In 1853, Rev. William M. O'Hanlon — the then minister of Donegall Street Congregational Church — wrote a series of letters that were published in the local Northern Whig newspaper. These writings shone a light on the dreadful living conditions of Belfast at that time. He later compiled these letters into a book entitled "Walks Among the Poor of Belfast". It is one of the only sources available from that time period that tells of the conditions of people living in Belfast.
(You can access a scanned pdf of the book here from the Ulster University Library.)
Some interesting quotes
I've shared a few interesting quotes I came across that resonate with some of what we feel God is doing with us in Redeemer in 2018 in the very same part of the City.
A summary of the conditions:
"How few of the churchgoing, orderly, affluent members of the community have ever visited, or perhaps even heard of, such places as Brady’s Row, Green Court, Henry Square, Johnny’s Entry, Poplar Court, Morrow’s Entry, Lynas Court, William’s Lane, Patterson Place, Dickeys Entry — mostly crowded with human beings in the lowest stage of degradation! To attempt fully to gauge this immense mass of human wretchedness and vice, so as to give any adequate idea of its contents, would demand weeks." [Pg.3]
Calling the church to practice over beliefs:
"It is impossible not to see, too, that our religious systems, so long stereotyped in "creeds" and "confessions," axe destined to pass through a se- vere ordeal, one that cannot be evaded by the ostrich wisdom of hiding our head from the fast-coming calamity, nor yet by pouring contempt upon the foe—a contempt oftener the result of ignorance than of en- lightened courage. I fear that the religious convictions of this age are far from powerful, and in the absence of the living energies, the mere forms and logical utterances of our faith will avail us little in the coming struggle. He must be miserably deficient in ecclesiastical lore, or strangely blinded by the idols of party and sect, who imagines that the Church will find her safe- guard and anchor amid the storm in orthodox formularies however sound, in " subscriptions" and " tests," which, however valuable in certain circumstances, are often in greatest request just when the vital and essen- tial elements of piety are declining in the soul or alto- gether dead; and which, pertaining at best, to a cool, reflective stage in the history of the Church, and not to the era of her "first love," constitute no guarantee whatever that those who are most ready to submit to them really possess one germ of that divine life which words cannot convey, nor logic teach, and which, when directly felt and enjoyed, spontaneously seeks expres- sion in far other forms than those of abstract dogmas and definitions. Upon a consideration of the subordinate and secondary value of "Creeds" and "Declarations of faith and order," I do not enter. They doubtless have their place, but they will be found like stubble before the fire, if relied upon in the period of approach- ing conflict. And, Sir, I speak with less hesitation upon this subject, because the Church of which I am a member avows doctrinal principles which are deemed throughout Christendom as among the purest types of "Orthodoxy;" but woe must be ours, if such are allowed to become a substitute for the profound convictions and feelings which spring from the direct and immediate intercourse of the soul with God. Upon these, far more than upon those, depend our safety in the day of battle, the prosperity of true religion, and the advancement of the kingdom of Christ on earth." [Pg. 150]
Calling people to be filled with the Spirit:
"Looking at the existing state of things, I have long felt that we need such another noble outburst of the religious life, such an intense fusion and action of all the spiritual elements of Christianity as distinguished the career of Wesley and Whitfield, to break down completely the barriers which separate us from the million, and to sweep away the mass of prejudice and worldliness which has been long accumulating in that quarter. He who chooses, may style these men enthusiasts (and I am not careful to defend all their actions), but I only wish we had more enthusiasts of the same stamp—men filled with the same lofty spirit of devo- tion and self-sacrifice—of the same burning zeal—and who, like them, penetrating the artificial disguises of humanity, could look right in upon the grandeur of the soul, and right onward into the awful eternity which lies before it, and could bring true religion into those powerful relations to the degraded and wretched masses of the population which it bore in the hands of its Divine Founder and his immediate followers" [Pg.154]
A call to Ireland, to reopening the ancient wells in our land. A call to church unity for the sake of our land. The need in our land for a "pure, living, apostolic Christianity to render her truly prosperous and happy" — the call to reawaken the church to serve and lift up the poor:
"As Irishmen, our first efforts should be directed to the spiritual elevation of our own land— and on the same principle, the town of our habitation possesses the strongest claim of all. If Christianity is cosmopolitan, which I joyfully admit, it is also patriotic ; and while the circles of our holy philanthropy are to widen and expand until they embrace the whole world, the first circles should unquestionably enclose those whom Divine Providence has specially committed to our sympathy and care.
It will be seen that I have avoided, in these letters, any discussion which might be calculated to stir up strife among the different sections of the professing Church. The union of all parties, in the pursuit of social and moral reform, is to be earnestly sought ;— and wherein we differ on spiritual subjects, it should be the aim of each and all to "speak the truth in love," remembering that " the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." These are principles, which have, I fear, been too often lost sight of in the contro- versies of this land.
Finally, I am not insensible to the political evils which have long afflicted our native Country, but of this I feel convinced, that if all these were fully redressed, and her temporal condition all we could desire, still would she stand in need of a pure, living, apostolic Christianity to render her truly prosperous and happy. It is this alone which can allay the fierce passions that have long agitated her bosom, and rendered her the scene of party strife and hate. It is this alone which can pour upon her eye the glories of immortality, and so revolutionize her whole condition that the beauty and magnificence of her natural, may find a fit- ting parallel in the loftier and lovelier features of her moral and spiritual scenery. And he is among the best friends of his country who seeks with earnestness to lift her working and poorer population out of the dust, to invest them with the immunities, and to instil into their hearts the principles, of that faith, which comes from God, and which leads back to the source from which it issues." [Pg. 159-160]
What incredibly resonant thoughts and provocation from Rev. O'Hanlon in 1853 that speak directly into the call on our community to this part of Belfast.
Another interesting resource online 'The Darker Side of Belfast's History' gives more insight into the Cathedral Quarter and Donegall Street's history.
An old Belfast Map of 1685 with a line showing where Donegall Street would later be laid.
A Belfast map of 1842 showing the slum area around Hill Street and listing Grattan and Green Streets.
An 1888 Belfast Map showing lower Donegall Street.
Looking up Upper Donegall Street from Lower Donegall Street in the mid 1920's
Gordon Street, Belfast
Junction of Upper & Lower Donegall Street with York Street and Royal Avenue shortly before many of the buildings were destroyed in the Luftwaffe Blitz of 1941.
Destruction caused at the junction of Donegall Street and Academy Street during the German Blitz.
Donegall Street in 1965. (101 Donegall Street is marked as item '7').