WHAT started out as a simple question has now led to a full-time hobby for a West Belfast priest as he seeks to catalogue the history behind all of Belfast's street names.

Father Martin Magill, parish priest of St Johns on the Falls Road, said he became interested in the history behind Belfast's street names during a drive through the city during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“It began over lockdown," he said, "I had a bit of extra time on my hands and I was driving along Tates Avenue and I wondered where its name came from. I very naively thought it would simply take a quick Google search and it would be on some sort of database but that wasn’t the case at all.

“I eventually found through a bit of research that it was named for the Tate family who owned a lot of property at the time. They owned a lot of land around Wellington Park and around the Lisburn Road and around there you can see a lot of references to the Tate family.

“I decided to take it up – to find about the whole of Belfast."

Fr Martin's research has led to a website, www.belfaststreetnames.com in which users can search for their street names and find out the history behind it. A quick search on the website can reveal a wealth of information about the area you live in. For example, living in North Belfast I was able to find out the Deerpark and Oldpark areas were once private hunting grounds for the Chichester family for the hunting of deer.

Despite the project being a hobby and with a large amount of streets to get through, Fr Martin has already completed just over half of Belfast's streets, but said he is always grateful of anyone who can give him information.

“I’ve been doing only streets which are in existence at the moment and only streets from BT1 to BT15 and that gives you just under 4,200 names. So far I’ve researched around 2,600. Some I have only a bit of information on and I would like to get some more info, and some I have completed fully. For example, a lot of the names in the Lenadoon area are from places in Donegal and I want to find out a little bit more about who was the developer and why Donegal was chosen.

“In West Belfast, McDonnell Street was very interesting. I’ve got a lot of help on social media and lots of people have responded to my questions on Twitter/X. An archeologist called John Ó Néill has been very good at helping me and he found it was named for McDonnell who was a pawnbroker. 

“A few months before the street was named it was found the police had raided the pawnbrokers and discovered all sorts of weapons which they linked to the Fenians.”

Fr Martin stated the project has very much been a collaborative effort and said he has had lots of help from a number of people including Queen's History Department, West Belfast MP Paul Maskey and former MP Gerry Adams, who have helped publicise his queries for information.

“I recently gave a talk at the Linen Hall Library as part of their lunchtime series and what’s really encouraged me has been the interest other people have shown in it," said Fr Martin. "Other people have contacted me with information and I see this project very much as a collaborative project and people have been very helpful.

“Some of the most interesting streets I’ve been looking into have been right here in the parish, for example Hugo Street. I found out through a businessman in East Belfast that Hugo Street was named for Hugo Kerr. Hugo was the son of Frank Kerr, a well-known solicitor who lived in Clondara House, which also gave the names to Clondara Street. Frank’s son Hugo later became a priest and joined the Redemptorists and became a Provincial for them around the 1940s.

“It’s a hobby for me and I do have to kind of restrict it to that but there is so much there to find out once you start looking. There is still a huge amount of work to do but in the future I may think about putting it into a book."

Fr Martin said he is particularly interested in St Meryl Park, Rodney Drive and Parade at the moment and said if anyone in the local area has any information, they can contact him at belfaststreetnames@gmail.com.