Ireland & Poland

19th Century Belfast and Lida 

Mary’s Ireland focuses on 19th Century Belfast, Ireland and Lida, Russia.

For centuries under the control of Britain, Belfast in Ireland’s northeast escaped the violence of the Irish rebellion of 1897 and entered the nineteenth century with a population of 20,000. There was significant community support and endeavour including a strong sense of caring for the poor and sick.  In the late 18th century, industry came to Belfast, especially in the form of linen mills. This flourished in the 19th century with Belfast becoming a world leader in linen production. Cotton mills, rope making, iron foundries, distilleries, tanneries, breweries, major ship building, and tobacco and engineering works rapidly expanded around the River Lagan. Belfast soon became Ireland’s premier industrial city.

Knocking off at Harland & Wolff Belfast. Building of Titanic in the background
Knocking off at Harland & Wolff Belfast. Building of Titanic in the background

With industrialisation came increased population and poverty for many. Work became available through industry especially shipping with ‘Harland and Wolff, of Titanic fame, becoming one of the world’s leading ship builders. Poor rural workers however left their homes in wider Ulster and Ireland’s west to seek work and housing in Belfast. This particularly was the case during the politically and environmentally driven famines of 1845 to 1849. These are often described as the potato famines with potatoes being the only viable crop on the small allotments until a potato blight ruined this almost sole source of food. Some one million Irish perished through starvation and rampant diseases such ascholera, dysentery and ‘the fever’, usually what is now termed typhus. Another one million emmigrated around the world but mostly to England and America. Cholera killed many survivors of the famine during the early 1850s. Some 100,000 Irish had died from typhus prior to the famines.

The rapid growth in Belfast’s population brought social complexities. Despite the industrial growth, there was simply insufficient work especially for women and children. Wages for the unskilled were very low whilst those people in skilled or management roles attained a reasonably sound income. Few people complained about low wages and poor work conditions, as there was always an availability of willing workers. Over-population and poverty led to poor living standards. Housing of the poor, much of which was built in the last century, was decrepit and overcrowded. Sanitation was often non-existent or relied potatofamineon a few communal toileting facilities. Diet was again limited, reliant on bread, tea and stock vegetables. Communal diseases and ailments were common and often deadly.

Along with poverty, the influx of people from Ulster and the west brought sectarian rivalry between Protestants and Catholics, the latter being in the minority in the north of Ireland. Poverty, land ownership, work and religious bigotry mixed with a general distrust and hatred of the Irish by many English people, including many in Parliament, led to violence. Rioting became commonplace with deadly battles occurring between Catholic and Protestant groups and the Royal Irish Constabulary. Often lasting for days with death and destruction commonplace, infamous riots include those of 1829, 1857, 1872 and 1886. The sectarian riots were also a basis for violent protests against English occupation, desires for Home Rule and Irish independence, countered by the majority of northern Irish who wanted to maintain the union with Britain.

With its poverty and disruptions, people continued to immigrate from Belfast and Ireland generally. Despite this steady immigration and its societal problems, Belfast had become the industrial centre of Ireland and its largest city by the end of the 19th Century with over 250,000 residents.



Although originally a town in Lithuania and then in Poland, Lida in the nineteenth century was a town within Imperial Russia, which had joined with Austria and Prussia in the occupation and partitioning of Poland in 1772. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Lida had a population of about 800 including about 600 Jews. The town was largely destroyed and many inhabitants killed during the Napoleonic wars and French occupation of 1812.

Industry was slow to come to Lida and its environs being limited to a few mills, breweries, tanneries and iron works. Rural industries were dominant…dairy, grain, cattle, sheep and horses. The town was centered around a large market square, which was bordered by timbered housing, taverns and the Jewish sector. Weekly markets saw the district gather for the trade of rural products and craft and social interaction in the many taverns.

Russia had had varying reactions to Jews but largely throughout the 19th century, it was one of repression and aggression. Russia chose to restrict places where Jews could live within the Empire to the west, largely Poland. Termed the Pale of Settlement, Lida fell into the Pale and thus contained an area for Jews, which was at the end of the market square in and around the synagogue, and commonly became termed the ‘butcher’s synagogue’ because of its proximity to the Jewish butcher on the edge of the square.

In Poland relationships between Jews and non-Jews, most of whom were Roman Catholic, were for many years positive. The ruling princes and eventually the Russian nobles valued the skills and entrepreneurship of Jews who brought wealth to the community. This was despite the negative directives from Rome about Jews. Nevertheless, Imperial Russia continued to repress the Jews. After the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander ll and despite the non-Jew assassins being hung, Jews were violently harassed in a series of progroms and harsh restrictions, especially concerning land ownership, work opportunities, taxes and compulsory military service. This furthered the dislike many Russians had for Jews and was increasingly becoming a common reaction of many Poles and Europeans alike. Lida was no exception.

Whilst Tsar Nicholas II had abolished serfdom and feudalism in the Russian Empire in 1861, it was not until 1865 that this came into effect in Lida and other parts of western Imperial Russian. In order to control Polish nationalism however many additional restrictions and redemption payments were placed on the western peasants. Poland and Lithuania were strongly Roman Catholic but under Russian control, Catholicism was restricted and eventually banned during the nineteenth century. Catholic churches were sold off or destroyed, priests and nuns were killed, moved off to Siberia or forced to become Orthodox. Whilst these moves were underpinned by the Russian aristocracy’s hatred of Catholics, it was in reality an attempt by the Tsar, especially Alexander III, to stop Polish nationalism. Whilst Poles often acquiesced to the Tsar’s orders they did at times revolt, taking their protests to the streets. Two protracted and violent wars occurred in 1830-31 and 1863-64. Both rebellions were ruthlessly put down by Russia.

Alexandra and Nicholas II
Alexandra and Nicholas II

Lida along with much of the Russian Empire suffered many diseases and epidemics during the nineteenth century, with many of these related to issues of poor nourishment and poor hygiene. Napoleon’s army spread typhus through the town early in the century. Lida was part of the 1820-21 Russian famine, followed by a cholera epidemic in 1829-31. Following years of famine in the 1830s, a vicious cholera epidemic in 1848 lashed Europe causing some three million deaths in the Russian Empire. The 1860s saw a series of cholera outbreaks in Russia with the decade finishing with a severe famine in its western regions. Lida did not escape the 1889-90 influenza epidemic, which caused the highest death toll of any 19th century disease.

Russia suppressed much of the Polish language, culture, education and religion in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a key factor in the slow development of Lida. The railway eventually reached the town in 1884 beginning a slow opening of the town. Unfortunately, a large fire in 1891 rampaged through the town destroying many of the wooden buildings especially around the market. The town, including the synagogue had to be rebuilt, this time from brick. By the end of the century, the town’s population was 8,600.

In 2016, Belfast is a city in Great Britain and Northern Ireland with a population of nearly 350,000. With a population of just over 100,000, Lida is a city in Belarus.