The first settlers in Ireland arrived at least 6000 years ago. At that time the Lagan Valley was densely wooded from the valley floor to the piedmont and thus settlement would have been sparse. However at Ballynahatty, on the lower reaches of the River Lagan, five miles from Lisburn, there is the great man-made earthwork of the Giant's Ring. Other associated structures could be seen nearby until around one hundred and fifty years ago, but the spread of farming has erased them. It is thought that the Giant's Ring was constructed around 2000 B.C., so there must have been a reasonably structured society in the area by then.
From 600 A.D. raths or ring forts began to be constructed and all around Lisburn there are numerous examples. By the 9th or 10th century the O'Neills had established a major fort in what is now Castle Gardens and it is thought that the name of Lisnagarvey is derived from the Gaelic name of this fort Lios na gleanbhach' which translates as 'fort of the gamblers. It is believed by some that there was another fort going by the name of 'Lisburn' about the top of the present Hill Street. With the English settlement in the 17th century and the settlers' difficulty in pronouncing Irish names, it was a question of ease of pronunciation that changed the town's name from Lisnagarvey to Lisburn.
The next significant group to leave their mark on the area were the Normans who came to Ireland in 1169. As they gradually built settlements across the country they established lines of communication, with mottes at strategic intervals similar to Duneight just outside Ravernet. Other examples can be found at Edenderry and Dunmurry.
By the early 14th century Norman power was waning and the powers of Irish chieftains had a brief recovery. Lisnagarvey or Lisburn was under the control of the O'Neills, but after Queen Elizabeth's Irish Wars and The Flight of the Earls in 1607 there arose a new power, the `New English', who arrived during the Plantation of Ulster. Lisburn, with a sizeable part of South Antrim, passed to Sir Fulk Conway by Letter Patent in 1609. It is interesting to note that the Conways' forebears were Normans who, before that, were Vikings settling in the Seine Basin. So these people's travels in some ways mirrored the footsteps of previous settlers, many of whom they were now displacing.
This period of the early 17th century saw the foundation of Lisburn as we know it today. By and large the Lagan Valley at that time was very sparsely populated, and the new settlers that Conway encouraged to come, had to clear the natural forest from the valley floor and surrounding hills. Between the years 1600 and 1641 a great change took place in the appearance of the area, which had been so thickly wooded that it was said "A man might almost make his way from McArt's Fort to Lisnagarvagh on the tops of trees". By 1640, a shortage of fuel was being experienced at local ironworks so the deforestation must have been considerable as the natural woodland gave way to a cultivated landscape.
Naturally the arrival of the new settlers caused great resentment among those already living in the area. This resulted in the rising of 1641, which for a time stopped the constructive work of Chichester (the Crown's representative) and his associates. The rising, which commenced so suddenly, spread over the greater part of Ulster and fortunate indeed were those areas which escaped destruction. Lisburn suffered greatly and Lisburn Museum has an early watercolour by Thomas Robinson showing an overview of the town from Largymore which clearly depicts a memorial to chose of the town who lost their lives in this rebellion. The war in Ireland dragged on for a period of twelve years and it was not until September 1653 that Parliament was able to declare it "appeased and ended". The whole period of the Commonwealth was one of great depression, due partly to external circumstances and partly to the state of devastation in which the country had been left by the rebellion. The letters which were written by Sir George Rawdon to Lord Conway at this time give a fair picture of the condition of the province as a whole. In a letter on 6th November 1657 Rawdon wrote "Some people who had leases are petitioning to give them up, having no money to pay the rent. You cannot think what misery is caused here by the ryalls...corn and cattle bring in nothing, any trade there is, is in butter." An additional problem of the time was a widespread cattle disease which, given the description, was possibly `foot and mouth disease'. This restricted export of Irish cattle into England, and losses of cattle in the Lisburn area were considerable.
The depression continued after the Restoration, though during the reign of Charles II conditions slowly improved. These improving economic conditions encouraged the noble Lords Hill (of Hillsborough) and Conway to devote money to improvements on their estates.
The death of Charles II in 1685 brought new troubles for the Protestant population of Ulster. The new King James II was a Roman Catholic and he was represented in Ireland by Richard Talbot, Earl of 'Tirconnell. Tirconnell made no secret of his intention to confiscate all the lands of the English settlers and so great was the alarm that many in the southern part of the country sold their property for what it would fetch and fled to England or Scotland. However Tirconnell's policy at the time did not extend to the north and the lands and estates around Lisburn remained intact.
The end of the period of unrest was at hand however, and with the advent of William III the Presbyterians and Anglicans buried their differences and joined together in support of the new King. For a time the army of King James had control of the Province (except Derry and Enniskillen) but the arrival of an army under the Duke of Schomberg in 1689 brought matters to a head. Initially Schomberg moved south and confronted the army of James at Dundalk in the Autumn of 1689, but the action ended in stalemate, largely due to the appalling weather. Casualties were high due to inadequate supplies, poor conditions and the fact that many in the armies were inexperienced troops. Schomberg retreated north and those who could march came back largely to the Lisburn area, where Schomberg made his headquarters at No. 11 Castle Street. The sick and wounded were brought back by sea from Dundalk Bay to Belfast Lough where a military hospital was set up in the Strandtown area in East Belfast.
A large portion of the army was quartered at Blaris (which incidentally had served as an army camp as far back as 1004 when Brian Boru had camped his army there) and a part of the cavalry were in the area between Sprucefield and Ravernet, known to this day as Troopersfield. Others were at Glenavy where two squadrons of the Queen's Regiment were quartered. In return for the kindness and hospitality accorded to all ranks by the warm-hearted people of the parish, the officers presented the church with a silver chalice which continues in use on special occasions until this day. The chalice bears the inscription `This plate was given to ye Church of Glenavy by the Officers of ye Queens Regiment of Horse, commanded by ye Honourable Major General Sir John Lanier, in the year 1690. In Honorem Ecclessiae Anglicanae'.
Other units were at Ballinderry, Derriaghy and Drumbo and some soldiers remains are buried in the Cathedral Churchyard and in Derriaghy churchyard. Amongst them is the Duke of Schomberg's pastry cook who died of food poisoning!
The extended billeting around Lisburn over the winter of 1689-90 and its effect on the soldiers' spiritual well-being obviously concerned their commanders because Schomberg sent to London for ministers of the Christian faith. He was sent four amongst whom was one William Doubourdieu who went on with the army for the rest of its Irish campaign but then returned to the Lisburn area where his descendants are still living.
The subsequent arrival of King William himself resulted in the relief of Ulster and in the ultimate defeat of James in 1690. King William spent a brief time in Lisburn on 19th June 1690 and dined with his senior officers in the house of William Edmondson, which stood on the site now occupied by the Northern Bank.
An interesting incident occurred during the Royal Visit involving a Lisburn Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Alex McCracken. With two others he had, some months before, been chosen to go to London with an address of welcome to His Majesty King William. The Rev. McCracken called on His Majesty during the short stay in Lisburn and was received with geniality. Later the same day the Rev. McCracken with the Rev Patrick Adair and other ministers awaited on the King at Hillsborough, who in consequence of their petition, promised to increase the amount of the Regiurn Donurn to twelve hundred pounds per annum.
Another story from this time tells of King William stopping in Lambeg at the blacksmith's forge, where the blacksmith was standing at the door with his pretty wife and two children to see the soldiers go past. However the soldiers were unsure of the road and William himself stopped to ask the blacksmith the right road. His Majesty asked his question in English with a strong French accent but to the astonishment of the company the blacksmith replied in French! The blacksmith's name was Rene Bulmer and he had fled France to escape persecution and made his new home in Lambeg. A house on Church Hill, Lambeg, is believed to be Rene Bulmers house and Rene is buried in the nearby Lambeg churchyard as are many of his descendants. The Christian name Rene is still used in the family although, through time, the surname has altered slightly from Bulmer to Boomer.
The Bulmer family were in fact one of a number of Huguenot families who had arrived in the area around the latter end of the 17th century. 'the Huguenots, who were French Protestants, had been leaving France because they were not allowed freedom of worship. From the latter part of the 16th century and all through the 17th century, families and groups of these people had been leaving France and moving to Holland, some further into Europe, others coming to England and Ireland, all seeking religious freedom.
The Huguenots in and around Lisburn were augmented by Louis Crommelin and the families brought over by him from France and Holland when the government entered into a contract with him in 1700. He was to invest 110,000 in machinery, looms and bleachworks in preparing flax and in giving instruction. In return the government would pay him interest of 8% on his outlay as well as a salary of £300 per year. The government undertook to maintain three assistants and a minister for the Huguenot colony. Crommelin established a bleachgreen at Hilden which was eventually taken over by another Huguenot family, the Delacherois. They in turn sold it to William Barbour and it is the site of the present threadworks which has been there since 1812.
The Lisburn colony was the only Huguenot colony in the north of Ireland that had a French church. It was situated on the north side of Castle Street, partly on the site of the Town Hall and partly on the site of what, until recently, was Dunnes Stores. One of its more outstanding ministers was the Rev. Saumarez Dubourdieu who was also the vicar of the Parish of Glenavy and, for fifty-six years, Master of the Classical School of Lisburn. His pupils erected a monument to him (a rare event) in 1814 which today can be found on the south side interior of Lisburn Cathedral. The congregation closed about 1820 and they, in literal terms, walked across the street and joined the Cathedral congregation where descendants still worship today. After the congregation had left the church, it served as a town prison and then as a court-house until it was demolished in the early 1880s.
Despite the investments and prosperity brought by the Huguenots, the early 1700s brought disaster and destruction when, in 1707, the town of Lisburn was accidentally burnt. The following brief account was made by the Rev. Joseph Wilkins, Rector, in the Cathedral Register:
"Memoranda on the 20th day of April 1707, the town of Lisburn, with the church and castle were consumed by an accidental fire"
The fire started on a Sunday while people were in church and before it was extinguished the town had been destroyed. A reminder of this event was recorded in a stone which was set in the wall of the premises adjoining the Assembly Rooms, (though it now resides in the Lisburn Museum) which reads:
The year above this house erected
The town was burnt ye year before
People therein may be directed
God hath judgements still in store
And that they do not him provoke
To give to them a second stroke
The builders also doth desire at expiration of his lease
The landlord living at that time may think
Upon the builders case.
The premises at that time were occupied by a Mr. Ward and were the first erected after the fire. The Museum has a watercolour showing the houses, the Assembly Rooms and Market House prior to Sir Richard Wallace's renovations in the late 1880s and this probably gives a good indication of their appearance after the rebuilding. Subsequent alterations in the 19th and 20th centuries have changed the appearance of the buildings as they were developed from dwellings to shops and further into shops and offices.
As the 18th century progressed, and in general was peaceful, trade prospered. The domestic linen industry was no longer domestic as it was exporting ever increasing amounts of its growing output. The once great Irish wool trade had diminished due to tariffs, introduced after the English wool merchants petitioned Parliament at Westminster chat the Irish trade was effectively undercutting them. As a sop to the Irish, encouragement was given to the growing of flax and the production of linen as an alternative and thus were sown the seeds of the industry which was to dominate Lisburn as it did many towns throughout Ulster.
By the middle of the 18th century a possibility that had exercised the minds of merchants and engineers was the joining of Belfast with Lough Neagh. The canalisation of the River Lagan was considered the possible answer. With the Lagan at Moira and Lough Neagh just five miles apart over reasonably level terrain, a canal link here had long been proposed. However it took the discovery and exploitation of coal deposits in east Tyrone and the construction of the Newry and Coalisland canals between 1730 and 1742 to give the necessary impetus to get the canal underway. In October 1753 the Irish House of Commons passed an Act `for making the river Lagan navigable and opening a passage by water between Lough Neagh and the Town of Belfast'.
Next was the monetary problem and, although limited funds were made available by Parliament, to raise the necessary cash, a duty on ale and spirits was levied. It was one penny a gallon on ale and four pence a gallon on spirits manufactured or sold, `within chat part of the district of Lisburn commonly known and distinguished by the gaugers walks of Belfast, Lisburn, Moira and Hillsborough'. The levy was less than enthusiastically received in some quarters and there is a story told about the distillery at Culcavey whose owners, rather than pay the levy, broke the barrels of whiskey and let them flow into the river that flows by way of `blind man's quay', alongside the Maze racecourse and into the River Lagan. Today this small river is still known locally as the `whiskey river'.
Construction of the Belfast-Lisburn section of the canal began in 1756 and work brought it up to near Sprucefield by 1763, when further construction ceased for a period due to lack of funds. In spite of this, The Belfast Newsletter of 9th September 1763 had a fine report of the first barge to use the canal;
At length in September 1763 the navigation between Lisburn and Belfast is complete. The first voyage was made by the Lord Hertford lighter of 60 tons with a cargo of coal, timber and other goods. The vessel belonged to Thomas Greg, a leading Belfast merchant, and his wife and he invited a large party to make the voyage and to dine on board. The principal gentlemen of Lisburn met the lighter at Drumbridge, a band played on board and a crowd of some thousand followed along the banks. The market square Lisburn was illuminated with lights at every window in honour of the occasion and there was a bonfire and barrels of ale provided by Mr Johnston, agent of the estate'.
The Lagan Canal had limited success, problems such as low water levels during the summer months restricting the size of cargoes. Water flows caused problems not only for the canal users but for the neighbouring landowners as maintaining the water levels in the canal slowed the run off and drainage from the adjoining land which was then subject to flooding.
The 19th century brought roads and road improvements and, with the arrival of the railways in the 1830s, the canal was facing increasing competition. The second railway in Ireland was between Belfast and Lisburn and opened in 1839. Rapid expansion to Lurgan, Portadown and beyond quickly followed. The junction out of Lisburn at Knockmore, with one line to Banbridge and Newcastle and the other to Crumlin and Antrim, opened a new world of better and speedier communications with a frequency that the canal could not match. However the Lagan Canal, despite its many handicaps, did provide a service to transporters of bulk items between Belfast and Lough Neagh which it continued to provide until 1958.
The 1798 rebellion by the United Irishmen did not have a great material effect on Lisburn though many of its citizens took part in the conflict in other areas. One such man was Henry Monroe who was to become the reluctant leader of the United Irishmen in County Down. Monroe was not a military man but a linen merchant who resided in the Market Square and worshiped in Lisburn Cathedral. He had not contemplated taking up arms against the King but had joined with the view that the excesses of the British Forces in the County Down countryside were intolerable.
Whatever his reasons, it was Monroe who led the forces of the United Irishmen at Saintfield where he defeated a British unit four days before the Battle of Ballynahinch. Monroe then moved to Ballynahinch with 7000 men where, on 13th June 1798, they joined in battle with the Crown forces under the command of General Nugent. They advanced along Dromore street in a flowing mass and Nugent, realising that he was being overwhelmed, ordered his bugler to sound retreat. The United Irishmen, unacquainted with bugle calls, mistook the call and retreated. Nugent, seeing the confusion, took advantage and routed the United Irishmen. Many were hunted down ferociously and Monroe was caught near Dromara. He was taken to Lisburn where he was hanged and beheaded and his head was set on a spike outside the Market House in view of his own home.
The 19th century saw further steady development of the town. In 1820 the new road to Hillsborough was opened with a new bridge over the River Lagan, which avoided the steep climb to the town up Bridge Street. 1837 saw the building of a dry dock in the barge basin just downstream from the Union Bridge. The dry dock was to help the users of the Lagan Navigation and, situated at a central position in the system, its building was a positive asset to the canal. The structure of the dry dock is still there although it was filled in when the road between Seymour Street and the Union Bridge was built.
Further improvements to the area were instigated by the inheriting of the South Antrim Estate by Sir Richard Wallace. The estate had been firmly in the hands of the Conway family since Sir Fulk Conway had been granted it in 1609, but by the 19th century the Hertfords did not take an active part in running the estate and indeed rarely visited Lisburn, leaving the management in the hands of an agent, although they did enjoy the considerable income the estate generated. The 4th Marquis of Hertford lived mostly in Paris and London and was not married. It is believed that Richard Wallace was his son and when the 4th Marquis died in 1870 it was to him that he left all that was not entailed, including the South Antrim Estate and property in England and France.
Richard first visited the estate with his wife in 1872 and it is recorded that the local populace erected an arch in Market Square on which snowdrops were laid out to form the words 'Cead mile failte'. Although he was also an absentee landlord, he took considerably more interest in the estate than did his predecessors. Under his ownership many improvements, both material and social, were made to the estate and he is honoured to this day in many of the place names around Lisburn.
The industry of Lisburn expanded dramatically during this period. In particular spinning and weaving increased to provide employment for the town leading to great accumulation of wealth and power by a number of 'Linen Barons'. Typical of these were the Barbour family from Paisley in Scotland who, as merchants, had been buying yarn in Ulster for shipment back to the Clyde for manufacturing. John Barbour saw the inefficiencies in this and in 1784 bought Plantation House, (which, though somewhat altered, is still there) at Ballymullan and built his first threadworks nearby. When John Barbour died in 1823 his eldest son, also John, continued the business until his death in 1831 when William (the younger son who was established at Hilden) bought the Plantation business and merged the two plants into a single operation at Hilden. In time this business was to become the largest threadworks in the world.
Robert Stewart & Son also expanded during this period. A newspaper report of 1st February 1889 stated:
"Messers Robert Stewart & Sons, linen thread manufacturers, Lisburn have just completed the erection of a splendid new mill as an addition to their business premises. When finished, the mill will cost upwards of £30,000, and will give employment to some 250 or 300 hands, in addition to the 800 already employed by the firm............ For artificial lighting the agent used is electricity, and it may be remarked that this is the first mill in Ireland which is lighted throughout in this manner ...... the sanitary arrangements are on the most approved and perfect principal with toilets on every floor."
The end of the century saw the beginning of consolidation as improvements in machinery reduced the numbers of those employed. The effects of changing world markets and ever-increasing technology could not be held back for long and, since the Second World War, there has been a vast reduction in the numbers of people employed in the spinning and weaving trades. Businesses that continue today have survived because they maintained investment in new machinery and techniques.
The changes in manufacturing technology were tremendous but the 20th century saw even greater changes in social conditions, with workers' housing and health-care now being incorporated as part of the overall picture. Today, as housing stock has been improved, Lisburn has very few examples left of the mill workers' houses built by the mill owners in the last century. It is worth remembering that although, by today's standards, the mill houses were cramped and uncomfortable, in their time they brought improvements that were unthinkable previously. Parallel improvements in transport and communication mean that today the independence of the town of Lisburn seems under threat. As Belfast spreads, and many of the people of Lisburn and District work in Belfast, it might appear that a question of identity has arisen.
However Lisburn retains its own identity. From 1660 until 1884 Lisburn had the right of electing its own Member of Parliament - an honour conferred on the town by Charles II because of its loyalty to the Crown. During all those years and ever since it has always returned men who have been in the Tory tradition. In this and in many other ways Lisburn's citizens remain distinct from the neighbouring city. When Lisburn welcomed Sir Richard and Lady Wallace in 1872 in Irish, it illustrated a tolerance in views that still holds true today.
Important Dates from Lisburn's Past
2500-2000 B.C. Construction of Giant's Ring Complex.
500 A.D. Monastic settlements established from this date.
600 Raths and forts constructed.
1004 Brian Boru and his Army at Blaris
1602 Edward Bruce, brother of Robert Bruce, at Blaris.
1609 Killutagh acquired by Sir Fulk Conway.
1622 St. Thomas' Church (Lisburn Cathedral) founded.
1624 Sir Fulk Conway died.
1627 Sir Edward Conway carried out improvements to castle.
1641 Lisburn attacked by Rebels and the battle of Lisnagarvey fought 28th November 1641.
1658 Jeremy Taylor (later Bishop) came to Lisnagarvey as chaplain to the Conway family
1662 The Church of St. Thomas became the church of Lisburn alias Lisnagarvey, known as Christ Church Cathedral.
Charter granted to Lisburn by Charles II.
1667 Bishop Jeremy Taylor died 13th August
1689 Duke of Schomberg's army stayed in Lisburn and District.
1690 King William III stopped briefly in Lisburn 19th June.
1698 Louis Crommelin came to Lisburn.
1707 Lisburn accidentally destroyed by fire 20th April.
1763 Lagan Canal between Belfast and Lisburn completed
1774 First Methodist Church
1784 Barbour's threadworks established at the Plantation.
1794 Lagan Canal to Lough Neagh completed
1798 United Irishmen Rebellion, Henry Munroe hanged in Lisburn
1801 Alexander Turney Stewart born at Lissue, went on to build world's first department store in New York.
1839 Second railway in Ireland completed between Belfast and Lisburn.
John Balance (later Prime Minister of New Zealand) born at Ballypitmave, Glenavy.
General Mulholland born.
1842 Christ Church, Hillsborough Road opened.
1857 General John Nicholson killed in Delhi.
1863 Railway Street Presbyterian Church opened.
1872 Sir Richard Wallace became new landlord of South Antrim Estate.
1885 Thompson Memorial Home opened.
1890 Sir Richard Wallace died.
1914 World War I commenced.
1916 Battle of the Somme, many Lisburn men killed.
1939 N. I. military district HQ moved to Thiepval barracks.
1972 Lisburn Borough Council created from Lisburn Borough Council, Lisburn Rural District Council, Hillsborough Rural District Council and part of Moira Rural District Council.
1994 Linen Centre opened to celebrate and display the Linen Heritage in which Lisburn played a major role.
Author Sadly now deceased
A Lisburn man born and bred, Trevor Neill has lived most of his life at his picturesque home at Magheralave. Now retired from the civil service where he worked for the Department of Agriculture, Trevor is now able to devote considerable time to local history which has long been his great interest. He is currently a member of the Living Linen Project which is gathering an oral history of the senior management in the 20th century Irish linen industry. He also takes an active interest in Lisburn Historical Society in which he currently holds the post of Hon. Treasurer and he has been a regular contributor of local history articles to the society's journal.