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Holyland Belfast: Generally harmless teenage kicks in area forever altered

By Malachi O'Doherty

I used to love the Holyland and spent a lot of time there among friends. It wasn't a crime-free paradise. I recall helping an in-law clean up after a burglary. But it was a mixed and friendly community.

There were working class people who rented or owned houses, who probably thought it was changing already as young professionals attached to the university and young arty types and single mothers moved in.

It was an area in which you saw people of all ages; children at play. There was the Botanic Gardens beside it, to compensate for the limited play space, and it was only a walk to the best shops.

The atrocity is that this community moved out as grant money flowed towards property developers reshaping the houses for the growing student population.

Yesterday afternoon you might have walked through the area and felt reassured by the general gaiety that no great harm had been done to the area.

The street pastors in their blue jackets said that it was all just "jolly drunkenness". A smiling policewoman said that people were "enjoying the craic and engaging with us".

On Agincourt Avenue the more business-like cops in their all-black gear for running or fighting in were looking more serious, but demonstrating patience.

They had parked their big arrest van close to the off-licence, and there were moments when the boisterous young men outside a house looked as if they might switch from antics to aggression.

As the police expressed more interest in them they started chanting "Celtic! Celtic!", but quietened down when police showed that they weren't going to nab anybody yet.

One might wonder what this is teaching young people about the police.

Part of the lesson is that the peelers may be civil and considerate. It was good PR.

But another part of experience might teach them that you can walk up the middle of the road, chanting and waving your drink, and they'll not do anything about it.

A little man comes over and shakes my hand and wishes me Merry Christmas. Another, nearby in a doorway, gently points out the police Land Rover with the camera and warns him that he is being photographed.

Some of these kids are looking out for each other.

Some were just kicking footballs about the side streets, relying on the double glazing not to shatter like the windows in the wee old houses I remember there. Some were inside with the curtains drawn and the music thumping.

Almost as soon as the photographer's camera appeared, kids rushed forward asking to have their pictures taken.

They smiled big smiles, struck poses, showed off their sparkling green and orange make-up, but there was nothing threatening in their manner.

And none whom I spoke to were local students.

They said they had travelled from Omagh and Newry to be in Belfast.

Some - very few of them -were edgy about the media.

"The media blows this up out of proportion" said about four different people to me.

"It's not nearly as bad as the Twelfth." A girl from south Armagh intervened to urge her friends not to talk to us.

This is what you get when you turn an urban community in south Belfast into a village in which everyone is a teenager.

You get the values of the teenager, the partying and the presumption that this is all right and no harm to anyone because, for the most part, no harm is intended.

No offence is implied by the tricolours used as flags, the T-shirts with the 1916 Proclamation printed on them.

It is all just a bit of craic.

And the mood yesterday afternoon was clearly an infectious one.

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