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The city of Belfast in Northern Ireland looked very different when it was a thriving industrial city in the 18th century. A large river flowed through the heart of the city flanked by mills and factories that produced the finest linen in the world. But then the river was bricked up and it disappeared forever underneath the city. Now many Belfast residents look incredulous when they are told that there is a river flowing under their feet.

When Belfast was founded, it was little more than a village located at the confluence of two rivers—Farset and Lagan. There was a narrow sandbar here that provided a natural crossing over River Farset when the tide was low. This area would later develop into the intersection of High Street and Victoria Street. A little over two hundred meters to the east, the Farset emptied into the Lagan. The settlement’s original Irish name Béal Feirste alludes to this sandbar; it means “the sandbar across the river’s mouth”.

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River Lagan in Belfast. Photo credit: William Murphy/Flickr

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