the best of belfast 2024

Belfast didn’t have the best start to 2024. Just think of the mass strikes in the public sector, the unrelated fact that Northern Ireland has no functioning government (the government returned, the strikes were settled or temporarily suspended), Late January announced one of the city’s most respected – revered – publicans, Pedro Donald, who over the years had brought us the John Hewitt, La Boca, the Sunflower and the American Bar, that he was leaving for Amsterdam. There may be no more bombs and bullets, he said, but Belfast was “a mess and deserted”. Apart from a few good years between the Good Friday Agreement and the financial crisis, the city was in many ways no further along than when it started trading in 1984.

Some were curbed on the broad side. But if you walked to the Zonnebloem after 6pm along Royal Avenue, historically the main shopping street, you would sometimes have found it difficult to tell that Pedro had called it wrong. It is also difficult to say that the people whose gift was the title of ‘city of this’ or ‘capital of that’ were completely unreasonable in overlooking bids from Belfast in the not-too-distant past.

In that sense, the Belfast 2024 festival could not have taken place at a better – that is to say worse – time. It had its origins in the conversations behind one of those failed bids (full disclosure: I contributed to some of them) and emerged from Belfast City Council’s culture and tourism unit. The ‘collective of creatives, producers and project managers’ behind the year-long festival says it wants to ‘unleash a new chapter’ for the city, ‘a time when we can look ahead, dream, imagine and imagine what our future city ​​could do. My first thought when looking at the website was that of a city that is not in thrall to the old tribal colors: the city, with purple and yellow aplomb, performs the not inconsiderable trick of being striking but not biased.

Little Amal, the giant puppet of a Syrian girl, continues ‘The Walk’ which started in summer 2021, with a specially designed Belfast route from May 16 (produced by ArtsEkta, directed by Jennifer Rooney, with story by Des Kennedy and music by Neil Martin). It begins, like the history of the city, at the point where the Farset River meets the larger Lagan. Intriguingly and less expectedly, Amal will spend the second half of her visit in the old Half Bap district, whose identity is almost lost among the current restaurants and bars in the Cathedral Quarter. There, in the company of local resident “Barney” (and now directed by Stephen Beggs), she will learn how “the proposed ‘redevelopment’ has led to the displacement of people and businesses,” a reminder that, rather than the problems to address what Donald was referring to, initiatives in the field of culture and tourism can unintentionally contribute to this. And yes, this is a culture and tourism event that asks questions of a city that puts too much emphasis on culture and tourism – but it’s better to ask questions of yourself than to be asked and left searching are looking for answers.

Later, a previous visitor to Belfast will be recognized and celebrated with North Star (October 25), a citywide spectacle inspired by Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist and civil rights activist. He made several speeches here in the mid-1840s, saying that whenever he doubted his welcome elsewhere, he knew he had a home in Belfast. In late 2023, a statue of Douglass was unveiled at the top of Lombard Street, close to the First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street, where Douglass spoke. The building is well worth a look, not only for its beautiful elliptical, 18th-century interior, but also for the sense of the city’s radical past, when Belfast led the world in sending congratulations to revolutionary Paris. Produced by SoLab, a new collective led by DJ Kwame Daniels, North Star will feature local artists Nandi Jola, Leo Miyagee and Winnie Ama, alongside Birmingham’s Kaidi Tatham, in a celebration of black music and culture in Belfast.

The overall feeling is that of a festival for Belfast residents to which the rest of the world, if it happens to happen, is invited.

Also involved is Hannah Peel, one of the composers contributing to Sound Links, a co-production between Zeppo Arts, Townsend Street Enterprise and the Ulster Orchestra. The orchestra recently moved from the city center to the former Townsend Street Presbyterian church – not as grand a building as Rosemary Street Presbyterian, but also with a story or two to tell. Townsend Street was once home to a famous iron foundry owned by Robert ‘Shipboy’ MacAdam, a Protestant champion of the Irish language. Today, Townsend Street is adrift cut off from the city center by the Westlink Motorway. It is also one of Belfast’s many “interfaces”, with Divis Street (leading to the Falls) on one side and Peter’s Hill (leading to the Shankill) on the other. There are metal gates (open Monday to Saturday from 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM) in the center.

In May 2013, the then first and deputy prime ministers – Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein – pledged to remove all of the city’s peace walls within ten years. The fact that we still need a project like Sound Links (it culminates on September 21, International Day of Peace) to help bridge the divide could be read as an admission of failure. The same can be said of Roots, a coming together of artists, gardeners and (re)divided communities in the Black Mountain Shared Space at the end of Belfast’s longest peace border, the so-called Wall of a Million Bricks.

Given some of the developments – and political impasses – we have found ourselves in in the intervening eleven years, I count on every “celebration of new connections” (Sound Links) and every “sparking of new conversations” (Roots). The overall feeling is that of a festival for the city and the people of Belfast, to which the rest of the world is invited.

One of the most exciting and potentially all-encompassing projects is Belfast Film Festival’s The Hearth, which aims to be a composite self-portrait of the city, curated under the direction of the film festival’s chairman, Mark Cousins. Anyone can send a clip of up to four minutes, recorded with a phone camera (in landscape, not portrait) or “the simplest camera”. The organizers say they are not looking for perfection, but for unfiltered rawness and authenticity. There’s something in the ethos of Belfast Stories – it’s all in the title – a major project and ‘visitor destination’, opening in 2029 on the north side of Royal Avenue.

And since we’re back on Royal Avenue, on the other side, 2RA (a building with a long history, most recently as Tesco Metro) is one of the best – and most used – new public venues in the city. A truly welcoming space, and the place where Belfast 24 kicked off in early March.

Between there and the soon-to-be Belfast Stories building, between all that and the Belfast that Donald wanted to see, there is still a lot to do. But Belfast 2024 feels like a good start in every respect.

So if you can, come along, just so you know, we’re going to do it anyway.

Glenn Patterson is a writer and broadcaster, and director of the Heaney Center at Queen’s University, Belfast. The new Seamus Heaney Center opens to the public 24th of June. Assume Nothing: How to Kill a Government 14 days is now available on BBC Sounds.

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