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
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.
BELFAST IN THE 19TH CENTURY <READ MORE>
THE MONASTERY- 1900 <READ MORE>
CHURCH OF THE MOST HOLY REDEEMER- 1911<READ MORE>