Cathedral Church

Clonard in Print

100 years of Clonard

Using the Clonard Redemptorists' own archival material, the book outlines the story of the Order's first one hundred years in West Belfast.

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Belfast at the end of the nineteenth century was a major industrial city.
During the century it had expanded in a remarkable way, the population increasing from 22,000 in 1806 to nearly 340,000 ninety years later.

In 1896 boundary changes doubled the area of the city. Its rapid growth was due chiefly to the development of shipbuilding, engineering and linen-manufacturing. This led to an ever-increasing demand for labour. Migrants poured in from rural Ulster.



Since the mill-workers were so numerous in the early Clonard congregations they deserve special mention.

The mill workers

The mill-workers lived under the shadow of the mills where they worked. To house them row after row of small houses were built. Female and child labour predominated.


A typical working day was from 6.30 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. on Monday to Friday with a break for breakfast at 8.00 a. m. and another for a midday meal at 1.0 p.m. On Saturday the machines stopped at 12 noon. For this a woman might earn 8/-.

Children, mostly girls, worked for the same hours. An Act of Parliament of 1891 made eleven the minimum age for working in the mills. This was raised to twelve by a subsequent act of 1901. But the children did not work a full week. By an Act of 1874 they worked three days one week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and went to school on Tuesday and Thursday. The following week it was the reverse. These children were called 'half-timers' and remained so until they were fourteen. An old lady who was a 'half-timer' during the years 1904 – 1907 said that she earned ¾ 1/2 'the long week' and 2/11 1/2 'the short week'.


The standard of living of the mill-workers was very low, even by contemporary standards. Their diet was deficient. Disease was rampant, helped by poor sanitary conditions.


In 1897 there was an outbreak of typhoid which affected 27,000 people. Contributing to the general ill-health were the long hours of working with cheap Russian flax, clouds of dust from which affected the respiratory organs. Bronchial illness was common and the death-rate from tuberculosis was high. The greater number of these workers died before the age of forty-five. Children generally were badly developed and small.


The rapid growth of industrial Belfast in the nineteenth century led to a large increase in the catholic population which rose from 4,000 in 1812 to about 100,000 at the end of the century. This expansion alarmed Protestants and the tolerant attitude to Catholics that had characterised their attitude at the beginning of the century turned to mistrust. From 1850 on a growing hostility and intolerance became evident, and a series of city riots enforced a pattern of segregation along political and sectarian lines. This division of Catholic and Protestant in the working class districts became a distinctive feature of social life that will probably long be with us.


Social status of Catholics


The majority of Belfast Catholics belonged to the lower income group. The men were generally employed as unskilled hands in foundries, chemical works and the shipyards and as navvies and general labourers. Women and children worked in the textile mills.


All forms of employment were alike in so far as they offered a mere subsistence BARNEY HUGHES

wage for oppressively long hours of labour. There was however a small section of the Catholic body that prospered; these were men of business and trade. Some of them were generous benefactors of the church, families like the Hamills of Trench House and the Caffreys of brewery fame; also Bernard Hughes, a baker and flour merchant.


Churches and schools


The steady increase of the Catholic population created an urgent need for more and more schools and churches. New churches were built in rapid succession right through the century. Schools were erected to provide elementary education. And how they were needed! The census of 1861 revealed that 30.2% of Belfast Catholics were illiterate, compared with 10.6% of Protestants. By 1896 the situation was little better.


Invitation to the Redemptorists


The sons of Alphonsus were introduced to the Catholics of Belfast by their parochial missions. Their first mission was given in St. Mary's in 1872. After it one of the priests of the parish, Father Edward O'Laverty, joined the Redemptorist Congregation. He became a popular mission preacher in England and Ireland. In subsequent years missions were preached in other city churches. It was during a general mission in 1896 conducted by Passionists and Redemptorists that the latter established themselves permanently in the city. They were invited to do so by the new Bishop of the diocese Henry Henry. The dense Catholic population of West Belfast claimed his attention. He believed that a religious congregation of priests could give invaluable help to the local clergy. His appreciation of the mission work of the Sons of Alphonsus with his personal acquaintance with some of the Fathers led him to invite them to Belfast. For their part they welcomed the invitation as they were then looking for a foundation in the North of Ireland. The problem was to get a suitable site.


After considering several possible ones the final choice was a fine residence in the Springfield area of the city called variously Kennedy House, Clonard House and Clonard Lodge.