Belfast (bĕlfăstˈ) [key], Gaelic Béal Feirste, city (1991 pop. 297,000), capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast dist. It is on Belfast Lough, an inlet of the North Channel of the Irish Sea, and at the mouth of the Lagan River. The harbor, 8.5 mi (13.7 km) long, is navigable to the largest ships. The great shipyards of Belfast have built some of the world's largest ocean liners. The city is also the center of the Irish linen industry; other industries include tobacco and food processing, packaging, and the manufacture of rayon, aircraft, tools and machinery, clothing, carpets, and rope. Agricultural and livestock products are the chief exports. Queen's Univ. (founded 1845) and Victoria College (founded 1859), one of the oldest women's grammar schools in the British Isles, are among the educational institutions there. The Protestant Cathedral of St. Anne, the Waterfront concert hall, and the Odyssey Center, housing a sports arena and a science museum, are notable. The Parliament House of Northern Ireland is at Stormont, a suburb.
Belfast was founded in 1177 when a castle in defense of a ford over the Lagan was built, but the present city is a product of the Industrial Revolution. French Huguenots, coming there after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), stimulated the growth of the town's linen industry. Serious rioting between Catholics and Protestants, who live in distinct sections of the city, has scarred Belfast many times since the 19th cent.; sectarian terrorist violence was a significant problem in the late 20th cent. The city and the surrounding country were subjected to heavy air raids in 1941. Belfast suffers from high unemployment, and its population has decreased markedly due to the violence and the planned economic development of outlying areas.