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The (other) city that never sleeps

New York-born journalist Ann W Schmidt spends a day in Belfast's student party central... The Holylands

By Ann W Schmidt

With the start of autumn comes changing leaves, cooler breezes and, of course, the start of the new academic year.

For most of us, it means coming off the excitement of summer holidays and settling into a routine.

For residents in Belfast's beleaguered Holylands, autumn means the "return of the barbarians".

The Holylands is an area of south Belfast, near Queen's University, notorious for its large population of students of both Queen's and Ulster University.

The district is infamous for its loud, rambunctious parties and excessive student drinking. And, aside from St. Patrick's Day, Freshers Week is when the riotous behaviour is at its worst.

Over the past two weeks, there have been reports of racial slurs and people vomiting and urinating on the streets. Resident Brid Ruddy says the footpaths have been regularly carpeted in broken glass. "In the past two weeks, it has been hell on earth," says Brid, whose home is on College Park Avenue.

She has lived in the Holylands for 26 years and helped found the College Park Avenue Residents' Association in 1998.

"We were complaining about all the same issues (in 1998) that we're complaining about now, but the volume is more, the noise is more.

"This year, I have never heard so much racism and sexism and bullying of residents. The whole attitude and demeanour of these young people is pretty shocking to me - and I've lived here 26 years."

I came to visit the Holylands to see what all the fuss has been about.

At first, the streets don't seem quite as bad as everything I've heard and read. They seem relatively clean, except for maybe a bit of litter here and there.

But I'm from New York, so there's plenty of litter everywhere - and that's never been a surprise.

But the closer I looked, the more I realised there was actually more litter, more broken bottles and more empty beer cans than I first noticed. Most of it was hidden, or cleared away, but there were still remnants in the gardens and on front porches.

The streets are still quiet, though it is the afternoon, so most students are still studying, or going to and from classes. But then I see a group of university boys hanging out their window on Agincourt Avenue, calling out to our photographer to take their picture. Not such a quiet street after all, then.

While I'm in the Holylands, I meet with a landlord who owns property here. His name is Michael McMahon and we walk down Agincourt, past the shouting boys.

While we walk, Michael assures me that it's not as bad as people make it out to be. There might be some discarded tins, or bottles, but the people causing

the real trouble are just visitors here to see what the partying life is like.

Sometimes, an occasional student will get in trouble, but he says it's only because they're "naive sometimes - not knowing the rules".

Now, I'm a recent university graduate and, though I wasn't much interested in the party scene, I know what university students are like. I find it difficult to believe that the students living here aren't participating in the drinking and parties.

But Michael McMahon has an answer. He says the students that live in the Holylands drink in their own homes and take taxis to go out; he says the outsiders are the ones sitting on porches and in gardens to avoid drinking on the public highway.

He adds that most students who live in the Holylands go elsewhere during events like St Patrick's Day and the houses are mostly left unoccupied.

Besides, he says, the noise is equivalent to football fans or the Twelfth of July and nobody at those places are getting into trouble.

The complaints, he says, aren't from people suffering from the loud noise; he says most non-students live on the edges of the Holylands and should be considered as a different neighbourhood altogether.

"A noise complaint should be an affected neighbour - not someone coming in from the council and going along and deciding what's noise," he says.

"The residents get wound up and say they don't get a moment's peace, or sleep, but if they come from there and walk down through here, they're walking through a different community."

But I spoke to a resident who lives on Rugby Road. It might be considered closer to the fringes of the Holylands, but Denis Geffroy (48) and his family have been having trouble sleeping because of the noise of the past two weeks.

"It's a party until 4am, 5am. Cars beeping all the time, people screaming, drinking in the street. It's safe - I don't feel threatened - but I can't sleep. I have to wear earplugs," he says.

Because of the noise, he had to move his baby daughter to a room at the back of the house, so she would be able to sleep.

And while the earplugs help, he and his partner are still woken up in the middle of the night to the sounds from the street.

"If it's only for a couple of weeks, I think we'll be fine. But I'm a bit concerned if it goes on forever," he says.

Mr Geffroy says he understands why students are like this, now that they're coming back to university, but if the noise continues for much longer, it will become a problem.

"I was a student as well. I know people need to socialise and party, but I need to sleep."

Most of the students I spoke to that live in the Holylands said the partying has been blown out of all proportion.

One final year student says he thinks this year has been quieter than past years, but most of the noise and trouble is just from first year students anyway.

Another female student says that most of the trouble isn't from any actual students, because they're worried about getting kicked out of their university.

Most of the issues come from their friends who visit. She adds that while she understands why residents are upset, they should expect some noise.

"Of course, there's rowdiness. You're going to get that anywhere with students. And they know what's coming for Freshers' Week, too," she says.

Brid Ruddy agrees, to a point, that students will be students. "We're all a bit noisy when we're young," she says. "Being noisy and loud is one thing. Abuse is another."

But she adds the issues she's having aren't all at the fault of the students. She says a lot of the problems come from overcrowding. If there are dozens of people living in one house, of course, there will be more noise.

I don't know much about the overcrowding inside the houses, but on the roads there are cars everywhere, even on the pavements.

"It's madness. The traffic is complete madness," she says. "You can't get up or down the streets. It's just really bad."

Ms Ruddy says the overcrowding is the fault of some unscrupulous landlords and that they need to be checked. She says they have no regard for the students, only their incomes.

"The behaviour, the outcomes, are all symptoms of a planning disaster. We're a whole community and we're destroyed because of landlord greed," she says.

"Yes the young people's behaviour is dreadful, but the high-density area is a recipe for noise and the fault is with the planners and the landlords."

She says the neighbourhood needs more families, like it used to have when she was a student at Queen's.

"We have a changing demography. We need now to look at the balance," she adds.

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