive possessions. After the death of Hugh, who was killed in 1555 by a party of Scottish marauders, his possessions passed to other branches of his family, with the exception of the castle, which was placed in the custody of Randolph Lane, an English governor; in the lath of Elizabeth it was granted, with its extensive dependencies, to Sir Thomas Smythe and his son, on condition of their keeping a certain number of horse and foot in readiness to meet at Antrim after a brief notice) to attend upon the lord-deputy. In 1573 the Earl of Essex visited the fortress, which the Irish had previously, on different occasions, frequently attempted to take by surprise; and in 1575 the Lord-Deputy Sydney encountered the Irish forces at the ford of this place. About that period, Belfast is said to have had a forest and woods, of which all traces have long since disappeared. After the death of Elizabeth, the garrison, influenced by Hugh O'Nial, Earl of Tyrone, refused submission to the English crown; but, on the defeat of that powerful leader and his adherents, the English gained the ascendency, and Sir Arthur Chichester, lord-deputy in the reign of Jas. I., issued his summons requiring the supplies of horse and foot, according to the tenure by which the castle was held; and no one appearing in answer to this requisition, the castle and demesne became forfeited to the crown, and were given to Sir Arthur in 1612.
The Chamber of Commerce was originally established in 1783; its meetings were suspended from 1794 to 1802, since which time they have been resumed without interruption, greatly to the benefit of trade and the interests of the town. The Old Exchange, situated nearly in the centre of the town, at the end of Donegal-street, is the private property of the Marquess of Donegal; it was formerly the place of public resort for the merchants, but, since the erection of the Commercial Buildings, has been used only for the election of the chief magistrate. The Commercial Buildings were erected in 1822, opposite to the Exchange, at an expense of £20,000, by a proprietary of 200 shareholders incorporated by act of parliament in 1823, and by a committee of whom, annually elected, the affairs of the institution are conducted: the buildings comprise an excellent commercial hotel, a spacious and handsome news-mom, over which is an elegant assembly-room, and behind these an area with a piazza for the use of the merchants; and in connection with them are numerous offices principally occupied by professional men. The north front, of Irish granite, is decorated with eight lofty Ionic columns, and the west front is principally occupied by shops: the merchants assemble in the news-room and hold 'Change on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The revenue derived by Government from the post-office, in 1835, was £10,073. The banking establishments are the Northern Banking Company, established in 1824; the Belfast Banking Company, in 1826; and the Ulster Banking Company, in 1836 : all have branches in the different large towns throughout the province. There are also branches of the Bank of Ireland, the Provincial Bank, and the Agricultural and Commercial Bank of Ireland.