What is culture? If you were asked to list "your top ten cultural highlights" coming up in Belfast this summer, what would you include? I recently agreed to compile such a list for the Guardian’s Travel website - published today - trying to shoehorn in a variety of events and festivals that reflect that will be happening across the city over the summer months.
I was a little surprised when two of the entries on my original list were removed: Summer Madness and Orangefest. I've got to say first that I respect any editor’s right to decide what gets published on their website - that's certainly Mick Fealty's prerogative over on Slugger O'Toole!
But in the context of Northern Ireland it seemed strange to eliminate two of the three largest events that attract visitors from outside Northern Ireland. After all, religion and politics are often at the centre of culture on this island … the very essence of the place!
In the end I came up with a selection of fifteen, still leaving out many events that caught my eye. Ten made it into the finely illustrated Guardian's online article; and you can find the full fifteen below.
I'm interested in your comments about what constitutes arts and culture in Northern Ireland, and whether I carelessly overlooked any Belfast events that you would have included on your top ten list.
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In a city which boasts more than 50 festivals each year, there’s rarely a dull moment in Belfast. Despite the cuts in arts funding, from early summer to late in August, Belfast is awash with books, drama, films, fragrant roses, live music and parades.
Belfast Book Festival. 13-19 June. Based at the Crescent Arts Centre in the south of the city, the Belfast Book Festival is intent on capturing the literary energy of the city in a week-long celebration of the writer and the reader. There will be poetry, prose, nature, history, memoir, crime and all points in-between. Featuring well known writers such as David Peace and Ciarán Carson, the festival will also give a voice to Northern Ireland’s new writers, as well as offering a wide ranging programme of classes, films and live events throughout the week. www.belfastbookfestival.com
Pick’n’Mix Festival. 17-19 June. Held over a June weekend, this pop-up theatre and dance festival offers a sweetie bag full of sugary treats. Based in Queen’s University’s Brian Friel Theatre and rehearsal studio, there will be a programme of staged readings, mini plays and dance performances showcasing Northern Ireland talent. A farcical Cooking with Elvis (Bruiser); children shows (Cahoots); up to the minute satire (Tinderbox); Requiem for the Disappeared (opera by Ransom); and kinetic motion sensors supporting a three dimensional dance performance in a virtual world (Eileen McClory). Tickets £5; some double dip offers (two shows for the price of one). www.facebook.com/picknmixfestival
Open House Festival. 22-26 June. Fusing American roots with Irish traditional music, the popular Open House Festival is in its 13th year. It has grown out of its “two pubs and a Cathedral” nickname to become a major folk and roots festival attracting visitors from across the Atlantic and mainland Europe. Headline acts like Laura Marling, Fleet Foxes, Villagers and The Low Anthem are already confirmed as playing in Custom House Square as well as a soon to be launched programme of intimate gigs in Cathedral Quarter pubs. www.openhousefestival.com
Summer Madness. 1-5 July. A tented city springs up at the beginning of the summer each year in the Kings Hall complex in South Belfast. Think of Summer Madness as Ireland’s answer to Greenbelt, with over 2,000 campers and thousands more day visitors enjoying the Christian festival with a strong music and arts bent. Duffy Robbins (USA), Simon Guillebaud (Burundi) and Krish Kandiah (UK) head up the mainstage programme with Martin Smith (front man for Delirious) leading worship. Seminar strands cover faith, ethics, culture and relationships. And then there are films, coffee, sport, workshops, prayer and a long queue for the showers. All denominations (and none) welcomed. A safe space for teenagers as well as being family friendly. Pricing varies, online registration open until 27 June. www.summermadness.co.uk
Orangefest. 12 July. Thousands of Orange Men wearing bowlers hats, white gloves and orange sashes along with the sound of beating drums will fill the streets of Belfast City Centre as the annual Twelfth parade snakes its four mile trail up to “the field” in Barnett’s Demesne. In a bid to distance itself from past sectarian tensions around the marching season and the 11th night bonfires, members of the loyal orders and the accompanying accordion, flute and pipe bands will be joined by street performers and cartoon characters. Extra public transport will ferry people into the city centre where shops will open at lunchtime once the main parade has past. Food stalls and bouncy castles operate alongside the religious service and traditional speeches up in the field before everyone marches back home. www.belfastorange.net
Rose Week. 13-17 July. Get outside and walk around Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park to enjoy the vivid sights and smells of the international rose gardens. Take a relaxed wander around the 45,000 rose blooms of all varieties, accompanied by gentle harp music. There are competitions and activities for children, as well as live music from each afternoon from local brass, flute and jazz bands. And if the weather’s too hot or showery, step inside a marquee for a nice cup of tea. Entrance is free. www.belfastcity.gov.uk/roseweek
Ormeau Baths Gallery. 21 July-28 August. Detonating Rough Ground is an exhibition brings together photographers whose work differently engages with the trauma, memory and sensory aspects of conflict. Sophie Ristelhueber captures the dismantled apparatus and long lasting scars of war in Kuwait, Iraq and Bosnia. Paul Seawright “Volunteer” shots draw from contemporary cities in the US and the representation of conflict at a distance from the battlefield. A series of talks and events will accompany this free exhibition. www.ormeaubaths.co.uk
Belfast Pride. 23-30 July. Having started out 21 years ago as a Saturday afternoon parade with 100 participants, Belfast Pride has now grown into a week-long programme of LGBT cinema, debates and club nights. The march is now the largest cross community parade in Belfast – bigger than St Patrick’s Day! – attracting upwards of 15,000 spectators (and a small number of fervent protesters). The main march leaves Custom House Square at 2pm on Saturday 30 and snakes rowdily through the city centre before returning for the Party in the Square with bands, cabaret, drag, feathers and fireworks as well as family-friendly activities for children beside the Lagan Lookout away from all the noise and alcohol. www.belfastpride.com
Féile an Phobail. 28 July-7 August. Scattered across West Belfast venues, Ireland’s largest community festival offers an annual treat of good value music, comedy, drama and speech, as well as sports. Gen up on the local history by taking a walking tour through a city cemetery led by a previous Lord Mayor Tom Hartley. See new plays performed in novel venues (has previously included the back of a black taxi). Hear traditional music and pop music in venues large and small. The much anticipated West Belfast Talks Back debate brings politicians from all traditions together to answer the questions from the audience. Wise men came from the east … travelling west! www.feilebelfast.com
Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson on Lagan Legacy Barge. 30 July at 8pm. The marriage of a local Country Down chanteuse and drummer to an Australian blues musician has created a blend of blues well worth hearing in deep south Belfast. Moored on the River Lagan near to the eye-catching Waterfront Hall, the Lagan Legacy barge is a maritime museum and coffee chop by day and eclectic venue by night. www.laganlegacy.com
Belfast Photo Festival. 4-14 August. Northern Ireland’s new photographic event wants to inspire existing and potential photographers by showcasing the talent of local and international practitioners – amateur and professional – in a series of curated exhibitions across the city. The programme is not yet finalised, but already includes “Europe” (Belfast Waterfront) observing five nations through the lens of German artist Christof Pluemacher. There’s a much more insular focus in Simon Burch’s “Under a Grey Sky” (Golden Thread Gallery) which explores the scarred central peatlands of Ireland through large scale colour prints. www.belfastphotofestival.com
Classic Films at the Waterfront. 5-7, 12-14 August. If you find yourself puddle hopping in Belfast and looking for some indoor entertainment, Belfast’s Waterfront is screening family-friendly films for £3 in its river-side auditorium at a variety of times from mid-afternoon to evening: Grease, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, You Only Live Twice or ET. You can even sit back and take in the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy starting at noon on 13 August for £8. Check website for times. While you’re there, check out the two photography exhibitions on the ground and second floor. www.waterfront.co.uk
Great Belfast Art Hunt. 6 August, 1pm-5pm. Works of art can get lonely when they are trapped in galleries only known to those in the art world. But if you meet up in front of Belfast’s Ulster Hall by 1pm you can take part in a fun treasure hunt that will take you in and out of ten or more galleries as you solve the clues on the way to the secret gallery party at the end. Gain an appreciation of the Belfast art scene as well good exercise. Tickets are £5 in advance, £6 on the day. www.belfastarthunt.co.uk
Belsonic. 16-27 August. Nightly performances to an audience of 5,000 in Belfast’s Custom House Square under the shadow of the 28 storey Obel Tower. Headline acts booked for 2011 city centre music festival include Elbow, The Specials, and Primal Scream (performing their critically acclaimed Screamadelica LP in its entirety) along with Dizzee Rascal & Plan B. Book early before tickets sell out. www.belsonic.com
Belfast Mela. 28 August, noon to 8.30pm. Not content with indigenous cultural commemorations and parades, Belfast now takes over the city’s Botanic Gardens (near Queen’s University) for an annual cross-cultural “gathering”. World music spanning Bhangra to Bollywood, Gospel to Irish trad, and a spot of Polish electronica along with circus acts, dance, fashion, henna and interactive arts for children. The World Food Market offers flavours from Eastern Europe all the way to the Far East. Arrive before mid-afternoon to avoid long queues at the entrance to this colourful celebration of diversity. £1 entrance to the main Mela. www.belfastmela.org.uk
And if all that culture doesn’t fill your days and satisfy your curiosity about what makes Belfast tick, check out the regular “duck tour” that uses an amphibious vehicle to explore the city’s streets before launching itself into the River Lagan. If you’re feeling energetic, stroll along for a two hour guided walking tour of the Titanic Quarter to find out about the city’s shipyards, maritime history and recent renewal. Or take a black taxi tour and the driver will be sure to show you around and where to find the best craic.