Brian M. Walker’s book is an excellent chronological institutional history of St George’s church located on High Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was written to mark the church’s 200th anniversary in 2016.

The book starts by considering the previous structures which stood on the site before St George’s was constructed in the early 19th century. Some type of Christian building is believed to have stood on the site for hundreds of years. The site was the crossing point of the Farset river and close to the crossing point of the Lagan river. It, therefore, was a strategic site being close to the points of access for people moving north and south and east and west between modern-day County Down and County Antrim.

The modern-day River Farset is buried beneath the High Street upon which St Georges stands today. However, the location gives Belfast its modern-day name as the location in Gaelic translates as ‘Beal Feirste’ that roughly translates to the ‘mouth of the sandy ford [of the Farset]’.

In 1306, a papal tax record identifies that there was a Chapel-by-the-Ford already in operation and it is probable that a structure may have existed many years before.[1]

The next structure reported on the site was the Corporation Church. This building was established after Belfast became a corporation (or town) through being granted a charter by King James I in 1613. 

During the 17th century attendance at the church for Sunday worship was compulsory for all people living in Belfast, regardless of whether they were Catholic, Anglican or dissenter.[2] The church hosted King William III in 1690 when he attended a church service during his campaign against King James II which resulted in the Battle of the Boyne. The church contains a famous chair which it is believed King Billy sat in during the service.[3]

By the late 18th century, the Corporation Church was in a state of disrepair and it was decided to replace it with a new structure.[4] This structure is the current church of St George, named in honour of the then King, George III.[5]

The church was built in the classical style with its façade of pillars used for the portico being obtained from the home of the Bishop of Derry, The Earl of Bristol, who had died.[6]

Belfast during the 18th century had been a city of a reasonable amount of religious toleration and acceptance. Members of the First Presbyterian church and protestants in Belfast had made contributions to the construction of the Catholic church of St Mary’s in 1784.[7] This spirit continued into the early nineteenth century. In 1816, the Second Presbyterian Church granted the congregation of St George’s the use of their church for services while the new church was being built.[8] However, by mid-century, religious intolerance was on the rise.

In 1835, Rev William. J. Macilwaine became curate of St George’s. He was known as a controversialist and held strong opinions against Roman Catholicism.[9] He was of the ‘low church’ evangelical tradition of the Anglican church, opposing the Oxford movement of Anglican Church that wanted to return to pre-reformation modes of worship.[10]

In 1857, he preached outdoors and held sessions outside the Customs House.[11] During that year, Belfast experienced serious riots and the official inquiry afterwards argued that Macilwaine’s participation in the outdoor lectures had contributed to the heightened tension in community relations that led to the riots.[12]

Macilwaine continued on as curate at St George’s until 1880. By this time he had completed the slow transition from a low churchman towards a high church position and was much more tolerant of Roman Catholicism.[13] From this date onwards, St George’s had a reputation as being a ‘high’ church. It tolerated “ritualism” where other protestant churches did not.

The association St George’s had with this “ritualism” caused violent controversy in the 1890s. St Clement’s, a Church of Ireland church in East Belfast, was run by Rev. William Peoples who was a ‘mildly high church’. Services at St Clement’s were subject to protests and interruptions by radical Presbyterians and members of the Protestant Association. The management and curate of St Georges supported Peoples and his stance St Clement’s but he provoked protests and a mob outside St George’s. The then curate of St George’s, Hugh Murphy and colleagues were mobbed and assaulted on their way to the tram.[14] Murphy drafted church members who were athletes to provide security from potential attacks. St George’s continued to be attacked for its “ritualism” well into the 1950s.[15] However, these controversies did not prevent it from remaining of high church orientation and to this day it maintains a strong music tradition.[16]

In the 20th century, the greatest threat to St Georges came from bomb and bullet. During the Second World War, it suffered significant bomb damage during the Luftwaffe raids in 1941 which destroyed the church hall and school.[17]

During the troubles, it also sustained significant damage, in 1973 alone it was damaged by no less than nine bombs. [18] As a consequence of the troubles and its city centre location, church attendance declined.[19]

However, since the 1980s it recovered and maintains a vibrant congregation and religious community to this day.

This is a solid and informative account history. It is well illustrated and has excellent pictures. The narrative provides useful context as background and contact.

[1] Brian M. Walker, A History of St George’s Church (Belfast: Ulster History Foundation, 2016), p.6.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] Ibid.,p.9.

[4] Ibid., p.18.

[5] Ibid., p.31.

[6] Ibid., 29-31.

[7] Jonathan Bardon, Belfast, An Illustrated History (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1982), p.50.

[8] Brian M. Walker, A History of St George’s Church (Belfast: Ulster History Foundation, 2016), p.33

[9] Ibid., p.47.

[10] Ibid., p.54.

[11] Ibid., pp.57-59.

[12] Ibid., p.60.

[13] Ibid., pp.45, 49.

[14] Ibid., pp.83-85.

[15] Ibid., p.145.

[16] Ibid., pp.146, 169-175.

[17] Ibid., p.118.

[18] Ibid., p.139.

[19] Ibid., p.157.