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Streets apart: contrasting views of Belfast's Holylands

Belfast's Holylands district was back in the news this week as thousands of drunken revellers effectively held residents hostage in their own homes. We asked two writers who have lived in the university quarter for their impressions of life there — with markedly contrasting results

Published 19/03/2016

Teenage rampage: Belfast’s Holylands area on St Patrick’s Day
Teenage rampage: Belfast’s Holylands area on St Patrick’s Day
Teenage rampage: Belfast’s Holylands area on St Patrick’s Day
Teenage rampage: Belfast’s Holylands area on St Patrick’s Day
The clean-up operation begins yesterday
Community church: Fitzroy Presbyterian
Showing the way: the City Church

Belfast's Holylands district was back in the news this week as thousands of drunken revellers effectively held residents hostage in their own homes. We asked two writers who have lived in the university quarter for their impressions of life there — with markedly contrasting results.

Liam Kennedy: It is late evening on St Patrick’s Day as I walk from my home on Rugby Road to my office at Queen’s University. In the university car park I count nine police Land Rovers. The Holylands, that great monocultural student ghetto, is preparing for a night of Bacchanalian excess. Some of the signs of drunkenness and vandalism are visible on the streets and pavements. The area is heaving with the expectation of trouble to come.

Yet there are other perspectives that are obscured by the focus on one day that mocks the legacy of St Patrick. Viewed historically, the Holylands and nearby streets were home to generations of families who lived and worked either locally, or in the bakeries, offices and factories of industrial Belfast.

The area, though predominantly Protestant at one time, seems to have been religiously mixed until relatively recently. The 1911 census of Ireland shows, for instance, that a Mary Connor, dressmaker, Roman Catholic and unmarried, lived at 81 Palestine Street.

She was originally from Co Londonderry — ‘Co Derry’ on the census form — indicating the role of migrants in the making of Victorian and Edwardian Belfast. Her niece, Martha, another dressmaker, had also migrated from the west of the province.

At 19 Palestine Street we find a James Montgomery, Unitarian, dock labourer, originally from Co Down, married with two children, though only one was still alive on the night of the census, Sunday, April 2, 1911.

What is striking, in addition to the role of in-migrants, is the small size of the households, by comparison with the high-density, multiple-occupancy households that now crowd the Holylands. For most of its history, this has not been a “student area”. Its small, terraced streets hosted a once vibrant working-class community. It is a classic product of the industrial revolution.

Today, it is a classic product of poor municipal planning, rent-maximising landlords and a Troubles’ legacy that invisibly produces sectarian segregation. But that is not all, by any means.

Cultural diversity has been on the rise in recent years. This week, at the annual play performed by the pupils of Botanic Primary School, the principal, Paul Bell, noted proudly that the school now caters for 26 different ethnic groups.

The figure may well be 27, as our son who attends is Catalan (and Irish and British) and my wife threatens that Catalonia will soon be independent.

You are likely to hear not only English at the gates of this outstanding school, but Polish, Romanian and various Asian and African languages.

If you want An Gaeilge (Irish), in a non-weaponised form, you may find it at the nearby Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, which has a regular service in what is one of the older languages of Ireland.

This architectural gem ('theology in stone', to quote the great ecumenist and minister for many years, the Rev Ken Newell) has been extensively renovated and now boasts a community cafe.

There are other signs of hope and change. The Common Grounds cafe on University Avenue is a Fairtrade, community coffee shop noted not only for its good food, but also for good conversation, a touch of Bohemian intellectualism and its immigrant-friendly embrace.

The City Church, of which it is a part, was to the forefront in offering accommodation to Romanians who had been threatened by loyalist teenage thugs some years ago.

One street away, a group of residents has transformed a neglected alleyway into the colourful Wildflower Alley, with paintings, plants and flowers. This riot of colour, a veritable urban garden, is more reminiscent of Berlin, or Amsterdam, than of post-industrial, post-Troubles Belfast, and is an imaginative response to social disorder and environmental neglect.

No less remarkable is the popularity of the area for film-makers.

My own house on Rugby Road, where I've lived for some 30 years, was the location for interior and exterior scenes for the Channel 4 film Mo. It starred Julie Walters as Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during the crucial phase leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Not many people can say the incomparable Julie Walters sat on their sofa and even slept in their bed.

Other film sets include Good Vibrations, built around the life story of the irrepressible Terri Hooley, and the psychological thriller series The Fall.

One of Belfast's great playwrights, Stewart Parker, lived at 10 Rugby Road and there is still a sprinkling of artists, academics and writers drawn to this unique location in south Belfast.

Among these, I have to mention Barbara Freeman, artist and filmmaker, and Norma Greer, whose guerrilla art, unexpectedly and challengingly, finds expression on lamp posts along the street.

It is simply the case that the Holylands is blessed with an almost ideal location. It is sited on the doorstep of Queen's University; indeed, the magnificent new McClay Library juts out towards it.

Botanic Park, the Palm House, the Lagan embankment, the Ulster Museum and the Queen's sports centre are all only a stone's throw away. Up the road is the Lyric Theatre.

The Holylands is an evolving story. With careful management and fresh thinking, the tide may yet turn in the direction of a more balanced, family-oriented and multi-cultural future.

The area needs to be able to breathe again.

Professor Liam Kennedy is the author of Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Merrion Press)

Suzanne Breen: I left the Holylands when I was pregnant with my first child. I didn't want to go. I loved my home, but I was worried that, with the stresses and strains of living there, and the endless sleepless nights, I'd lose my baby.

The area hit the headlines with scenes of appalling behaviour on St Patrick's Day. But don't be fooled into thinking that was a one-off. During term-time, the lives of residents are absolute hell. It's just that camera crews and photographers aren't there to capture it.

Many students are drunk every night of the week. Partying continues to 4am. Football, or hurling, played on the streets isn't uncommon at that hour. The noise reaches nightclub levels. The vandalism to cars and residents' homes can be extensive.

Gerard Morgan was the secretary of the local residents' group. He was killed in a work accident in 2008. A group of students drank, yelled, and urinated in the street as his coffin was carried in to his home.

They paid no heed to requests that they act respectfully. The morning of the funeral, police had to sit outside the family's door to ensure the coffin could leave with dignity.

Mary McKillop was another resident sent to hell and back. Her front door was permanently dented from students trying to kick it in, either maliciously, or drunkenly in search of a party.

Once, she was assaulted when she asked her neighbours to stop partying at 3am. She was knocked unconscious and taken to hospital. The last time I spoke to her, she was on medication, as are many residents.

Another local woman, Joanne Fields, fled after students smashed her windows and stole her pram.

In one incident, a drunken student forced his way into her home, walked upstairs, and climbed into her daughter's bed.

She phoned 999 and the police came and took him away. When she phoned to see if he had been charged, she was told "usually this sort of thing doesn't happen again".

In my experience, ringing the PSNI was a pointless exercise.

When my daughter was six weeks old, I brought her back to the Holylands to visit my old neighbours. It was a beautiful spring day and the students had dragged sofas and speakers into their front gardens to party.

Using a huge catapult, somebody fired a water bomb at us. It splashed the pram and there was cheering as my baby screamed.

I phoned the police, but, after an hour waiting for them to arrive, gave up.

Known as the Holylands because of its biblical street names, this was once one of the city's loveliest districts. Its diverse social and religious mix had a Bohemian feel - even during the conflict. It was unique by Belfast standards - in one street, an ex-UDR man lived doors from a former republican prisoner.

Until the late-1990s, there was a healthy mix of long-term residents and students. But as Queen's and the University of Ulster expanded massively, so did the local student population.

Before then, students, of course, had parties, but not every night. They just didn't have the money to drink like that. And a knock on the door, with a "lads, keep the music down", sorted out any problem.

But, as student behaviour now started to spiral out of control, most residents were forced to move out. Had the paramilitaries been responsible for driving so many from their homes, there'd have been a song and dance about it.

But the culprits were - and are - overwhelmingly middle-class Catholic students. And the PSNI - keen not to irritate that generation, or their parents - treat them with kid gloves.

Only a tiny fraction of offending students face disciplinary hearings by the universities. It's all just a PR exercise, so they're seen to be doing something.

Verbal, or written, warnings and fines, which cost no more than a night out, are ineffective. Expulsion is the only threat students would take seriously, and the universities won't do that.

There are fewer than 100 residents left now - those too stubborn, or too old, to move, or those in housing association properties who can't secure a transfer to another area.

I visited the Holylands on Thursday with my daughter, who is now seven. It was like an open-air zoo. There were thousands drunk on the streets - blocking roads, hanging out of windows jeering, or dancing on cars. It would be absolutely impossible to raise a child there.

Remaining residents were trapped inside their homes, or had fled for the night. Once, people in the nearby Lower Ormeau were put under curfew to allow Orange marches to pass. Now, in the Holylands, pensioners are imprisoned in their homes by a drunken mob waving Tricolours.

It is disgraceful that the PSNI allowed such disorder to develop. I'm blaming the top brass in headquarters - not the unfortunate officers on the ground. The policy is all carrot and no stick.

I'd have used the water cannon - with green dye if that made it more palatable - to clear the streets.

The PSNI will have enough footage from their mobile CCTV to prosecute thousands for public disorder offences. But I expect no more than a token few to be brought before the courts.

Then, these drunk and disorderly middle-class yobs will be allowed to get on with it.

Belfast Telegraph

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