Belfast and its Street Name Suffixes

Belfast and its Street Name Suffixes
By James Hennessey

Belfast is home to a rich vocabulary of street names.  As the city has grown, its streets have been named by successive generations, resulting in today’s fascinating namescape. Each street name is immortalised in map and sign and intricately woven into our place based identities. 

Street names routinely consist of two parts.  The prefix or specific toponym is to be found at the beginning of a street name (Albertbridge, Ormeau, Kennedy, Duncairn), while the suffix or generic toponym is normally found at the end (Road, Avenue, Way, Gardens).  Studies of street names have traditionally focussed on the prefix, but very few have examined these suffixes that we know so well today.

In its early years cities like Belfast had a relatively limited number of suffixes in use, with Street being the most predominant. Lanes and Entries were used to name smaller thoroughfares, civic spaces were generally Squares or Places, while neighbouring towns were connected to by rural Roads.  By the Georgian era of the late 18th Century new terms arrived such as Avenue, Crescent and Row, although were used sparingly at first.

The industrial revolution and growth of empire saw Belfast’s phenomenal growth take place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time countless new streets were built and named, greatly adding to the city’s lexicon. Row upon row of terraced street were given an array of colourful street name prefixes, while the suffix Street remained in constant use.  Avenue became used to describe larger thoroughfares often lined with trees, while once rural Roads urbanised but retained their names.

Yet in the new suburbs changes were afoot, as those who could afford to sought to escape the ills of the city.  Here we find different street name suffixes taking hold, with Gardens, Parks and Drives painting an altogether different picture. Interestingly the minutes of Belfast Corporation’s Improvement Committee from the time show how councillors sought to try and control the application of these new suffixes.

A curious occurrence of the early to mid 20th century was the disappearance of Street as a suffix for newly named streets. As evidenced in Belfast and other cities, in neighbourhoods that either lie further out from the centre or that were subjected to redevelopment, the word Street is conspicuous by its absence.  Street, it would appear, had just too many negative associations with those ills of the city.  Instead, an array of alternative suffixes proliferated, especially upon the arrival of the cul-de-sac.

Therefore today, while Street is back in fashion, we find a whole host of street name suffixes in use.  In fact, in some developments, it is the prefix that remains constant, while the suffix provides something of that colourful array.  Sadly however, in doing so we seem to have lost the skill of matching a name to a street. Straight Crescents, grey Greens and tree-less Avenues have become all too commonplace, leading one to wonder if street naming has become more about selling houses than creating places.

So next time you are walking down your street, spare a thought for the humble suffix and ask yourself, how does my street live up to its name?

About James Hennessey

James Hennessey is a practising Landscape Architect and Urban Designer who lives in Belfast. In 2023 he completed a PhD at Queen’s University with a thesis entitled  “The Spatial Language of Streets” from which this article is drawn.