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The History Of Lisburn

THE history of Lisburn as a town really begins in 1600. In that dramatic year scores of Irish chieftains were in arms against the rule of the English in Ireland, and among them was the chief of Killultagh whose stronghold the tiny village of Lis-na-garvoch - formed the nucleus of the modern town of Lisburn.

When this last rising of Gaelic Ireland failed, the territory of Killultagh passed into the hands of Sir Fulke Conway who invited English and Welsh tenants to settle in his village of Lisnagarvey. When the Conway Castle was built in 1627, fifty ­three tenements constituted the settlement. In 1641, Bridge Street, Castle Street and the Market Square area, the basic street formation of modern Lisburn, were already in existence.


Of the great rebellion in 1641, in which Lisburn remained loyal to England and King Charles 1, the records have this to say: "More than 300 of the insurgents were slain in Bridge Street and 300 in Castle Street and in the meadows behind the houses." The rebels, unable to take the town, reduced it to ashes, whereupon the name of Lisnagarvey began to change to that of Lisburn.

In 1707, another great fire halted the growth of Lisburn. Once again it was reduced to ashes, this time even the great castle falling to the flames. The castle was never rebuilt, but its gardens remained to become the property of the people of Lisburn in the later nineteenth century.

In 1834, a writer with a lively Imagination described these gardens as "the bower of love and courtship for the lads and lovely lasses, of Lisburn. Beneath the outstretched branches of those trees, in the solemn silence of evening, often have the vows of lovers been offered up on the altar of affection " Time, it seems, cannot change the function of the Castle Gardens.


Everyone knows the great gun there which was presented to the town in 1858. From this relic of Sebastopol, one may gaze down the Lagan Valley - a view still beautiful despite the marks of industry.

This river, if a little trouble were taken to remove the squalor from its banks, would greatly enrich the natural beauty of Lisburn today.


Following the great fire the key period of reconstruction in Lisburn was the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Many houses were built, some of them reaching four stories high. One gets the impression that Castle Street was the higher class area of the town, and anyone who felt he had any claim to superiority over his fellow citizens tried to get a house there. The town's four magistrates and most of the wealthy linen manufacturers lived in Castle Street, along­side the residence of Marquis of Hereford, to whom the territory had by this time reverted.

In 1800, Lisburn consisted of about 800 houses and 4,800 people. It was almost a quarter of the size of Belfast which today is about twenty-five times that of Lisburn.

At this same period, the lower tract of the Lagan Valley was in the throes of the industrial revolution and the spectacular economic devel­opment of Lisburn was underway.


Strangely enough the Lisburn textile industries are indebted in no small measure to Louis XIV of France, for in 1685 that monarch began a campaign of persecution against the French Protestants, or Huguenots. These refugees who fled from France enrich many parts of Europe, but perhaps none as much as the Lagan Valley. Till well into the nineteenth century men such as the Crommelins and the Delacherois helped to manufacture linen which was equalled in few places, and bettered nowhere in the world.

The era of large scale production began in 1764. In that year William Coulson established his first linen looms close by is now the Union Bridge. In 1784, Barbour began spinning linen thread, and in 1831, the works by this time moved to Hilden, employed over one and a half thousand workers. Hilden, indeed, may be regarded as a by-product of the Barbour thread spinning industry.

The next important year after Barbour's mill began was in 1789. Most people know that the great French Revolution took place then, but are unaware of the revolution which began in Lisburn in the same year. A Mr. Wallace returned from Glasgow with the first steam engine to be seen in Ireland, and installed it in his cotton mill just off Castle Street. Not only did the machine promise to revolutionize industry, but it caused a sensation among the goggling natives of the town.

Damask from Lisburn found its way into most of the courts of Europe, and such celebrities as the Archduke Michael of Russia, the Crown prince of Sweden, the Duke of Wellington and Lord John Russell visited the world famous Coulson factory.

An early nineteenth century bard of industry puts it this way:

Where Coulson's damask, Barbour's thread
With Stewart's and the Island Spinning,
In workmanship the world have led,
High honors from the nations winning

This economic expansion had important conse­quences for Lisburn. It led in 1765 to the opening of the Lagan for navigation from Lisburn to Belfast, and to the establishment of a coach service to places such as Dublin in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1839 the railroad linked Lisburn with Belfast, and 3,000 people made the twenty minute journey into Belfast by rail.

The expansion made some of Lisburn's citizens wealthy and made even more of them poor. The Industrial Revolution inaugurated a period of intense hardship for the European working classes, and the Lagan Valley did not escape this harsh price for steam power.


In 1762, over 300 weavers paraded through Lisburn brandishing blackthorn sticks as a protest against the threat of unemployment, though it is worth noting in this respect that the better‑off citizens of Lisburn have a long tradition of philanthropy. The Barbour's provided 350 houses for their employees, and the outbreak of cholera in 1830 was followed by the building of a fever hospital on the Dublin Road by private subscription. By such means the worst effects of nineteenth century capitalism were softened in Lisburn.

A town, once established, thrives upon the necessities of its inhabitants. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the case of religion, for in satisfying their religious needs the people of Lisburn formed into social units and built many impressive buildings. 


The first of these began in 1623 when the foundation stone of the Church of Ireland cathedral was laid in Market Square. It is indicative of the part which religion has played in the lives of Lisburn people, that the town's oldest institution is religious in origin.

By 1834, each of the important Christian sects had a substantial following among a population which numbered just over 6,000. The Quakers flourished in Lisburn after the conversion to that faith of William Edmundson in 1676, and worshipped in Railway Street, as they still do today. In 1756 the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, visited the town and left behind him an energetic band of Methodists who worshipped in Market Street. 

The Roman Catholic community founded their place of worship in 1794 upon Chapel Hill, and the Presbyterians who had worshipped somewhere in the Longstone area before the great fire of 1707,  in 1834 had a congregation of 500 families.

Up till at least the eighteenth century, religion could well be described as the greatest need of man in society.


As the nineteenth century dawned, however, another great social need, that of education, challenged its supremacy. The first educational establishment of any importance in Lisburn that founded for the Quaker children in 1774 was semi-religious in character and paid particular attention to the business of developing the moral character of the child. Not until 1880 -  the same year in which Sir Richard Wallace founded the other Lisburn grammar school on the Antrim Road - did the Friends' School open it gates to non - Quakers.

The first Lisburn school which did not ask pupils whether they attended church, chapel or meeting was that founded on the Dublin Road by John Crossley in 1810, known then as the Male Free School. After this, no decade of the nineteenth century passed without the foundation of some educational institution. In the forties, for exam­ple, were founded the Longstone Infant School and Boulton's School,  now a primary school on the Hillhall Road.


 For all this interest in education, however, it is no injustice to the people of Lisburn to say that they have largely wanted probing intellects. A well known authoress of the earlier nineteenth century described Lisburn people as "destitute of literary taste," and it is true that apart from a rather abortive literary - cum-debating society which existed in the middle of the century, there was little interest in the arts.


As for politics, after the hanging of townsman Henry Munro for his part in the 1798 rebellion, the town steered clear of political agitation until the Home Rule controversy.

Jeremy Taylor, one of the most agile minds of the seventeenth century, lived in Lisburn for some time, and eventually died there in 1667. "Let us hope," writes an early twentieth century com­mentator, "that some attention will be directed towards the preservation of all that renders the Bishop's (i.e., Taylor's) study at Magheraleave one of the most interesting of local antiquities, for it is indeed an honor to our town that its streets were once trodden by the author of 'The Liberty of Prophesying.' " it is noteworthy that when Lisburn built her statue in Market Square, she chose to immortalize John Nicholson, soldier, rather than Jeremy Taylor, scholar.


As a final item to this survey of Lisburn's growth it might be informative to examine the distribution of shops and trades in a particular year.

In the year 1819 - the year for which most facts are available - the most popular occupation was that of a shoemaker. There were no less than 44.

Next came the 28 publicans, who outnumbered the grocers by four. As well as intoxicating beverages the town was well provided with meat, especially in the Smithfield area, which had 19 butchers There were 16 carpenters, five schoolmasters, two surgeons, two physicians, four pawnbrokers, each of them strategically placed near Market Square, and about 11 bakers.

The busiest streets in 1819, on, feels, must have been Bow Street and Bridge Street, for while the former boasted I I of the town's public, houses, note that Bow Street is well removed from the higher class Castle Street in 1819, the latter had 12 of the town's 24 grocers.

In comparison with the present day, it seems that trade has largely swung away from Bridge Street to Bow Street, and perhaps now into Smithfield center, for Bridge Street now no longer contains half of the towns grocers.

Bow Street is nowadays a thriving shopping area, whereas in 1819 it contained chiefly tradesmen such as carpenters and shoemakers.

The most obvious comparison is that Lisburn in 1964 is a thriving as Lisburn thrived in 1819, and as is, it may be added substantially more sober.

This survey does not go beyond the Seventies of the nineteenth century. By that period the people of Lisburn had achieved economic and social maturity, and had made their town indispensable to the economic activity of the Lagan Valley.

By and large it may be said of the people who created Lisburn, that they led thrifty, hardworking lives, somewhat addicted to the fluctuations of profit and loss and having little inclination towards intellectual pursuits.

 Living in the age of inventions, their unspectacular but far from mundane lives, Were jolted from time to time by such motive as the early steam entities or the first locomotive.

Alter the formation of the Lisburn cricket club in 1836. they developed a passion for the game equal to that of their English  contemporaries.

For a long time they had no dance hall and it is amusing to come across a question put  in 1834, "will those beautiful forms - the soul of symmetry  - and the neat foot and ankle, ever appear again in the mazy dance, when the daughters of Lisburn resembled so many sylvan goddesses.  Tripping it along on light fantastic toe'"

It may not be an infallible test of progress, but if the writer were alive today he could see the daughters of Lisburn go down to the mazy dance in the town's nightclubs and discotheques.

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