Northern Ireland

Holylands disgust at theft of 'storytelling' chair

Storytelling chair Image copyright TREE NI/BBC
Image caption The original storytelling chair (left) was stolen and a replacement has been repeatedly vandalised

A storytelling chair installed as part of a community project in south Belfast has been stolen and a replacement repeatedly vandalised.

The chair was taken from green space on Collingwood Avenue in the Holylands area in March after less than a week.

A replacement chair was installed - but has been the target of repeated attacks.

A willow area has been trampled on and destroyed, while tree-stump stools have also been ripped up.

The chair and surrounding space - known locally as Horsey Hill - were developed as part of a partnership between Belfast City Council, the Forward South Partnership (previously the South Belfast Partnership Board) and TREE (Training, Re-skilling, Education and Employment) NI, an employment and training centre based on the Donegall Road.

Aimed at creating a space for the whole community to use, the green has hosted pop-up events including storytelling sessions for children and market stalls.

Vandal-proof?

The original chair - which was made in three weeks by a team of eight from TREE, and was inscribed with the words "once upon a time" - cost £650, said the council.

Despite several appeals, nobody has come forward with information as to its whereabouts.

"It would have required a van to lift the thing," said the Forward South Partnership's Brid Ruddy.

"We felt it was important to make the positive case to say that we are are going to keep on replacing whatever is damaged."

Image copyright Brid Ruddy/BBC
Image caption How the area looked in March (left) and how it looks now, with the willow destroyed and tree stumps ripped up

Ms Ruddy said local children loved the storytelling sessions but the community suffered from "ongoing vandalism".

"For children who don't have English as their first language, storytelling is very, very important," she said. "They learn English much quicker."

Ms Ruddy said any repair work must be combined with increased police patrols and the council's involvement to protect the instalments.

"You need to have it patrolled all the time," said Mrs Ruddy. "Although it is sad, we have to work on the basis that damage will happen and make it as vandal-proof as possible."

Local disgust

Graham Bowden, from TREE NI, said the continuous anti-social behaviour at the green was disheartening for his organisation, which predominantly provides training for 16-24-year-old males "who have fallen through the cracks of the education system".

The theft of the chair was unprecedented, he said. "I am lost for words that somebody would want to take it."

"We had tried moving it and dislodging it to test it and were satisfied that it would take an excessive amount of force to pull it out," said Mr Bowden.

"It would have needed to have been cut out."

The replacement chair is set in concrete, and has underground beams in an attempt to secure it.

"It is overkill but that is what needed to happen," said Mr Bowden.

"We offered to do a replacement for free, due to the level of disgust.

"We didn't like the fact that someone had achieved their goal of removing something we had made. We turned it around quite quickly."

Mr Bowden said he hoped someone's conscience would be "pricked" to hand back the original chair, which he would like to see restored and placed on the other side of the green.

The council has asked any witnesses to anti-social behaviour at the site to report it to its community safety team - and to report any criminal damage directly to the PSNI.

The placement of art installations such as the storytelling chair showed the council's commitment to improving the environment of the city, said a spokeswoman.

"While we do our best to protect the installations, we also rely on the local community to help us safeguard our open spaces against and vandalism," she said.

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