23 September 2005

Revamping city history is up our alley

The Irish News Online

By Keith Bourke

Some of Belfast’s oldest thoroughfares – the narrow entries that criss-cross the city centre – are enjoying a well-deserved facelift.

NIO minister with responsibility for social development David Hanson announced the end of the first phase yesterday of the revamp scheme.

Winecellar Entry, Pottinger’s Entry and Castle Arcade have been rejuvenated at a cost of £400,000, with £500,000 of work on Crown, Wilson’s and Joy’s Entry due to begin in April.

During the 18th century the High Street area and its laneways were at the centre of the city’s life.

Political historian Dr Eamon Phoenix said Belfast was then a place of cultural renaissance and radical politics.

“In the 1700s Belfast was known as the ‘Athens of the North’,” he said.

“This was an exciting time in Belfast’s past. Peggy Barclay’s Tavern in the Crown Entry was the venue for the foundation of the United Irishmen by Wolfe Tone in October 1771. The taverns of Belfast’s laneways were hotbeds of political radicalism.

“Radicals who wanted Parlia-mentary reform would meet here and when that failed, a radical revolution like that which had occurred in France was planned.”

Joy’s entry is directly associated with one of Belfast’s most famous historical figures, Henry Joy McCracken.

Born on High Street in August 1767, of a prominent Presbyterian family, he commanded the United Irishmen forces in Antrim in 1798.

They were defeated by government troops, and after a month on the run McCracken was captured and hanged for treason in Cornmarket, near his birthplace

Henry’s favourite sister, Mary Ann McCracken, was also famous in her own right as a philanthropist. Like Henry, she was heavily involved in reviving the ancient poetry and music of Ireland.

Pottinger’s Entry is named after a prominent landed estate family of the time. During the 18th century it was also home to a debtors’ prison.

Going back to the 1600s, the High Street area was the impressive grounds of Lord Donegall’s castle, and the entries home to its orchards and gardens.

Castle Arcade itself is named after Donegall Castle, which famously burned down in a fire in 1780 in which two of Lord Donegall’s sisters perished.

Dr Phoenix also said Crown’s Entry has links with The Irish News: “It was down this lane that the Read brothers from Co Antrim set up the printing press which launched the Belfast Morning News, which was later to become The Irish News.”

In the 1860s the focus of city life shifted away from High Street to-wards City Hall, a transformation completed in the 20th century.

Now, in 2005, some of Belfast’s famous heritage is being brought back to life.

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