Belfast is famous for many reasons, not least its murals brought about by The Troubles that gripped Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998. But less well known is an intriguing network of streets in the inner-south of Belfast known as the Holy Land.
The Holy Land (or Holyland) is a Victorian residential area behind Queen’s University, skirted to the south by the River Lagan, and bounded by University Street, the Ormeau Road and the Botanic Gardens. The area takes its unexpected name from the streets within its boundaries: Jerusalem Street, Palestine Street, Damascus Street, Carmel Street and Cairo Street.
These streets were built in the 1890s by Brown McConnell Clark, Belfast’s oldest property consultants. Sir Robert McConnell, former Lord Mayor of Belfast and a devout Christian travelled to Palestine and Egypt with builder friend James Rea, on a journey that would inspire the name and doubtless the ideals of their later development. The street names alone conjure a sense of mystery and the spirit of travel in faraway lands.
But in a twist the founding fathers probably never imagined, the Holy Land’s demographics have shifted considerably over the years thanks to a burgeoning university population and rising house prices. What was once a working class Protestant community has given way to 90% student and young workers, with longterm resident numbers dwindling to just 250 people. Raucous student hijinks has led to an increase in anti-social behaviour, while poorly secured university housing has in turn left students vulnerable to crime.
Numerous campaigns have been spearheaded to try and stymie petty crime and calm the raucous roads, including one aimed at students positing the question: “Do You Turn Into A Monster After Dark?” The Holylands Arts Festival (above, 2005) also sought to bring locals and students together and foster a sense of community. But recent statistics revealed that crime is on the rise in the Holy Land. With many students moving to escape the unrest, landlords have struggled to re-let properties and house prices in the area have plummeted.
The number of sexual attacks is said to have increased, correlating with a purported scheme to house convicted sex offenders in this transient vicinity. This, along with anti-social student antics and petty crimes committed by a minority of locals has led some commentators to conclude that there is nothing holy about the Holy Land.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the neighbourhood’s hard-working past, or the sense of mystery and adventure conjured by its enigmatic street names. Many former residents likely worked in the shipyards of East Belfast that built the most famous liner in history, Titanic, and their legacy will always live on despite modern upheavals. But for the time being, at least, it’s probably best to explore the Holy Land from the comfort and safety of your home computer. While you’re doing that you might want to give the above question, painted on a gable end, some thought. It’s an ironic sight indeed in an area whose name offers a nod to the Bible.