Book Review – Francis Higgins, Religion, Riots and Rebels, The Incredible History of Brown’s Square Belfast (Belfast: Belfast Lad, 2020)

Francis Higgins’ book, Religion, Riots and Rebels, examines the social and economic history of Brown Square and its residents from its establishment in the late eighteenth century to the present day.

Today, this area is located in the centre of Belfast. It stands west of the City’s Cathedral quarter, its cultural and tourist hub, and east of the Westlink, the orbital dual carriage underpass that carries motor traffic through the city.

Brown Square was originally named after John Brown. He was a property speculator from a wealthy Belfast merchant family who became a leading citizen in the Belfast Corporation (or town council), serving as Sovereign of Belfast and a Burgess (today these would be serving as Lord Mayor and a councillor respectively).[1]

Brown was granted a plot of land by the Corporation and it bore his name, becoming Brown Square. The area first appears on a map of Belfast in 1791. Then it was then located on the western periphery of the town.[2]

At the beginning of the 19th century, the area became settled by Protestant immigrants moving into Belfast to work in its expanding industries, mainly centred around the textile trade.

At the same time, Catholic workers were also migrating to Belfast and moved into houses to the south and west of Brown Square in an area known as the ‘Pound Burn’ or ‘Pound’.

These settlements established a pattern of segregated communities that were based on tribal affiliations to different religions, national identities and cultural traditions. These differences are maintained amongst some people in both communities to this day. [3]

In simple terms, the differences can be described as follows. In the Brown Street area, lived Protestants, who were predominantly Anglican or Presbyterian, and were, for the most part, supporters of the 1800 Act of Union with Great Britain.[4]

Their neighbours in the Pound were predominantly Catholic and many would have identified as culturally ‘Irish’, some may have spoken Gaelic (Irish) and many would have supported nationalist politics either seeking devolved government for Ireland or independence.

As the 19th century progressed, Belfast saw massive industrialisation and urbanisation westward. By the mid-century, these communities lived in close proximity tightly packed into rows of terrace housing separated by a few minutes walk. Brown Square became what is called today an ‘interface area’ and was a flashpoint for inter-community violence.

The first sectarian incident is reported in 1813 when there was a riot.[5] Throughout the 19th century, violence between these communities was common, for example, serious riots were reported in 1864 and 1886.[6]

Higgins points out that ‘sectarian hatred was handed down through the generations as sectarianism was socialised and ‘history’ was politicised’.[7]

The riots could lead to widespread death and injury. For instance, during the 1921 riots, 52 residents from the Brown Square area were killed.[8]

The other characteristic of the area was considerable poverty. The area was dominated by working-class families who lived in cramp and poor housing. In the interwar period, the economic slumps of the 1920s and 1930s caused widespread unemployment.[9] Despite the poor social and economic conditions, the community was close-knit and supportive, drawn together by a shared identity, mutual support and the fact they faced a common ‘enemy’ that lived close to them.

The area and community ceased to exist in its historical form because of urban planning and regeneration in the late 20th century. A new orbital underpass, the Westlink, was built in the 1970s that knocked down much of the housing and disrupted the old community relations. The majority of local residents were resettled outside the ‘Street’ and the neighbourhood has subsequently become an area of  ‘gentrification’ that further displaced the original inhabitants. However, some old residents do remain including Higgins.

The book is well worth a read for anyone interested in the local history and experience of working-class communities in Belfast. However, there are a couple of challenges. One of the major problems is defining what is meant by Brown Square. The book does not make it clear whether Brown Square is the name the community called itself or was the official designation of a parish or ward.

Neither is there any clear attempt to provide the reader with a map or idea of the geographical limits of the area. Higgins defines the area in 1900 as being 28 streets and 620 households but there is no map of what this means. [10]  Streets are often mentioned, for example, Letitia Street, which has been impossible to locate, even using the historic maps at PRONI. This makes reading the book hard times as it is difficult to gauge the size and extent of the area. This problem is compounded as the urban redevelopment in the 1970s completely changed its layout and destroyed many of the historic streets.

Though maps do exist in the book, they are often very dark and difficult to read. 

Nevertheless, despite these minor issues, this is an excellent micro-history of a single community and how it changed over time. Though the author admitted he had to ‘skim over’ much of its history given the lack of space, it is interesting to get a community perspective from someone who has lived in the area and seen it change so much over the last half-century.[11]



[1] Francis Higgins, Religion, Riots and Rebels, The Incredible History of Brown’s Square Belfast (Belfast  Belfast Lad, 2020), pp.10-11.

[2] Ibid., p.14.

[3] Ibid., p.14.

[4] Ibid., p.108.

[5] Ibid., p.26.

[6] Ibid., pp.31-33.

[7] Ibid., p.31.

[8] Ibid., p.148.

[9] Ibid., pp.64-73.

[10] Ibid., p.34.

[11] Ibid., p.150.