A festival of music, film and spectacle: the best of Belfast 2024

A festival of music, film and spectacle: the best of Belfast 2024

Belfast did not have the best of starts to 2024. Never mind the mass public sector strikes, the not-unrelated fact of Northern Ireland being without a functioning government (the government returned, the strikes were settled, or suspended … for now), at the end of January, 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, announced that he was leaving for Amsterdam. There may not be bombs and bullets any more, he said, but Belfast was “a dump and derelict”. Indeed, apart from a few good years between the Good Friday agreement and the financial crash, the city was in many ways no further on than when he started in the trade in 1984.

Some bridled at the broadside. But walking towards the Sunflower along Royal Avenue, historically the main shopping street, after 6pm sometimes, you would have been hard-pressed to say Pedro had called it wrong. Hard-pressed, too, to say that the people in whose gift was the title of “city of this” or “capital of that” were being entirely unreasonable when they overlooked bids from Belfast in the not-too-distant past.

The Little Amal puppet of a Syrian refugee – built to represent children fleeing war and persecution – arrives in Belfast this week. Photograph: Anadolu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Belfast 2024 festival could not in that sense have come along at a better – which 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 those) and emanating from within 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 “ignite a new chapter” for the city, “a time when we can look forward, dream, imagine and invent what our future city could be”. My first thought on looking at the website was of a city not in hock to the old tribal colours: it pulls off with purple and yellow aplomb the not inconsiderable trick of being eye-catching but not partisan.

Little Amal, the giant puppet of a Syrian girl, continues “The Walk” begun in summer 2021, with a specially devised Belfast itinerary from 16 May (produced by ArtsEkta, directed by Jennifer Rooney, with story by Des Kennedy and music by Neil Martin). It starts, as the city’s history does, at the point where the River Farset meets the larger Lagan. Intriguingly, and less expectedly, Amal will spend the second half of her visit in the city’s old Half Bap district, whose identity is almost lost beneath today’s Cathedral Quarter restaurants and bars. There in the company of local resident “Barney” (and directed now by Stephen Beggs) she will learn how “proposed ‘redevelopment’ has led to displacement of people and businesses”, a reminder that, far from addressing the problems that Donald alluded to, culture and tourism initiatives may inadvertently contribute to them. And, yes, this is a culture and tourism event asking questions of a city putting too great an emphasis on culture and tourism – but better to ask questions of yourself than have them asked of you and be wanting for answers.

The recently unveiled statue of civil rights campaigner Frederick Douglass who made several speeches in the city in the mid 1840s. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Later, an earlier visitor to Belfast is to be recognised and celebrated with North Star (25 October) a city-wide spectacle inspired by Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist and civil rights campaigner. In the mid-1840s he made several speeches here, saying that any time he doubted his welcome elsewhere he knew he had a home in Belfast. A statue of Douglass was unveiled at the end of 2023, at the top of Lombard Street, close to Rosemary Street’s First Presbyterian church, where Douglass spoke. The building is well worth a look, not just for the beautiful elliptical, 18th-century interior, but for a 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 Belfast’s Black music and culture.

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 relocated from the city centre to the former Townsend Street Presbyterian church – not quite such a distinguished building as the Rosemary Street Presbyterian, but also with a story or two to tell. Once home to a famous iron foundry owned by Robert “Shipboy” MacAdam, a Protestant champion of the Irish language, Townsend Street today is cut adrift from the city centre by the Westlink motorway. It is also one of Belfast’s many “interfaces”, with Divis Street (leading to the Falls) at one end, and Peter’s Hill (leading to the Shankill) at the other. There are metal gates (open Mon–Sat 6.30am-6.30pm) across its middle.

The Cathedral Quarter, with no shortage of restaurants and bars. Photograph: Michele Oenbrink/Alamy

In May 2013, the then first and deputy first ministers – Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness – made a pledge to remove all the city’s peace walls within 10 years. The fact we still need a project such as Sound Links (it culminates on 21 September, International Peace Day) to help bridge divides could be read as an admission of failure. The same could be said of Roots, a coming together of artists, gardeners and (again) divided communities at the Black Mountain Shared Space at the far end of Belfast’s longest peace line, the so-called Wall of a Million Bricks.

Given some of the passes – and political impasses – in which we have found ourselves in the intervening 11 years, I am banking on every “celebration of new connections” (Sound Links) and every “sparking of new conversations” (Roots). The overall sense is of a festival for the city and the citizens of Belfast to which the rest of the world is also invited.

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2RA, a ‘genuinely welcoming’ space. Photograph: Paul Lindsay/Alamy

Among the most exciting, and potentially all-inclusive projects is The Hearth, by Belfast film festival, which aspires to be a composite self-portrait of the city, cut together under the guidance of the film festival’s chair Mark Cousins. Anyone can send a clip, up to four minutes long, shot on a phone camera – in landscape, not portrait – or “the simplest of cameras”. The organisers say they are not after perfection, but unfiltered rawness and authenticity. There is something in this of the ethos of Belfast Stories – it’s all in the title – a major project and “visitor destination”, opening in 2029 at the northern end of Royal Avenue.

And since we are back on Royal Avenue, at the other end, 2RA (a building with a long history, most recently as a Tesco Metro) is one of the best – and best-used – new civic venues in the city. A genuinely welcoming space, and the place where Belfast 24 launched at the beginning of March.

Between there and the soon-to-be Belfast Stories building, between any of that and the Belfast Donald despaired of seeing, there is still much to do. But Belfast 2024 feels in every way like a decent start.

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

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

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