Northern Ireland

New lease of life underneath the arches

Man at entrance to tunnel
Image caption Two of the eight tunnels are unblocked but fenced off

Most people travelling along East Bridge Street, just east of Belfast city centre, probably do not realise that beneath them is a series of eight tunnels or large arches.

They were once an important part of the old Market area and they have been bricked-up for many years.

It is now hoped, however, that they will be re-opened as part of the regeneration of the district.

An ambitious plan for the area will go on display this week. It includes a scheme to reopen the old tunnels close to the Albert Bridge and it seems the idea has the blessing of Roads Minister Conor Murphy.

Deirdre Hargey, chair the Markets Development Association, said: "The arches are actually crucial because what came out of the feasibility study last year was the connectivity between the Market as an inner-city working class community and the city centre of Belfast.

"We are also looking to do that in other parts of the area so the tunnels would be the flag ship project in terms of bringing that plan together."

Almost 2,000 people live in the Market area and their development associaton has spent two years preparing strategies for regeneration.

"One of the ideas we are looking at is the development of a creche," Deirdre Hargey said.

"Part of the creche would be for people who are working within the city centre to have their children left off there and they could be collected again where they are in a central location.

"The money we would generate from that would then allow for a social creche for local children within the Market community.

"That would be one way we would identifiy and meet some of the needs that came through a report last year."

Local people have identified other business opportunities, reviving the spirit of the area which was the commercial heart of Belfast.

St George's Market is the sole remnant of what was once a gigantic complex of ten markets trading in everything from flax and fish to cattle and poultry.

Paddy Lynn, who chairs the Market Traders Federation, said this was the world in which he grew up.

"Life was tough, but it was very enjoyable. It was a place where you never went short of a couple of pounds and there was always some work available, whether it was putting cattle onto the back of a lorry or washing out the pens in the market with hoses," he said.

"So, there was lots of work at that time around this area."

He said the tunnels beneath East Bridge Street were formed as part of a re-building programme following a tragedy 150 years ago.

Image caption The tunnels run from a car park to Lanyon Place

"The East Bridge collapsed in the 1860s under the weight of the horses and the carts and livestock that was on the bridge waiting to come into the market and the gateman in his hut ready to open the gate," Mr Lynn said.

"He actually drowned in the River Lagan"

He said he could recall when there were fruit stores in the area and the tunnels were used regularly during the Market heyday for herding livestock from the pens of the cattle markets to the slaughterhouses in nearby Stewart Street.

"The fact is, they were always being used and its been a big pity over the years they have not been in use."

The Housing Executive and the city council have been closely involved in the Market development plan. Alex Maskey, who recently stood down as a councillor, said the idea was also getting support at Stormont.

"Conor Murphy, the Minister for Community Development, has met the local community organisations along with myself and as far as the Roads Service is concerned, they have no objection in principle to this at all, providing they would always be able to have access in case there would be any need for road maintenance.

"Conor Murphy has viewed a similar project in Edinburgh and he was very impressed with it and he has given his commitment to the local association that if he can do anything in his power to support it, he will certainly do that."

The scheme to revitalise the Markets area will be published on Wednesday when the plans will go on show in the local community centre in Cromac Street.