Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Protest at Advent (via Mockingbird's Leap)

Mockingbird’s Leap is a group blog that operates over Advent. In previous years I’ve found the variety and depth of posts quite thought-provoking in the run up to Christmas.

It describes itself as “a short-term but intentional community of friends and connections from many places who have agreed to practice attention in the run up to Christmas Day, so that we can learn to appreciate the many ways we have been gifted. We live with the awareness that often the busyness and commerciality of the season leads to inattention, so that we are constantly in danger of not noticing.”

Mark posted earlier this week about Protest.

Advent – the season of hope but I’m also thinking about it in terms of ‘protest’. Was the incarnation in some sense Yahweh’s statement of protest at the way things were and are? A statement of protest against the politics and government of the time which protected those in power and ensured that those down the food chain remained exactly there? I am constantly surprised at our level of resignation in accepting the analysis of the economic crisis along with the so-called solutions given.

I am not surprised at how little we ‘the church’ have to say on the matter because for many of us, especially myself, we remain relatively safe as long as we have a decent job and low interest rates. But what about the other guy, the person who’s job and house and future have been torn from them? Will we simply be paralysed by the gravity of the situation or can we be a protest of light – of hope – of righteous anger at the financial institutions whose greed placed us here and governments who failed on our behalf to regulate proper governance?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Something to put you in the mood for Advent

Over on Slugger, I posted about a talk given by Nelson McCausland on Friday night at the DUP conference. There's also some coverage of the main Saturday conference and reflections for those who are curious.

While musical flash mobs are often now being driven by commercial promotion rather than pure random celebration of the arts, this rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah did seem apt for the season of Advent that has just begun.

Sit back and enjoy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

La Mon Hotel - a great hotel if you can find it

Six years of living in East Belfast and I was only once in La Mon Hotel.

It’s a known unknown. I’m aware that I’ve no idea how to get there. Pushed to give directions, I’d wave my arms and say that it’s somewhere in the Castlereagh Hills, in-between Gilnahirk and Roselawn, but a bit further out.

I reckon I was within a couple of fields of La Mon Hotel whenever the rough country track turned into a field and I finally realised that what my GPS had suggested as the “Fastest Route” to the La Mon Hotel “point of interest” was neither fast nor a route. I held off turning around in the false hope that it would turn out to be a through road and would deposit me out onto tarmac at the far end.
The point of interest pin was probably a hundred metres askew from where it should have been.

Retracing my steps drive as dusk fell and snow started to fall, I briefly wondered whether I was about to recreate the scene from the film Clockwise in which the headmaster (played by John Cleese) takes a catastrophic shortcut through a field. Would I end up so lost that I’d have to stay in the car, in the snow, all night?

Having escaped my rural meander, I got directions from a nearby corner shop.
“Up the road and turn right. You can’t miss it.”
Much more convincing than Tom Tom.

(Arriving at La Mon Hotel late, it turned out the Nelson McCausland's session on Why unionists ignore culture at their peril was also running late. You can read about it over on Slugger, and also listen to some loud fifes and drums.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Local airports battle press releases - bmibaby switch operations to Belfast City, and Iceland Express land (occasionally) at Belfast International

In a remarkably successful attempt to divert some of the media spotlight away from Belfast City Airport this morning, rival Belfast International pushed out news that Iceland Express will be launching a direct* twice weekly service to Reykjavik on Mondays and Fridays from 10 June 2011.

In a veiled reference to the other airline news, Aldergrove’s Business Development Director, Uel Hoey commented

"As a committed and integral supporter of NI plc, our priority is to invest in the provision of new and vital direct access channels from key source markets. The aim should always be to develop the market, not simply splinter or replicate services to the detriment of the local economy.

We are not in the business of simply re-arranging the existing business in the market with the aim of satisfying some short term objectives. We continue to strive to have the broad regional objectives of our business recognised and supported by Northern Ireland's policy-makers."



So the other local airline news.

Last night, I posted about obvious oddities with bmibaby’s website, showing Belfast City Airport offering more than just bmi’s route to London Heathrow.

It turns out that bmibaby are putting all their toys back into their pram and wheeling them down the M2 to Belfast City Airport in January. The last bmibaby flight will leave Belfast International on 9 January, with operations restarting at the harbour airport from the morning of 10 January. Destinations will continue to be Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and East Midlands Airport.

Update 1 - Notable that the BBC news page that earlier just covered the International/Reykjavik announcement now relegates that to the last paragraph and concentrates on the City/bmibaby move. The news cycle has caught up. UTV have merged the two stories together now, with bmibaby trumping Iceland Express.

Update 2 - It's a direct flight from Reykjavik to Belfast International, but as James points out, the return leg is via Edinburgh. Iceland Express fly triangular routes.

RISE - Balls on the Falls

RISE banner

Belfast City Council and PLACE are out and about this week with Wolfgang Buttress, the artist behind the 40m high RISE sculpture that will be unveiled on Broadway roundabout by Easter. There was a public meeting in the City Hall on Wednesday at lunchtime, followed by an evening event at Falls Community Council.

You can catch Wolfgang from 7-8pm on Thursday night at the Richview Regeneration Centre, Donegall Road. Light refreshments will be served. To reserve your place, please call Ivy Rollins, Tourism Culture and Arts Unit, Belfast City Council on 028 9050 0512 or email culture AT belfastcity DOT gov DOT uk.

The process to place a piece of public art on the pylon-free roundabout has taken longer than Belfast City Council and Roads Service ever imagined. The first commission – Trillian, a 45m tall wild flower designed by Ed Carpenter to represent a post-Troubles city – fell through when the price of steel rocketed beyond the project’s budget.

Wolfgang Buttress had been shortlisted the first time round, and nearly didn’t apply again when the commission was re-advertised. Speaking before the event began, he explained that having visited the site, he wanted a sculpture that would acknowledge:

“… the fact that there are two different sides, the fact that it’s important that it’s seen by both sides of the community as well as people coming into Belfast. It needs to be nice and simple, universal, and looks the same from each angle.”

The Bog Meadows are reflected in the reeds that will sit below the balls and (in some cases) structurally support them. Some of the reeds will also house the lights that will illuminate RISE at night, making it an icon from ground level as well as from the air as flights come in and out over the city.

Wolfgang describes in the short clip that he wanted the sculpture to be “open” and yet “have presence”. At nearly 40m tall and 30m across, it is a huge structure. It’s certainly in proportion with the tower blocks next to the Royal site.

Fabrication of one small section of RISE - giving an idea of the proportions and dimensions

Fabrication of RISE is already underway in Rasharkin and work to prepare the Broadway site should begin before Christmas.

A good aspect of the project is that around 80-90% of the money is expected to flow back into local NI businesses and suppliers.

I’m looking forward to Nick Patterson’s timelapse project to capture the construction.

There was quite a bit of discussion at the lunchtime event about how public art is commissioned. How constraining are the strings that are attached to public art projects, potentially compromising the raw art with constraints, briefs and box-ticking. Of course, throughout history, pretty much all commissioned art has been tainted by the funder and not just requested for arts sake.

But what should be the balance between aesthetic judgement and city building? How do democratic structures and civil representation sit alongside community involvement. Rather than be a completed monument, should public art be something that enriches people’s lives on an ongoing basis?

Belfast has an on-off relationship with public art.

The Big Fish has had a positive impact, along with the quiet persistence of the Nula with the Hula.

While the public got what they voted for, Dan George’s steel squiggle Spirit of Belfast was a bit of a let down and failed to capture the imaginations and hearts of city centre workers and shoppers. (The sculpture’s promised lighting features – “ribbon of light … [whose] … intensity, color and movement will be programmed” - failed to materialise which damaged its evening impact in Cornmarket.)

The Magic Jug destined for Fountain Street was dropped at the end of August.

Daniel Jewesbury ran a (successful?) campaign against the Magic Jug. He was sitting in the front row of the RISE session and I asked him afterwards about his vision for public art.

RISE - computer generated image of what it will look like

Personally, I suspect the sheer size of the enormous sphere, and the mesmerising effect of the smaller sphere suspended inside, will capture the imagination and hearts of drivers as they come towards the end of the M1 motorway heading into Belfast, or drive out of the city centre heading towards the underpass.

RISE has the potential to take over from the big wheel as the media’s shortcut image of Belfast.

I’m less sure about what local communities (the Village and the Falls) will make of it and how they’ll be able to engage with the alien structure that is about to appear. I can help fearing that it’ll be a target for throwing toilet rolls at and decorating with flags once a big enough cherry-picker is found.

A roundabout – even one that is as large as Broadway – is an unfriendly and isolated place. No matter how much grass is laid, no one’s ever going to cross over to the middle of it in order to kick a ball or sit on a bench and stare up at the sky. Cars whizz clockwise around the circumference, and people scoot across the middle spending no more than a minute or two to get to the traffic lights on the other side.

Although there may be a passing trade of shoppers heading to Park Gate, and staff heading over to the Royal Group of Hospitals, they are transient, windswept and in a hurry to get past. Poor access and parking, together with health and safety concerns must practically rule out any use of the space underneath the sculpture (owned by Roads Service) for community festivals and events.

Yet maybe there’s hope in the fact that within days or weeks of its announcement, RISE had already been given the nickname of the Balls on the Falls. Artist Wolfgang Buttress seemed quite pleased that it had been so quickly adopted.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

bmibaby website oddity ... either that or they’re the new carrier being announced tomorrow by Belfast City Airport (updated)

bmibaby website offering routes to Edinburgh and Glasgow

Could bmibaby be about to about to rival the existing Belfast City to Glasgow and Edinburgh routes offered by Flybe? (Maybe they could advertise as the non-smoking route.)

bmibaby have long included older brother BMI’s Belfast City / Heathrow route in their booking system.

However, trying to book flights from the harbour airport to Edinburgh or Glasgow on the bmibaby website, even for dates well into the future, sends you to Hanover via Heathrow and not Scotland!

Belfast City Airport are making an announcement on Thursday morning about a new airline that will be starting operations in the near future. However, since they’re denying that bmibaby is the new “arrival”, the website oddity will have to be put down to faulty configuration on bmibaby’s website rather than a schedule announcement that hasn’t been fully programmed end-to-end through bmi group’s IT systems.

So if bmibaby aren’t coming, then it’ll either have to be a small airline or a charter firm going no further than southern France or Spain.

Update - bmibaby announced that they're moving their entire NI operations to Belfast City Airport, with flights starting on 10 January.

The Feast of Columbanus ... and a giant jigsaw puzzle for the Irish President and Lord Bannside

Yesterday morning’s Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster yesterday, mentioned the Feast of Saint Columbanus. The speaker described him as “a bit of a stirrer”. Which set the tone for the lunchtime celebration of Columbanus organised by the Ullans Academy in an East Belfast hotel and featuring speeches from academy president Dr Ian Adamson, Lord Bannside and the Irish President.

Artist Ian Fleming helping Irish President Mary McAleese and Lord Bannside (Ian Paisley) to piece together the two halves of their artworks at the Ullans Acamedy Columbanus Celebration

For anyone having trouble keeping up, as far as I can tell, the Ullans Academy is very much on the liberal wing of the innumerable organisations that represent and promote the Ulster Scots language and its culture. They point to shared culture and history, from Scotland and through Ireland. They’re not hung up on equality or parity, and are interested in inclusion rather than exclusion.

Tuesday lunchtime’s event – one of a regular series – brought together people from all sections of the community, for the most part mixing easily with each other. Presidents, preachers, politicians, ex-paramilitaries, community workers, teachers, school children (from Ashfield Girls School and St Joseph’s College), political advisors and the odd blogger. MLAs, councillors and candidates from a number of parties across the political spectrum. Lord Bannside and Baroness Paisley sitting at the same table as the Irish President and her husband “the lovely Martin”. But no sign of the culture minister Nelson McCausland.

Columbanus died on this day in 615 AD. Big celebrations are predicted in Italy – where he’s buried – in 2015. As someone who hasn’t spent much time in Bangor, I hadn’t realised that he’d had spent time there and was a local hero. Ian Adamson has written a twelve page booklet summarising the life and impact of Columbanus. He quipped: “I’ve dumbed down this brochure so the academics can read it!” before going on to claim that Columbanus was “probably the greatest of all the Irish saints, in that he re-evangelised Europe at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.”

Local artist and lecturer Ian Fleming had been commissioned to produce a piece of art to give to the two special guest speakers. At first refusing to produce two copies of the same work, he instead created two interlocking jigsaw pieces that can be lifted out of their frames and locked together. Columbanus means “white dove” and it’s present on the two pieces, locked in a cage of “decommissioned” barbed wire. The Belfast Lough coastline and Bangor are also represented on Lord Bannside’s half of the jigsaw.

I’m not sure that Ian Adamson’s hope that Ian Paisley and Mary McAleese “will come together very frequently so that they can slot each other’s pictures together” will come true.

You can listen to the full set of speeches if you want to hear what went on. Alternatively, most of the speakers’ text is below.

Ian Adamson gave a potted history, highlighting Columbanus’ roots in Ireland.

Columbanus after great tribulation travelling throughout Europe re-established Christian virtue throughout that whole land. It’s mainly due to him I think that Christian virtue did survive in Western Europe. So he’s one of the founders of Western civilisation.

By the time he left it, Bangor was a great university and the scholars who were trained in Bangor constituted some of his best disciples. Three of them were English. The whole of Bangor’s thought was centred on a form of praise – a continual praise to God – which was based on the temple praise in Jerusalem.

Columbanus is not thought of so much in Ulster or Ireland. He came from Leinster– which wasn’t his fault – but he came up to Bangor and it was there that he trained after a period in County Fermanagh.

He was a very special person and represents a lot of what we need to consider as shared history, the shared past Unless we can share our history of the past we will not be able to share the future.

His introduction finished with a deliberate and stretched comparison between Columbanus and Paisley.

This is a special day – his feast day – and we’re absolutely delighted not only to have her Excellency here today who is so interested in Columbanus and will be speaking about him in a few minutes, but also Doctor Paisley. Columbanus was a very complex character. One of the great scholars of his work said “he’s a character so complex, and so contrary, humble and haughty, harsh and yet very tender, pedantic and impetuous by turns, but her had as his unifying pattern the ambition of spreading the gospel of Christ in Western Europe. All his activities were subordinate to this one aim, and with the self sacrifice that can seem close to assertion he worked out his whole salvation by the wondrous pathway he knew. He was a missionary only through circumstance, a monk by vocation, a contemplative and wise man, but driven to action by the political world around him. He was a pilgrim on the road to paradise.

And therefore it’s a particular pleasure that we have with us today a second Columbanus. I’ll not say which of those characteristics characterise our next speaker! But a very special person – perhaps the most significant political person in the whole of the end of the twentieth century we’ve just come through, and he has a particular interest in Columbanus and the old Celtic church. I speak of course of Dr Ian Paisley, now known as Lord Bannside although Eileen took the name Paisley away from him. But I think they can forgive her for that. Ladies and gentlemen, Lord Bannside.

Artist Ian Fleming handing his jigsaw artwork to Lord Bannside (Ian Paisley) at Ullans Academy's Columbanus Celebration

Lord Bannside started his short contribution by describing Columbanus as a “great saint” who “took a stand against things which were common in many of the churches of which he did not agree with and which he spoke out against”.

I think that this audience today and the fact that the president of the Irish Republic is with us and her husband – and she needs a husband – I think it’s interesting as it does send out a message and that message is clear that we need to go back to our history books and we need to learn some of the things we haven’t learned. Many times in Irish history the emphasis has been upon those who have wanted to make that emphasis. But there are other things about Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland that we need to learn. And the one we come to think about today – Columbanus – we come to think of him today. And what a man he was.

He didn’t go with the times. He didn’t say I will visit the Pope and get my orders and then I will do what he says. In fact, strange to relate, he had some very hot things to say about one of the then Popes. Things I wouldn’t even dare to say!

But he was an independent man. Why? Because those that know the truth, the truth shall set them free. And his writings and his teachings, but best of all his example was a witness to the apostolic gospel that came to us through the presentation of God’s son and ended on the dark and cruel cross, the tree of Calvary, that we who are sinners might know forgiveness and peace and life everlasting. That was his message and he delivered that message.

And it’s interesting today, after all this time, we’re coming back to that message. There’s a very famous poem, some lines that he wrote.

So Satan acts to tire the brain,
And by temptation souls are slain.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.
Stand firm in mind ‘gainst Satan’s guile.
Protect yourselves with virtue’s foil.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.

Strong faith and zeal will victory gain.
The old foe breaks his lance in vain.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.
The King of virtues vowed a prize
For him who wins, for him who tries.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.

And that’s what he did. He echoed Christ. And here we are after all this time. And these echoes come with great fire and vigour today to us all. And in the silence we should utter the same prayer that was in the poem of this great man.

Artist Ian Fleming handing his jigsaw artwork to Irish President Mary McAleese at Ullans Academy's Columbanus Celebration

Beginning her speech which at times wandered away from the published draft on the Irish President’s website, Mary McAleese reckoned “it’s a strange company when we have Lord Bannside quoting a Pope and Columbanus, and Sammy Douglas quoting Saint Augustine. I feel in a very strange place today but in absolutely the right place!”

And I want to thank Dr Ian Adamson and the Ullans Academy for inviting Martin and I to join you here today to mark the feast of St Columbanus, celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on this day [the 23rd] by tradition or throughout Ireland by tradition on the 24th of November. So it’s very fitting that we gather on this day, particularly in what is a slowly but surely reconciling contemporary Ireland, where the most raw of historical divisions have actually been between Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians. It’s important I think that we ask ourselves: is there anything about this man, born fifteen hundred and seventy years ago, that could help us – this man who was the great pilgrim, the great journeyer – is there anything about him that could help us on the journey that we’re all on together this day?

There’s nothing new about turning to that far off millennium that he came from for inspiration. We do it all the time. We’re always turning back to Saint Patrick, by far Ireland’s most influential immigrant. He was the stranger who came among us and who left that huge indelible imprint on Ireland so much so that he became the patron saint of Ireland. Columbanus could justifiably claim to be Ireland’s most influential emigrant, the man from this country who went out to the world. Of course born here, raised here, educated here. But he left his imprint not just here in Ireland but throughout Europe. Though I have to say it’s not really a fair deal in my view that Patrick who didn’t come from here ends up being the patron saint of Ireland and Columbanus ends up being the patron saint of motorcyclists. It doesn’t seem like a very fair deal to me. If he was alive today he’d be straight down to the Equal Opportunities Commission I’m sure. And he might – given this gathering – take encouragement from the fact that he would have cross-community support.

I was going to skirt rather delicately over Columbanus’ fidelity to the Pope. For obvious reasons it might arouse passions in some quarters, but thankfully Lord Bannside skirted over that anyway for me. And I was also going to skirt over the fact that he was also a man well known to protest at times to Popes. But again Lord Bannside took that and hit it right on the chin. So here is a man that we can all – no matter what our tradition, no matter our faith perspective – here is an Irish man that we can be proud of. He was an adventurous man, a courageous man, a man of faith, set out on a journey, long before the days of Ryanair, long before the days of Skype and email, when to set out from Bangor and to end up in Bobbio by way of a long, long journey through Europe, it was very much a journey into the unknown. If he had a donkey that would be the height of his technological equipment for the journey. Why did he do that? As we heard, it was because he had an all-consuming passion. That passion was an absolutely ferocious fire inside him that was lit by the idea of how love could transform life: the great commandment to love one another.

That Europe he travelled through was a mess. Probably an even bigger mess than certain Europe’s we’re more familiar with. It was riven with political tensions, rivalries, corruption, decadence, depraved leadership, conflict … you name it. The Europe that he travelled through had any amount of evidence of the messes that human beings are capable of. It was a very dangerous place. He was exposed to danger more often than I’m sure he had anticipated. And on that road that took him from Bangor through England, France and to his final destination – the place that he eventually died – in Bobbio in Italy. There was no guarantee that he would arrive safe and intact in any of those places he set out for because he was a sign of contradiction. He was a man who wanted to turn people to the same passion that he had, to look at the world through different eyes.

Today the physical and the intellectual legacy of that very arduous itinerary is seen in the monasteries he founded and the towns and the cities that are named after them, and of course the place-names that honour his memory all over continental Europe. But the intellectual legacy is the one I think we can be very, very proud of. Because in a dark Europe and a very grim Europe, that lacked any kind of a unified and life-enhancing vision for how people could and should relate to each other. Here comes this man Columbanus. He was a light, he was a civilising influence, he was a man accustomed to scholarship, accustomed to being prayerful, accustomed to silence, nor afraid in the least of silence. And he was a man who had a message to people to tell them how they could relate humanly to each other. And how if they related in that loving way they would release into their lives and into the civic space and the political space a whole new power.

It’s described very beautifully – and I see that you use the phrase Ian in your book – someone has described him as “creating a contagion of holiness”. It’s a beautiful phrase. His own words are inscribed on the wall of the Columbanus chapel in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome which I recommend anyone who’s in Rome go to see. And in that basilica the words that are written are very important: ‘si tollis libertatem tollis dignitatem’ – if you take away human freedom you destroy human dignity. Or where human dignity flourishes, it flourishes because of freedom. And these words are probably to familiar to some of your ears because these words written by Columbanus a millennium ago are of course to be found in the first Article of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Taken straight from Columbanus: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.”

Here we are today, the inheritors of his vision, fellow inhabitants and sister inhabitants of his homeland, citizens of the European Union, probably itself the greatest, most ambitious peace process the world has ever undertaken. We are co-partners with each another in another very important peace process: the one that effects us mostly and most immediately on this island, and one that could yet vindicate Columbanus’ faith in the transcendent power of love. The European Union’s motto is ‘in varietate unitas’, unity in diversity, a powerful and very appropriate summary of where we are all at as peace-makers, striving to create here a place that acknowledges people of very different perspectives, acknowledges them as neighbours, as friends. So a place where differences of faith or politics should not and will not in the future inspire either fear or hatred or contempt or distrust but would rather be the very test the Columbanus in us. Are we able to respond to those differences with respect for difference, with love for the person. Are we truly able to love our neighbour as ourselves, differences and all.

We are really very privileged to live in this time when a thousand years almost after Columbanus we begin to feel the power at work in our own lives, our own relationships, of the release into the civic space and into the political space of a new way of relating to each other, a more loving way. We willingly now acknowledge the mosaic nature of our own identity and the mosaic nature of our history.

We also do something very important more often than not now. Sammy alluded to it and Ian alluded to it. And that is the way in which we now track back through history not using it in the way we were accustomed to, to ransack it for ammunition to hurl at each other, but looking at it now with different eyes to see what have we overlooked, where was the shared history that we could have created a common platform out of. Where were we able and where are we able to position ourselves so that we begin to look at the world through the same eyes. Maybe one of the reasons why Columbanus is not as he should be as the patron saint of Europe is precisely because we were discordant in our voices. We weren’t unified in our admiration and respect for him, seeing ourselves – all of us – as his successors and his inheritors whether we’re Irish, British, Northern Irish, Ulster Scots, Gaelic, European, whatever our identity, whatever our mixed identity or our fused identities in this Ireland, in this island we now inhabit. We now inhabit a world that is determined to be free of labelling people in order to be distrustful, labelling in order to be contentious. Now we pledge ourselves to, and through, this man whom we gather in honour of this day, a world absent of the threat of sectarianism, absent of threat of racism, secure in the knowledge that on this island there are no favourites. Everyone is a cherished child of the island. And that was the message Columbanus had. It was a message to all leaders, all key influencers of his day, that that is how people should be treated. That all of those that were in public position, they lived and existed to serve that image of the individual human person, as a person to be respected with innate human dignity. But he also had a message for each of us as individuals. That not only are we entitled to our human dignity but each one of us in everything that we do and everything that we say and everything that we plan, we are the sacred custodians of the dignity of every other human being. And that places us in a very, very special relationship one to the other.

Many times since the millenniums since Columbanus made that extraordinary journey and became the European intellectual and spiritual colossus that he is today, many times in the meanwhile his message of the transcendent power of love and the dignity of the human person has come very close to obliteration on our planet, on our continent and here in our own island. But what’s great about being here today is the evidence that in this room and is abroad, on the streets of this city and right across this island, the peace-loving people of Northern Ireland, of Ireland, of the European Union, they are once again carrying that torch of Columbanus. They’re continuing that journey, from Bangor to Bobbio, from dark to light, from hate to love, from despair to hope.

I just like to think that we who have the benefit of fifteen hundred years of rather humbling hindsight now, unlike Columbanus who couldn’t see the future that we can look back on now. He believed that it could be a great future, he probably didn’t realise how long it was going to take for his words to really take hold of people’s hearts. We have the benefit now of fifteen hundred years of very humbling hindsight. We have the benefit of a direct limited experience of the devastating consequences of violence and intercommunal violence and now we have charge of the plant of peace. It’s ours. It’s been grown by our hands. It’s been grown by our hearts. And we have planted this extraordinary story now in the history of this island. I think we have done something that Columbanus would be very, very proud of. But I think our job is to ensure that we bring it to full flowering and full fruition in a much shorter time-frame than the millennium and a half since the man in whose name we gather today. I think that would be the best thing we could do, to pledge ourselves as he did to live with the same passion, the same enthusiasm, to live every single day as if it was its last. Every single day dedicated and devoted to building up friendship between human beings, to making people understand that if you love one another, difficult though it may be, good things happen, wonderful things happen, miraculous things happen. That’s the message of Columbanus that we gather to celebrate this day. Enjoy each other’s company, the vary fact that we are around these tables is itself proof of the miracle.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sesame Tree's beezer second series + Corrigan Brothers' Give Them Cheese

For Sesame Tree fans reading the blog, I'm reminded that the second series started airing on CBeebies this week, each week day at 10.40am. Which by my calculations means that the Oscar the Grouch episode should be aired on Friday 17 December. It aired on Monday 6 December.

You can catch the backlog on iPlayer. They've also released a teaser song - Beezer Buddies Song - on YouTube to promote the new series.

And if that's not your thing, check out the Corrigan Brothers' latest topical song, with their economic crisis words Give Them Cheese set to the Beatles melody.

Now we find ourselves in times of trouble, economy is on it’s knees
Cowen has the answer give em cheese
And in your hour of darkness when you’re cut off by the E S B
At least you have your cheddar and it’s free ...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Recording a lecture using Flip cameras - hassles and learning

For those more into technology than art, this is the behind-the-scenes post about the production of the Catherwood Lecture (detailed in the previous post). It’s one of a number of practical how to posts I’ve been meaning to write for a while – partly to share experience and also selfishly to get feedback and discover how I can produce things more efficiently the next time!

The lecture was captured on four fixed Flip cameras* (one of which has a badly cracked screen) and then edited together in Final Cut Express. Although a feed of the audio was also recorded straight out of the lecture theatre's PA system, on the finished video I found it easier just to use the audio captured by the camera closest to the lecturer!

There's a balance to be struck between capturing the raw footage and the time it'll take post-production. While you have to live with your mistakes, mixing live means you walk away after the event is over with a single piece of footage captured to hard drive or DVD that just needs topped, tailed and uploaded. However, the need to source bulkier cameras, power and cabling the venue tends to make that impractical. Much easier and certainly more unobtrusive to stick rechargeable Flip cameras on tripods (large or small) and flick each one’s big red button as the event starts.

If you click on the image below, it should expand to show where the cameras were placed. Three of them couldn’t be moved once the lecture started, so I was lucky that the angles worked so well so much of the time.

Annotated picture outlying the camera coverage of the lecture theatre

Older Flips can only store 1 hour of footage, so a couple of cameras actually ran out before the lecture ended! But the most important angles were from higher capacity cameras that would get right to the end.

As I said, rather than remixing the feeds after the event, it would have been twenty times faster to edit the footage live, with the four cameras feeding into a simple video mixing desk and a recorder.

With small cameras, there’s no luxury of timecodes or clapper boards. In previous two camera shoots – usually shorter interviews – I’ve used the audio spike created by clicking my fingers before the interview started to synchronise the two pieces of footage in the video editor. This time, the cameras were too far apart for that trick to work. But since all the cameras could see some part of the projector screen, synchronising the four feeds was mainly achieved by lining up the frames where the big screen flicked from one image to another early on in the footage.

Timeline showing synchronisation of the four angles

Editing a timeline with four one hour HD clips stacked on top of each other is not a pleasurable experience. Render times are astronomical … even the mandatory one to make the audio usable and get rid of the "beep beep beep" as you play the unrendered timeline. (While Final Cut Express can play audio from Flip clips from its bins, it can't play the audio unrendered when it's on the timeline. It's a mystery why this is the case.)

Editing linearly doesn’t seem to be a feature of non-linear editors. Shame really. There are still times when it’s necessary. Unfortunately there's no easy way – at least no easy way I've found – to simply cut between the four angles in Final Cut Express while retaining the integrity of the synchronisation with the sound. It would be lovely if there was a simple interface that replicated the normal live mixing environment and allowed the user to direct which camera should be taken as the source at any particular point in the time line.

Instead cuts were achieved through the tortuous process of manipulating the opacity effect of clips. Setting the opacity of a clip high up in the stack to zero means that the video from the clips underneath shine through.

screen shot of Final Cut Express edit timeline showing use of opacity to cut between synchronise shots

An hour or so of footage is also a challenge to upload. Given that the talk was about works of art, the rendered and uploaded file needed to be as high resolution as possible.

I’ve a preference for hosting video on Vimeo. (The length ruled out Youtube which has a 15 minute limit for non-partners.) Vimeo limits uploads via the web interface to 1GB. However, the often-flaky Air-based uploader app copes with up to 2GB. Thankfully it didn’t fall over (as it normally does) during the eight hour upload.

The smallest HD file I could produce was 2.72GB – well over any limit. So I settled for a downscaled 960x540 clip – the format compatible with original Apple TVs! It came in at 1.58GB – which rendered in a few hours overnight with the assistance of a non-HD Elgato Turbo.264 hardware accelerator – and only looks a bit blurry now that Vimeo has transcoded it to its internal format.

Any tips on faster ways of editing the footage down gratefully received …

(*Although I was using Flip cameras, the process would be similar for other pocket-sized cameras.)

Contemporary Art and the Return of Religion - available for replay

Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin

As mentioned in a post last week, Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin was delivering Contemporary Christianity’s 2010 Catherwood Lecture in Derry and Belfast, looking at the subject of Contemporary Art and the Return of Religion.

The video of Thursday night’s lecture in University of Ulster’s Belfast campus is now available for playback.

Contemporary Christianity’s annual Catherwood Lecture always attempts to bring theology to the public square and leave its audience with something to think about.

Contemporary Christianity vertical banner

Modern art is often a there-be-dragons area in Christian circles. Amongst the blocks of colour, unmade beds, sheds and rubble, can there be any aspect of religious expression or faith? Is it positive representation? Is the art any good? Is your soul damaged in the process of deciding!

Adrienne suggested that after several centuries of mutual distrust, mainstream contemporary art from Andy Warhol and Andres Serrano to Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili can now be seen to incorporate the kind of religious references which since the origins of modern art had been largely absent.

This raises some interesting questions: How do these images relate to their historic, traditional meanings? To whom do religious stories and symbols belong? And how should Christians respond to such works?

Dr Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin studied art history and violin in the Free University in Amsterdam, taught philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and was president of the Canadian Society for Aesthetics. Her research interests are the problem of meaning in art, art and embodiment, and theological aesthetics. Published in various books and journals and co-author of Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts (IVP, 2002), Adrienne is a free-lance writer and speaker, currently writing on the relation between faith and art.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Was the cycle stand full?

Photo of a bicycle (from someone at the NICS Live event) locked to the statue in front of the Belfast Waterfront

Last week 2200 delegates took part in a conference in the Belfast Waterfront pitched at the Northern Ireland Civil Service. NICS Live was mounted by Dods at no cost to local departments, and was free for civil servants to attend (other than the time away from their normal roles) and featured a range of keynote addresses and seminars. Some - well, few - of the presentations are now available from the Civil Service Live website.

At least one of the 2200 delegates arrived by bicycle ...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Contemporary Art and the Return of Religion - Contemporary Christianity - annual Catherwood Lecture

Contemporary Christianity vertical banner

Contemporary Christianity’s annual Catherwood Lecture always attempts to bring theology to the public square and leave its audience with something to think about.

Last year, HBOS whistleblower Paul Moore spoke about his experience as the former Head of Group Regulatory Risk at HBOS, the only senior risk and compliance executive in the UK banking sector to speak out publicly in the aftermath of the financial crisis about what he saw from the inside of a bank. You can listen back to his lecture, and how he feels about finance and faith, on Contemporary Christianity’s website.

Amongst the blocks of colour, unmade beds, sheds and rubble, do you see any aspect of religious expression or faith in modern art? Was it a positive representation? Was the art any good?

Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin

These are the kind of questions that Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin will be addressing in this year’s lecture: Contemporary Art and the Return of Religion.

After several centuries of mutual distrust, mainstream contemporary art from Andy Warhol and Andres Serrano to Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili can now be seen to incorporate the kind of religious references which since the origins of modern art had been largely absent.

This raises some interesting questions: How do these images relate to their historic, traditional meanings? To whom do religious stories and symbols belong? And how should Christians respond to such works?

Dr. Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin studied art history and violin in the Free University in Amsterdam, taught philosophical aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and was president of the Canadian Society for Aesthetics. Her research interests are the problem of meaning in art, art and embodiment, and theological aesthetics. Published in various books and journals and co-author of Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts (IVP, 2002), Adrienne is a free-lance writer and speaker, currently writing on the relation between faith and art.

Open to the public and free.

  • Wednesday 17 November at 8pm, Room MD007, University of Ulster (Magee campus)
  • Thursday 18 November, Connor Lecture Theatre, University of Ulster (Belfast campus)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

East Belfast Spoke Out

Panellists at 2010 East Belfast Speaks Out

East Belfast Speaks Out packed out the hall at Ashfield Boys School last night as more than 400 people turned up to the town hall event, more than tripling last year's attendance. This year Mark Devenport chaired the panel of Liam Clarke (journalist and commentator), Peter Robinson (DUP), Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein), Dawn Purvis (independent) and Hugo Swire (Conservative Minister of State).

It was probably only the second time since Peter Robinson took over as First Minister that he's appeared (as an MLA rather than a minister) on a panel alongside Martin McGuinness.

The detailed write-up of the evening is over on Slugger O'Toole. If you're curious you can listen to the debate which covered a wide range of topics: the size of local political institutions, Historical Enquiries Team, CSI, the future of NI, corporation tax and the Azores ruling, why Owen Paterson was missing for the second year in a row, university fees, capital cuts and public sector job cuts.

I got the reaction of some of the panellists afterwards.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sesame Tree launches its second series

Back in August I got the chance to meet Caroll Spinney, the actor and puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in Sesame Street. He was across in Belfast along with Oscar to film an episode of Northern Ireland's own Sesame Tree. You can catch up with my interview with both Oscar and Caroll in the August post.

This morning saw the launch of the second series of Sesame Tree in the QFT. While Martin McGuinness was famously pictured with Muppets Potto and Hilda at the launch of the first series of Sesame Tree, the local co-production with Sesame Workshop, today he was accompanied by fellow eejit (his words, not mine) Peter Robinson.

Launch of the second series of Sesame Tree - Darren Kidd/Presseye.com - Pictured with Hilda, Potto and Archie from Sesame Tree are from left to right: Richard Williams, Chief Executive Northern Ireland Screen; Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister; Peter Robinson, First Minister; and Denis Rooney CBE, Chairman, International Fund for Ireland.

In their speeches (which you can listen to below) the First and deputy First Ministers were both upbeat about the production and the local creative sector. Continuing the banter started by the International Fund for Ireland’s Denis Rooney who’d enjoyed a smacker on the lips from Hilda at a party in the American Consulate last night, Peter Robinson declared that he was “vying for Hilda’s interest too”. He also reassured the parents in the audience not to worry about their children’s noise or running up the aisles. “Martin and I are used to all of that - we go to the Assembly every week!”

Referring to Sesame Tree – as well as productions being filmed in the Paint Hall – Martin McGuinness was gratified about “the skills that [local] people are learning … that will lead to other projects”. He noted the “key messages of tolerance, acceptance and equality” embedded in each episode.

The show’s executive producer Colin Williams explained that Sesame Tree was the first network children’s television “100% written and produced in Northern Ireland with an entirely local cast and local crew”. The BBC’s Jane Cassidy said that CBeebies were delighted with the localness of the show: “[CBeebies] love us the way we are with our accents and humour”.

Northern Ireland Screen’s chief executive Richard Williams said that Sesame Tree was “an absolutely picture perfect project for NI Screen” and had grown into “a cultural export” as it made the transition from BBC NI to network TV on CBeebies. He singled out production company Sixteen South’s entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that made them “the most exciting children’s TV producers in the UK”. (Sixteen South are also responsible for Big City Park, set in Belfast’s Ormeau Park.)

Launch of the second series of Sesame Tree - Darren Kidd/Presseye.com - Pictured with Hilda, Potto and Archie from Sesame Tree are from left to right: Richard Williams, Chief Executive Northern Ireland Screen; Peter Robinson, First Minister; Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister; and Denis Rooney CBE, Chairman, International Fund for Ireland.

I spoke to Sixteen South's Colin Williams and Sesame Workshop's Charlotte Cole afterwards.

When the adults had finished their speechifying, children from three local schools involved in the show’s production were ushered in to the front seats and sat entranced as they watched the first episode before taking part in a live Q&A with Potto (a big purple recluse), Hilda (a young Irish hare who wears gutties) and their new friend Archie (a next-door neighbour squirrel).

In each episode, a child from across Northern Ireland poses the puppets a question (linked back to the Northern Ireland curriculum) sending it through to Potto’s Big Whizzing Machine.

Having failed to learn my lesson with Oscar, after the launch I spoke to Oscar and Archie - as usual, Hilda wasn't around as she'd scooted out of the tree. Potto started by talking about his inventions.

Potto and Archie chatting after the Sesame Tree series 2 launch by alaninbelfast

Photos - Darren Kidd/Presseye.com

Monday, November 08, 2010

Nelson McCausland talking about digital economy at Belfast Telegraph roadshow

The Belfast Telegraph’s Tell Us About It roadshow finished its “two month odyssey around Northern Ireland” in Belfast City Hall tonight where more than 50 members of the public had battled through the rain to pose questions to the panel of five politicians chaired by Lynda Bryans.

2010 Build conference banner

The second question of the evening challenged the inevitable cuts to arts budgets under the spending review. As part of his answer, the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Nelson McCausland singled out the potential for the local digital economy and creative industries.

This week, the Build conference returns to the Belfast bringing together web designers from across the world. You can see the conference banners hanging outside the Waterfront Hall.

At the end of the event, I asked Nelson to explain more about what he’d mentioned about the digital economy.

He talked about his trip out to the SXSW festival (South By South West) in Austin, Texas.

“I was struck by the number of young people involved in the digital economy that I hadn’t met here in Belfast. And I discovered that quite a number of them were actually working from a base about four or five hundred yards from my office. And yet I had to go all the way to Austin to meet them.

So there’s work to be done there in terms of raising that potential and right across the political spectrum getting politicians to recognise that areas such as creative industries are really important for the future of the economy of Northern Ireland.”

In terms of initiatives and opportunities that could be offered to this industry, he went on say:

“There was a Digital Circle formed of people who are the experts and practitioners in that field. A lot of the remit for this falls within Invest NI’s responsibility and DETI, rather than DCAL.

Our role is more of a supporting role. But there is a crossover in that NI Screen has a remit for that, maybe one that hasn’t been as fully developed as it could have in the past.

We’re actually working with Invest NI, with DETI, at how that could be reconfigured to make government more supportive of the digital sector. And I would hope that the results of that will be out in the next number of months.”

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Belfast City Council twinned with Big Brother ... as they increase visibility & accountability of council business

Belfast SDLP Councillor Niall Kelly

Late last year, SDLP councillor Niall Kelly suggested that Belfast City Council stream its meetings online (and make the archive of recorded footage available) to increase accountability and civil participation. The idea was bounced from the main council to the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, and then back to the full Council last week.

At the 22 October meeting of Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, the Democratic Services Manager – who had a busy meeting that day – reminded the committee that

... at its meeting on 23rd May, 2008, it adopted a set of recommendations of the Audit Panel in relation to a Code of Governance for the Council. Part of that Code committed the Council to “taking informed, transparent decisions which are subject to effective scrutiny…..” It is certainly the case that the live streaming and archiving of Council Meetings would be in line with this commitment.

Furthermore, the Council's promotion of a Customer Focus approach commits it to providing the public with as much information as possible about the Council’s decision-making processes and the live streaming and archiving of meetings would be consistent with such a customer focussed service delivery.

They talked to the NI Assembly and Dublin City Council and eliminated the need (and substantial cost) of a broadcast quality system. The option that won the committee’s recommendation was a lease scheme.

The system used by Dublin City Council would seem to be effective in delivering the service. This system provides live streaming of high quality video feed from moveable cameras, providing viewers with on-screen information, including details of the meeting agenda and of individual speakers, and will archive the footage in a manner that can be retrieved and viewed through the Council’s website.

The system would be leased from a company which specialises in providing this service. There would be no initial capital cost but it would require an annual leasing charge of approximately £20,000. It would be the responsibility of the company providing the service to update the equipment and to provide maintenance when appropriate. These costs are included within the aforementioned figure. This option could result in an approximate cost to the Council of £60,000 over three years.

The alternative of purchasing the equipment outright and training up Council staff to maintain it “could result in an approximate cost to the Council of £80,000 over three years”.

At the 1 November meeting of the full council, the motion was “supported by the SDLP, Sinn Fein and members of both the DUP and UUP” and passed despite Alliance protests about the financial outlay. Though spending a small amount to improve the overall council process might be a good investment and save a lot of wasted money in the long term.

On his blog, Councillor Niall Kelly commented on the level of debate and other councillors’ reservations about the scheme.

We had quite a spirited debate about this in the P&R committee with a few members giving some strange reasons for opposing this plan. The main argument against was that some of the debates we have at the monthly council meeting are so awful that it could be embarrassing for the public to actually goes on in the chamber.


The idea behind this motion was to increase the level of accountability and transparency which exists in council yet those who opposed it thought that the behaviour of some members would be open to more scrutiny and could be embarrassing. My response, and that of other members, was that if the public saw some of what constitutes ‘debate’ in the chamber then it should be the members in question, and not the public, who should be embarrassed.

There will now be a tendering process, so don’t expect to see councillors doing up the top buttons on their shirts and fixing their make-up before going on line anytime soon. Niall suggests that “… the plan is that the cameras will be in place for the next Council AGM which will be Wednesday 1st June 2011 for the election of the new Lord Mayor of Belfast.”

I caught up with Niall Kelly at the weekend's SDLP conference and asked him about the innovation.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Something for the weekend - food, Brutalism, Diwali, Turnips and a gig on a barge

McKees Christmas Fayre

We’d a lovely meal in McKees restaurant a couple of Friday night’s ago. Their annual FREE Christmas Fayre is on this weekend, Friday 6pm-9pm and Saturday 10am-4pm, with an opportunity to sample their goods and order in time for the festive season. 28 Holywood Road, Newtownards, BT23 4TQ.

At 11am on Saturday, the Ulster Museum is the venue for a Brutalist building visit and workshop aimed at primary school-aged children. The museum itself is an example of Brutalist 1960s/1970s architecture, and there’ll be an opportunity to make your own Brutalist model. There’s a £5 charge and a booking link over on the PLACE website.

Diwali Samhain Indo-Celtic Festival

The Diwali and Samhain festival celebrations organised by Artsekta continue in the Ulster Museum on Saturday. Between 1pm and 4pm there’s a free “afternoon of Irish and Indian culture and creativity” with singing, dancing, crafts … and face painting! And between 5pm and 9pm, there’s an elaborate finale to the week-long “Ireland’s first Indo-Celtic Festival” with music, dance, puppeteers, storytellers and street artists. (£1 entrance for the evening event.)

Although the monthly Farmers’ Market no longer operates, Lisburn’s Castle Gardens will be hosting an Enchanted Food and Garden Market on Saturday between 10am and 4pm. Crafts, face painting and kids entertainers will be there. And a showcase of childrens’ entries from Lisburn’s (now annual) Turnip Festival will be on display between Saturday 6 and Saturday 13 in 35-37 Market Centre facing the Linen Museum.

On Saturday night, the Lazy Susans are performing in The Barge, tied up next to Nula with the hula (or doll with the ball or thing with the ring or officially Ring of Thanksgiving) in Thanksgiving Square next to the Waterfront Hall. The gig is raising money for the continued renovation of the barge. For £8 (£5 concession) you can expect an evening of a cappella harmony singing from the Lazy Susans (none of whom are called Susan!) covering songs by Bob Dylan, James Dylan, the Beatles, Mika amongst others. Tickets can be booked by emailing admin AT laganlegacy DOT com and then paid and picked up on the night. Doors open at 7.30pm for an 8pm start. There’s no bar, so bring your own.

Black Box Market

The Black Market runs on the first Sunday of each month in Belfast’s Black Box on Hill Street. Arts, crafts, clothing, food, books and … for this month, mulled wine and a piece of shortbread only £3 from the bar. Noon-5pm.

Or there was the SDLP Conference in the Belfast Ramada at Shaws Bridge ... which was open to the (paying) public on Friday night and all day Saturday!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Belfast Telegraph roadshow rolls into ... Belfast (8 November)

Poster for Belfast Telegraph - Tell us about it - roadshow in Belfast

With the number of political panels, you'd think there was an election just around the corner!

Within greater Belfast, November is turning into political accountability month. East Belfast Speaks Out takes place on Wednesday10 November with pretty senior politicians from the ConDem government and NI Executive expected to appear on the panel.

Two nights before on Monday 8 November, the Belfast Telegraph is holding the last in its series of Tell Us About It public meetings in Belfast City Hall. Hosted by Lynda Bryans, they've assembled reps from the five biggest local political parties to answer readers' questions pertaining to the city of Belfast.

  • Stephen Farry (Alliance)
  • Alex Maskey (Sinn Fein)
  • Alban Maginness (SDLP)
  • Nelson McCausland (DUP)
  • Basil McCrea (UUP)

In the hour-long session, what are the bets that there will be questions covering transport, housing, social issues, public sector accountability, culture ... or will it be dominated by economic plan envy as each party explains why its proposals are bigger and better than everyone else's?

Questions can be submitted in advance to joris DOT mine AT jprni DOT com. If you're going, you need to confirm your attendance by emailing marian DOT gapper AT belfasttelegraph DOT co DOT uk.

Tree building in Victoria Square

It's quite a task to construct the Victoria Square conical Christmas tree each year.

Victoria Square conical Christmas Tree construction

I wonder is there a little door at the bottom to let the team out once the last piece is screwed in from the inside?!

Victoria Square conical Christmas Tree construction