Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review of 2011

2011 was the year that the Irish Blog Awards came to Belfast and shut up shop, TEDxBelfast was run locally, and the RISE sculpture (better known as the Balls on the Falls, or the Westicles) finally appeared on the Broadway roundabout. NI newspaper consumption continued to fall and former editor Steve Dyson reviewed the local papers.

Children of the Revolution (Bill Rolston), Turas (Colin Neill) and Evangelical Journeys - choice and change in a Northern Ireland religious subculture (Claire Mitchell and Gladys Ganiel) were good reads. In March, I helped give away 48 copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time as part of World Book Night. Philip Orr’s play After Dresden had a public reading in Fitzroy Presbyterian church and remains a thought-provoking piece of theatre.

Talking to Rob about the Eleventh Night bonfire in King George V Playing Fields in East Belfast (mp3)

After a night of bonfires, walking around Short Strand with the Lord Mayor and a morning of following District Lodge Number 6 around Belfast, I spent a fascinating afternoon with friends at President McAleese’s 12 July garden party in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, her Phoenix Park Dublin residence. Visiting the set of children’s puppet show Pajanimals was fun too.

Increasingly I got wound up about education in Northern Ireland.

Both the outgoing Presbyterian moderator (Norman Hamilton) and the incoming one (Ivan Patterson) agreed to interviews in early June and spoke about their experiences and hopes. And I got Occupy Belfast to explain why they had set up camp opposite Stan's St Anne's Cathedral.

In the run up to the May 2011 elections, I posted interviews with representatives from smaller partieséirígí, Green Party, IRSP, PUP, Socialist Party and Workers Party – as well as independents Dawn Purvis and Stephen Stewart.

There was much charting of the make up of the Assembly election candidates, and analysis of the cost of getting elected and the price of postal votes.

Technically, the BNP are running the highest proportion of female candidates (1 out of their total of 3 candidates = 33.3%). Alliance are next with 31.8% female candidates, then Sinn Fein (27.5%).

A post about Martin McGuinness' matter-of-fact claim at a town hall event that the murdered PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr had been a Sinn Fein voter ended up on the front of the lunchtime edition of the Belfast Telegraph a couple of hours later.

Through sheer bloody-mindedness – and sugar intake – I was one of only eight people to witness the NI result of the AV referendum, and filmed it for posterity!

A lot of party conferences were attended and covered in posts on Slugger O’Toole. I suggested that Sammy Wilson's conference jokes were contrary to the DUP leader's speech and spent a day up at the Assembly just before Christmas (asking MLAs to give their end of term report for the work of the Assembly). Can you name all sixteen?

End of term report: how do MLAs assess @niassembly performance? (mp3)

Our electric blanket must have come fairly close to setting the bed (and the house?) on fire.

Four weeks on and the Ulster Bank website is still encouraging Mac users to Dowload [sic] security software.

Over the year, it’s been good to see The Dock taking steps forward in the Titanic Quarter as it puts in place a community hub and a space for faith possibly on an actual boat moored behind the Odyssey. I’ll finish this post with the words handed around by one of the The Dock’s chaplains – Chris Bennett – this time last year at the end of a Dock Walk. His prayer for 2011 still rings true for 2012.

Dear Lord, please give me

A few friends who understand me and remain my friends;

A work to do which has real value,
without which the world would be the poorer;

A mind unafraid to travel, even though the trail be not blazed;

An understanding heart;

A sense of humour;

Time for quiet, silent meditation;

A feeling of the presence of God;

The patience to wait for the coming of these things,

With the wisdom to recognize them when they come.


Happy New Year.


Finishing the year with some recommendations of businesses that I value. (You could also read that as finishing the year with a round up of blog posts that never got finished!)

We finally got our house in East Belfast sold in late autumn, and moved house in Lisburn (still referred to as “Belfast’s bedroom”) in early November. A to B Removals are strongly recommended. John Thompson, Kenny and the guys have moved me four times now, take extraordinary care of furniture, have their own storage, and are very agreeable to work with. Serving Lisburn, Downpatrick, Crossgar and beyond - 028 4483 2514.

Five favourite restaurants of the year. Lisburn’s Square Bistro tucked in between Next and Argos in Lisburn Square is a great spot. The food is delicious, the service is good, and the staff are child-friendly. Five miles out of town, The Pheasant on the Upper Ballynahinch Road is a little more expensive, but always a good meal. Little Wing Pizzeria are great (particularly the East Belfast/Upper Newtownards Road branch). I’ve still a soft spot for a blue cheese burger (and sometimes even just an egg-burger) in the Gourmet Burger Bank on Belmont Road, East Belfast. And if you want something fast, cheap and hot at lunchtime in Belfast, check out the Cornish Pasty Trading Company in Church Street.

Holidaying in Buncrana and Derry this summer, the Tower Museum in Derry is well worth a visit. Fascinating history of the city, and the Armada exhibition captured the attention of our six year old. The Doagh Famine Village is another treasure in the north west. While a museum devoted to the Irish famine may not sound terribly appealing, there’s a much greater breadth of history covered, with enthusiastic guides and a cup of tea at the end. Find out about impact of the famine as well as learning about the traditional Irish wake, a Presbyterian meeting house, a Republican safe house, the travelling community and an Orange Hall.

Nice Day Designs features the work of Irish designer and craftmaker Ruth Crean. Based in Limerick, she upcycles second hand clothes and sells all kinds of crafts and jewellery online and in Limerick’s weekend Milk Market (a little like Belfast’s St George’s Market). Worth a look if you’re looking for a present.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Little Prince (Lyric Theatre) ... a little disappointing

The Little Prince

This afternoon’s family Christmas treat was a trip to the Lyric Theatre to the matinee performance of The Little Prince musical.

Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who was in need of a friend. Once upon a time there was a pilot who was forced to land in the Sahara desert. Both set out on journeys of discovery finding friendship and wisdom along the way.

The plot follows two intersecting story lines. Pilot Antoine (played by Kare Conradi) decides to fly off on an adventure and ends up crashing his plane in a desert. The Little Prince (Niamh Perry) lives on an asteroid B612 with its three volcanoes (which need cleaned out), one rose, and where the sun rises and sets 44 times each (Earth) day. The Little Prince goes on an adventure too, visiting other asteroids, meeting adults, and ending up on Earth in the desert with the pilot.

Production still from The Little Prince musical in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast

The costumes are fabulous and sparkle against the set made up of enormous sheets of hanging lined paper onto which video and drawings are projected. It works well and integrates nicely with the show’s lighting.

Part allegory, part surreal, the plot is terribly complicated and hard to follow. On the way into the theatre, staff were handing out a free A4 sheet that summarised the storyline … perhaps a reaction to confusion among early audiences?

Foolishly, I didn’t read ahead while the house lights were up, and spent much of the first half squinting at the sheet to get some kind of hint about what was going on a couple of metres in front of me on the stage.

Sound was a problem, at least for me sitting in the third row. The slightly techno/rock score was much louder than the vocals, and there was barely any song in which it was possible to catch the full lyrics. Antoine was particularly hard to hear.

This is a problem in a musical which has no narration – other than the printed cheat sheet – to help explain the plot. Every now and again a deep bass note would make something in the rigging above resonate – there’s a frequency that needs EQed out to remove the distraction.

Written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince is the most read and most translated French book of the 20th century. This musical adaptation comes from the pens and keyboards of Nicholas Lloyd Webber (son of Andrew) and James D Reid, and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre is home to its first run.

The Little Prince Musical "Welcome To B-612" by The Little Prince Musical

The music is very listenable to, but not sticky: I didn’t find myself humming any of the tunes on the way home. And at one point with a lot of singing about satellites, I half expected that a cover of Lena's Eurovision Song Contest winning Satellite might be just around the corner.

I won't be surprised if there are some tweaks to the score and direction before The Little Prince next escapes B612 and visits a stage in another city. In the meantime, I think I’ll be digging out our copy of the book and (finally) reading it to see what the story was meant to be about.

Update - Culture Northern Ireland's review.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Building Titanic Belfast - timelapse

I love the timelapse video of the construction of Titanic Belfast, the giant iceberg-shaped bow-shaped building that will be the home to the Titanic visitor experience opening in the spring.

There's also a video walkthrough of the new building, showing some aspects of the exhibitions it will contain.

via The Dock blog

Christmas morning routines - run, church, sawing, lunch - in Portrush!

As you sleepily wander around the house in your pyjamas on Christmas morning, spare a thought for 28 year old Olympic single sculling hopeful (and world silver and bronze medallist) Alan Campbell who'll be enjoying a rather more energetic Christmas. Friday's Guardian explains his routine:

I get up pretty early, usually about 6.30am. I'll have a quick bowl of cereal then straight into the car. Then I head for Portrush East Strand, where I run along the beach to the far end. There's another beach there called the White Rocks, which has the longest sand hill on the north coast of Ireland. Then I do 20 laps of the sand dune. Hopefully it's not going to be frozen over like it was last year, when I had to take a shovel with me and dig a path to get up the dune because it was -14C.

Then I run back, into the car and home for a shower before going to church. We go to the local Presbyterian church I was brought up in. I don't go to church all the time but I actually really enjoy it at Christmas. It gives me an hour's rest, an hour to sit down. Then after church I'll go straight down to my boat club where I've got two 350k [meant to say two or three 50kg] sandbags set up and I'll do shuttle runs for 40 minutes carrying them back and forth.

Then after that I'll do an hour of sawing, half an hour on both arms. I've a big bow saw and a telegraph pole I just do big cuts into. The sawing helps get that long movement back and forth with both arms. I know it's a bit Rocky IV, but that is one of my favourite movies. All I need is a picture of Ivan Drago, maybe some minders watching me while I run up the mountain. Then it'll be Christmas lunch. We have all the family over, loads of cousins and it's more of a Christmas feast: turkey, gammon, potatoes, mash, sprouts, Scottish broth, Christmas pudding. My mum really loves cooking it all and we all really go overboard.

I'm not a superstitious person, but my one thing is that in the summer in the middle of the regatta season before I go out to race I'll be sitting there with headphones on listening to Christmas music.

It reminds me of being in the car listening to music going down to do that session. As a single sculler you do spend a lot of time on your own, you do have to be highly motivated. There's a lot of single-mindedness, a lot of big-headedness and you need to get an edge from somewhere in Olympic year.

It's not that my training is better than anyone else's but it's definitely tougher. Going and running up sand dunes like that is quite hard. So when I get on to the start line I know that I've made that sacrifice at Christmas, and maybe the others don't. It just gives me confirmation that I deserve to be there.

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bye bye WH Smith ...

WH Smitha nd Easons logo

WH Smith’s brand will shortly disappear from Belfast. On November 5th, Eason took over the operation of the Donegall Place WH Smith unit near Next and Marks & Spencer. In the New Year, it will close for refurbishment before reopening, branded as Eason. The existing Eason store further on down the street will then close.

According to the Irish Times article by Ciarán Hancock back in October, “Eason employs 26 staff in its existing store, while the WH Smith outlet has 37 employees”.

Staff in the WH Smith store were talking at lunchtime about the changeover. Some were hoping to hear tonight whether they’d still have jobs in the Spring.

Eason has boosted its presence in Belfast city centre by acquiring a leasehold property at 40-46 Donegall Place from British rival WH Smith … Eason owns the freehold on 20 Donegall Place and plans to lease it to another entity … The WH Smith store covers 1,837 square metres, roughly twice the size of its existing shop. It will continue to trade under the WH Smith brand, under licence to Eason, until January next.

This change, leaves airport outlets as WH Smith’s only presence in Northern Ireland.

Expect a good sale in WH Smith after Christmas, as well as an empty unit on Donegall Place and twenty+ fewer retail jobs.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Welcome to Wenceslas

Wenceslas has come to live with us. He's a hamster. He moved house from his breeder in East Belfast yesterday afternoon and moved into his new home. Tissue paper was provided. Over time he dragged it all down to the bottom corner of the cage. One sheet he even lifted and dropped over the edge from the raised platform to the ground floor of his compact and bijou accommodation! And while we were out of the room - but while the timelapse camera was still running - he even managed to climb upstairs without using the tube.

My first impressions are that hamsters are clever, nimble beasts, and quite adept at problem solving.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How do MLAs assess the Assembly's performance?

NI Assembly website

Having been wittering on about local political parties, campaigns, conferences and elections for a year or two, it seemed bad that I’d never been up to the public gallery in Parliament Buildings to see the sausage machine our devolved democracy in action.

You can read elsewhere about my impressions of the day I spent up at the NI Assembly earlier this weekand how anyone can turn up and see it for themselves. You can also listen to some brief clips of MLAs –including Lagan Valley’s Paul Givan and East Belfast’s Michael Copeland talking about their work and impact as MLAs.

Loitering around the Great Hall on Tuesday, I asked 16 MLAs to give a score out of ten and supply the headmaster’s comment for the Assembly’s end of term report card. Here’s what they said:

End of term report: how do MLAs assess @niassembly performance? (mp3)

Given the sample size, any statistical inference is very unscientific. However, it’s still interesting to note that DUP and Sinn Fein representatives classified performance as 4-7, whilst other parties used the range 3-6.

One other MLA criticised the lack of legislation before suggesting “it’s better than people being killed on the streets.”

(Incidentally, the NI Assembly relaunched their website on Monday and are now making a lot more information available to the public, including details of MLAs’ questions, voting record, interests and contacts. Webservice exposure of this information is in development too. Open Data comes to NI at last!)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

And The Wile Wise Men Came back a second year! (Tuesday 13 December / free tickets)

The children's nativity with a touch of Ulster Scots is back in Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church in East Belfast for a second year.

Roisin Gallagher (Mary) and Faolán Morgan (Joseph) in Dan Gordon's play And the Wile Wise Men Came

"And The Wile Wise Men Came" - Tuesday 13 December at 7pm (doors open at 6.30pm) - 149a Newtownards Road (opposite Pitt Park).

Some free tickets are still available for this year's performance of Dan Gordon's charming and interactive play from 07754840832. Last year's performance was a blast, and the kids present loved it.

Supported by Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Newry Times - a new hyperlocal online paper run by three unemployed graduates - the future of journalism?

Newry Times banner

The Newry Times, a community-based local online newspaper was launched last week by three unemployed graduates, funded through their job seekers allowance.

We’re hoping our story proves to other graduates throughout Ireland that there is things out there you can do while you’re unemployed, things that are really rewarding and exciting.

With a newspaper look to the website, which is mobile friendly, the team have made a strong start this week with over 10,000 pageviews and a range of stories with local angles covering:

I asked Paul Malone (editor) who was behind the Newry Times and what had inspired them to start up an online newspaper?

Newry Times was created by myself (Paul Malone), Emma Taylor and Declan McAteer. Our inspiration for starting it came from a number of different factors. Firstly, I have worked for several years in local newspapers and recently lost my job in one because the newspaper could no longer afford to pay me. So I found myself on the Dole.

I knew Newry was crying out for a free, online newspaper with no subscription fees or any hidden charges and Emma had a chance meeting with a Derry-based journalist who told her about his own news site. [We] all graduated with good degrees and we all have talent in different things so we decided to make a website and try to engage the local community again.

Also, online news is clearly the way forward, sales of print newspapers are dwindling at an alarming rate so it was the obvious step for us to take. We also created Newry’s first ever smart phone mobile app, so we’ve pretty much got our fingers on the pulse of technology right now.

Newry Times front page - Sunday 4 December

What kind of coverage would the paper provide for Newry and Mourne area?

We will be updating the website daily. As soon as a news story breaks we aim to have it covered and online with the hour. Of course, some weeks are “bad news weeks” and it can be hard to get content but we’re engaging the local community in other ways too with a steady stream of interesting content. (Check out Newry’s Lost Generation for an example).

With only three core staff, how would they gather material? Will being online make it easier to get community involvement in the Newry Times and its stories?

Our material comes from a number of sources. Through my time working with other local newspapers I have built up a big base of friendly contacts (with police, politicians, government officials) – as well as those, we get a steady stream of press releases from different bodies in the area.

Additionally, a huge amount of content has been sent in by our readers, there’s so many people out there who are fantastic writers and have a love of a certain subject and feel great contributing their articles about it to Newry Times and the wider community.

Of course, we also do some good old fashioned journalism, where the three of us source the latest news. We already have a number of contributors on board covering the local sport, local Newry City FC team, local pool and darts league and Gaelic news. I’ve even had a man emailing me from Bangkok asking to submit an article about how he left Newry several years ago and set up a football club over there. It’s fantastic. We’re all about engaging the local community, so it is they who will decide how popular our website becomes.

The local media is generally suffering great financial pressure. While the Newry Times doesn’t have print costs, unless they have deep pockets and run it as a hobby, will they have to rely on advertising or a paywall to the paper financially viable?

Unfortunately, print media is a dying art as I found out when I lost my job.

People we’ve spoken to now live in an age where everything is available to them right now, when they want it. People simply don’t have the patience now to wait until the weekly publication goes on to the shop shelves to find out the latest news. Why would they want to do that, especially with the popularity of Facebook, Twitter etc where news is available right now, and in many cases, from the scene of the news.

Weekly editions just have no appeal to anyone from my generation either, they’re outdated and don’t actually report on what people want to hear. They basically regurgitate press releases with a small, very small dash, of journalism thrown in on the first few pages for good measure.

We certainly don’t have deep pockets, we’re on Dole Benefits at the moment so have entirely funded this with our job seekers allowance.

We have thought long and hard about advertising but right now we have given our advertising space on Newry Times to appeals from local charities, coming up to Christmas they need all the help they can get in these tough economic times. We are thinking that eventually we might like to attract several advertisers on board, but we wont do anything just yet, we’re a community based website so we don’t want this to turn into a pop-up dominated website with just a bit of news.

We have looked into other options for funding and we’re hoping if these come to fruition we’ll never have to approach advertisers. We have been offered money from friends and family to get us off the ground but right now it simply isn’t needed.

We’ve got Declan who is an absolute IT whiz kid who is dealing with the website and maintaining it, we have Emma who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes too helping with content and promotion and then myself covering a lot of the stories.

We’re hoping our story proves to other graduates throughout Ireland that there is things out there you can do while you’re unemployed, things that are really rewarding and exciting.

Along with Donegal Daily (which is now 1 year old), the Newry Times is a promising development in the hyperlocal scene. Local news outfits are unlikely to pick up the kind of Atlantic Philanthropies funding that The Detail benefits from, but could still add much needed local seasoning to the menu served up by bigger news outlets and could gather a sizeable following in their local communities through tools like Facebook.

With continued effort and enthusiasm, hyperlocal sites could play a considerable part in the future of journalism.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

5-8 year female voice sought for NI children's animation - Driftwood Bay by Sixteen South

Sixteen South logo

Sixteen South, the Belfast BAFTA-winning children’s TV producer of puppet shows like Sesame Tree, Big City Park, Big and Small and Pajanimals (see September post visiting the set) is searching for the voice of the lead character of their new animated show Driftwood Bay.

Lily is a gung-ho free-spirited five year old who is as rough and tumble as she is sweet and cute. A real tomboy, Lily loves living on an island and is most at home outdoors. She loves getting her hands dirty, getting sand and salt water in her hair, shells in her pockets and mud on her boots.

Independent, with a curious mind and a lively imagination, Lily is very enthusiastic about the little things that other people take for granted, seeing things others don't notice and finding the fun and adventure in everything. She has an infectious love of the simple things and she never tires of them. A bit of a chatterbox, Lily is constantly talking to her best friend Gull who is always by her side.

With a history of using local talent and craft in their previous productions, Sixteen South’s creative director and executive producer Colin Williams explains:

“We’re looking for a 5-8 year old girl to voice the part of Lily, the show’s main character. No previous experience is necessary, we’re simply looking for someone who can truly capture the spirit of Lily. Ideally with a soft Northern Ireland or Scottish accent, we’re looking for a little girl with a charming gentle accent.”

Two casting sessions will be held during December to audition voices. Children will read a simple monologue, sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and have an improvised chat with the producers of Driftwood Bay. If you can’t attend the auditions, a voice reel can be sent to Sixteen South in advance of the audition dates – details of what is required are available from Julie Gardner at julie AT sixteensouth DOT tv or 028 9024 6775.

  • Tuesday 13 December, 6pm-9pm, Sixteen South Television, 7-11 Linenhall Street, Belfast, BT2 8AA
  • Thursday 15 December, 6pm-9pm, Ramada Hotel, 73 Main Street, Portrush, BT56 8BN

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Dowload (sic) software from the Ulster Bank!

Dowload now - Ulster Bank

The Ulster Bank's free supply of security software is supposed to inspire confidence in its electronic banking customers. Unfortunately, poor spelling rather negates the professional pitch!

Hopefully their security is better than their spelling.

Ulster Bank electronic banking screen with 'Dowload' spelling mistake