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Bite-sized history

The Little Book of Belfast takes you from the Iron Age to the present day with facts and stories on trade, landmarks, place names, famous residents and even a tale of how the Romans nearly came calling. Brian Campbell talks to authors Raymond O'Regan and Arthur Magee

THERE'S probably a lot you don't know about Belfast - such as Sting once working in a bar in the city, the actor Errol Flynn going to school at Inst and the city's smallest house (on Great Victoria Street) being just three metres wide.

All these facts are included in a new book - The Little Book of Belfast - that takes in trade and industry, crime and punishment, music, literature and sport, architectural heritage and the city's famous men and women. Written by Raymond O'Regan and Arthur Magee, the book gives a fascinating snapshot of the city.

It goes back to 2,700 BC and the Giant's Ring on the outskirts of the city, while it's particularly interesting to read that the Romans considered conquering Ireland in AD 82 when Cnaeus Julius Agricola planned to cross over from Stranraer. "The Romans were making their way up Britain and got to Stranraer and they had thoughts about invading Ireland but never bothered. It never happened for whatever reason," says O'Regan, a lecturer at Queen's University and author of Hidden Belfast.

The book informs us that the Ormeau Road is named after the French word for "little elms", that Royal Avenue was previously called Hercules Street (named after former mayor of Belfast Hercules Langford) and that Chaim Herzog - president of Israel in the 1980s - was born in Belfast.

The book was officially launched last week in the Rosemary Street First Presbyterian Church - Belfast's oldest surviving place of worship within the old town boundary.

The original church was founded in 1695 and the current building was finished in 1783. John Wesley preached there in 1789 and called it "the completest place of worship I have ever seen", while Dr William Drennan - of the United Irishmen - was born in the manse of the church in 1754. "Rosemary Street originally had three [Presbyterian] churches," says O'Regan. "Then a Masonic hall was built on site of the third church, which had been Henry Joy McCracken's family church."

The author says many people don't know the history of Belfast's castles. "The only castle people think of now is Belfast Castle, which dates back to 1870. But there have been castles in the centre of Belfast - roughly where the British Home Stores shop is - since 1170. There was a motte and bailey and then a Norman castle and then a more armoured one."

The book records that the oldest pub in Belfast is McHugh's, while the oldest bridge is the Connswater Bridge (dating back to the early 1600s).

The first fever hospital in Ireland opened in Factory Row (now Berry Street) in Belfast in 1794, while Academy Street - beside St Anne's Cathedral - was named after the first incarnation of the Belfast Royal Academy, now in north Belfast.

Lilliput Street was named in honour of Jonathan Swift and his classic Gulliver's Travels while the city name - as many will know - is taken from the Irish 'Beal Feirste' (translated here as the approach to the sandbank or ford), which can be traced back to AD 667.

The book features a host of line drawings of key sights and recalls a time when the city's key trades included tanneries,

sugar refineries, potteries, glassworks and distilleries.

The film and television section goes back to Odd Man Out and right up to the stars of today, including actor Jamie Dornan.

Other interesting facts are that Irish physicist and 'atomsmashing' Nobel laureate Ernest Walton was born in Belfast and went to Methodist College on the Malone Road; Maxim Litvinov - Stalin's foreign minister - taught in Belfast; and women could attend Queen's University in the 1880s, long before they could attend Oxford or Cambridge.

And The Crown Bar was built, believe it or not, to cater for the opening of the Belfast to Lisburn rail link in 1839. O'Regan says The Little Book of Belfast should appeal to a wide audience. "It's history in small chunks. My last book, Hidden Belfast, had 64 chapters and this has nine chapters. I think it's universal and it's a book for everyone, not just people in Belfast."

Co-author Arthur Magee is happy with how the book turned out. "Belfast sometimes has a negative reputation but it's such a vibrant city and we wanted to reflect this," he says. "The difficulty was the sheer amount of information. It's almost impossible to write a little book about this city but we gave it a good go."

* The Little Book of Belfast is out now, published by The History Press (£9.99).

PICTURE: Bill Smyth

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