Friday, June 29, 2012

Fear, passion, accompanying, evidence-gathering and science - TEDxBelfast videos are now available

TEDxBelfast logo
Three weeks ago, the top floor of Titanic Belfast was awash with creativity and challenge as the TEDxBelfast speakers pitched their ideas and spoke passionately about an array of subjects. The videos from that evening are now available for viewing.

Colin Williams - the children's TV producer behind Sesame Tree, Big City Park, Big and Small, and Pajanimals -  identified fear as something that has held back Northern Ireland people and companies from reaching their potential. He spoke about his personal experiences of being fearful as well as sharing his vision for a post-fear Northern Ireland.

Anne McReynolds' energy and enthusiasm was very clear as she talked about the lessons she learned during the long process of transforming from OMAC (the Old Museum Arts Centre) to the brand spanking new MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre).

Chris Blake came from left field with his talk about "accompanying". As a late substitution into the running order, his talk was unexpected, yet very deserving of inclusion. He works as a music teacher with autistic children, exploring their musicality and building relationships with them through music. Listen out for his three steps of listening, looking for cues, and taking the risk to join in. Three steps that could apply to many workplaces.

Colleen Hardwick challenged the consultation culture that pervades Northern Ireland as well as further afield. She offered an alternative: evidence-based decision making with feedback from people whose location has been authenticated. Her solution - PlaceSpeak - is an interesting development to watch as it rolls out across the US ... and perhaps areas of Northern Ireland.

One last pick from the bunch would be Chris Horn from Dublin's Science Gallery. A showcase for science, without an entrance fee and filled with insights into real science (rather than simple push-button displays and games). A vision of science exhibited with the care that would be put into mounting an artistic display ... a vision that has already been realised in Dublin and is being copied around the world.

Videos are available for all the speakers: just because I didn't highlight them about doesn't mean it's not worth listening to their ideas worth sharing! Well done again to Davy, Gary, Mark and the team behind TEDxBelfast.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Cultúrlann commemorates the history of its building

Photo of An Cultúrlann stained glass window by Nuacht24.comLast Friday a new commemorative stained glass window was unveiled in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich.

In a previous incarnation, the building now occupied by the culture centre on the Falls Road was Broadway Presbyterian Church. To mark the 30th anniversary since its last service, a stained glass window was designed by Windsor Women’s Group. (The church was also home to the Loyal Orange Lodge 824.)

Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich is named after two men. Robert Shipboy McAdam was a 19th century Presbyterian businessman who compiled a 1388-page English-Irish dictionary (which was never published) and made a large contribution to the study of ancient Irish. More recently, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich was Roman Catholic Primate of all Ireland as well as an Irish scholar.

While the Presbyterian connection with Irish may have waned in recent times, the denomination’s links with Gaelic culture were once much stronger. Fitzroy Presbyterian host a regular Sunday afternoon service in Irish - An Tor ar Lasadh (The Burning Bush) - which is attended by speakers from across Belfast. [3pm on the third Sunday of every month except July and August.]

An Cultúrlann describes its ethos as "a non-political, independent mindset that values our language and culture as part of the common heritage of all the people", creating "a melting pot of cultures and a hotbed of ideas and innovation". (Not to mention a great wee café.)

More about the unveiling can be found in a report on Nuacht24.

Picture via Nuacht24

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Boat Factory heads to Brussels and then Edinburgh

From Belfast to Edinburgh via Brussels. Dan Gordon’s play The Boat Factory is being performed in far off shores this summer.

From Wednesday 27 to Friday 29 June, Dan and fellow actor Michael Condron will be climbing the scaffolding and bring the Belfast shipyard to audiences in the prestigious Bozar Theatre’s Studio in Brussels. Tickets available.

The play is in Belgium as part of Brussels Platform, a ten month arts programme run by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s and the Northern Ireland Executive’s Office in Brussels. Since September 2011, writers, dancers, musicians and artists of all kinds have been showcased at monthly events.

And later in the summer, the play is running in the Edinburgh Fringe, with daily shows at 6.30pm from Thursday 2 to Sunday 26 August (except Tuesday 14) in the Hill Street Theatre. Tickets available from the Fringe website.

It's great to see a local play doing well and getting a chance to tell a positive story of Belfast to audiences further afield. The video below is from the première in Belfast back in October 2010:

Needing a new clutch not a new car means Aygo stays, but the Citigo was very tempting

Toyota Aygo BlueMy Aygo reaches its fourth birthday this summer and will be due its first MOT.

The clutch needs replaced. (I’m a novice when it comes to car mechanics. So I’ve been driving around for a few weeks – maybe months – with a clutch that’s slipping. I asked: What’ll happen when the clutch finally goes? It’ll rev like crazy and the car won’t go anywhere, the mechanic replied.)

The MOT and clutch led me to a mid-life crisis. Obviously “mid-life” more in terms of the car rather than me! It suddenly felt like a good opportunity change cars.

With a penchant for small cars – “City Cars” as the class is referred to – the Aygo was perfect … other than its ability to chew through window wipers, water seeping in under the driver’s door, having to scrape ice off the inside of the front window in winter, crunching every time you put it in reverse, taking two years to get the lock on the glove box lid fixed, and getting from first into second gear requiring a lot more force than it did when the car was new.

AiB's shrinking carsThe habit of successive cars getting smaller was going to be hard to continue. Lengthwise, Polo > Mini > SMART roadster > Aygo. A two seater SMART was fun for six months four years ago, but not a long term solution. A Toyota IQ looks lovely, but comes with a price tag to match its high spec configuration.

The Volkswagen up!, SEAT Mii, SKODA Citigo seemed good candidates. They’re siblings made in the same factory, much like the Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 107/Citroen C1 cars. Same chassis, same enormous boots (compared to the Aygo), slightly different styling and options. All three have eco-models with Stop/Start technology that should save fuel and save the planet.

I test drove two of three variants this morning. The Volkswagen up! was a comfortable ride, light steering, nippy. Feels like a much larger car. Its downside was the garish dash – the demonstration model (an up! white) had a bright white dashboard to match the outer white paintwork. Sun glasses would be required to sit in it for a long ride. The Volkswagen badge on the front also pushes up the price.

All three cars have the option of a top-of-dash mounted GPS that also provides Bluetooth support. It’s removable and can be used outside the car. The touch-screen user interface was less than intuitive, though the voice-driven street finding was quite impressive.

The SKODA Citigo was an identical drive. Minor differences in the less in-your-face dashboard. Lots of difference in the price (lower) and options (better grouped). At school we told SKODA jokes. But it felt like a very solid car that I wouldn't be ashamed to own.

If anyone fancies sponsoring a blogger with a car for a year - not expecting any offers! - I’ll put up my hand for a SKODA Citigo SE, 5 door, GreenTech with a Convenience Pack (ie, parking sensors), Safety Pack, GPS and a spare wheel. And if winters are going to continue to feature snow, throw in a Winter Pack to heat the mirrors and front seats.

But back to reality. Neither dealer was going to have a five door car in stock before my Aygo needed its MOT on 1 August. And it wasn’t going to pass its MOT unless the clutch was fixed.

This whole vehicular crisis was born out of needing a new clutch. Over lunch it dawned on me that really all I needed was a new clutch, not a new car!

While a relatively expensive repair, it is a lot cheaper than a new car. And while a Citigo with a whizzy GPS and an engine that cuts out at traffic lights would be fun to drive, with a new clutch the old Aygo would still turn on a sixpence and could be “driven into the ground” as I stated when I bought it. After all, the Polo lasted with me and then Cheryl for eleven years.

So hopefully the clutch will be fixed next week – before it burns out – and the wee blue Aygo can be driven round for another few years before I need to go on another test drive spree.

But if you’re looking a small ‘city’ car, can I wholeheartedly recommend a SKODA Citigo SE GreenTech (with three years free servicing if bought before the end of September) from the very friendly sales staff at Mervyn Stewart on the Boucher Road. They came so close to selling me a car!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Belfast City Airport keen to replace a planning constraint on demolished Portakabins with noise contour and cap

That’s George Best Belfast City Airport’s commercial and marketing director Katy Best standing on the ground that used to be occupied by the Harbour Airport’s old Portakabin terminal building. It was vacated in 2001 and subsequently demolished.

Local airports have been in the news a lot recently, with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiring into an air transport strategy and strong rumours that Aer Lingus will soon formally announce its intention to shift from Belfast International into the City. (If it does, the limited length of the runway at Belfast City Airport may force some changes in Aer Lingus routes, ruling out current destinations like Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Tenerife which would require more fuel than the planes could hold and still manage to take off on a short runway.)

The DOE launched a public consultation into proposed amendments to the Belfast City Airport’s planning agreement in April and the consultation closed on 8 June has been extended until 30 June (for at least one respondent). The key change proposed by the airport is dropping its current 2 million seats for sale limit (ie, number of people departing from the airport) and instead introducing a noise control cap that would be enforceable by the DOE.

In the audio clip above, Katy Best outlines Belfast City Airport’s proposals to amend their planning agreement.

The current 2 million seats for sale limit was a planning condition attached to the old terminal building that is no longer standing. The airport state that this condition was due to the physical capacity of the terminal building, rather than the aimed at controlling flights. North Down Council agree with the airport’s interpretation:
They understand that they were established to prevent crowding in the old terminal buildings. Belfast City is the only airport in the UK with such a restriction. Even London City airport (the only other designated ‘City’ airport in the UK) does not have a seats for sale restriction.
The airport does seem to have a point that a planning condition attached to a long-demolished building is no way to control the expansion – and the community impact of that potential expansion – of an airport.

The proposed noise contour and cap would directly address the issue of noise using a recognised measure applied at other UK airports, along with existing restrictions on aircraft types, operating hours (with airline fines for permitted breaches going into the airport's community fund) and the bias towards takeoffs and landings over Belfast Lough (around 55%).

Katy Best points out that the uniqueness of Belfast City Airport is its proximity (3km) to the city centre, rather than its proximity to houses. Most airports sit alongside houses and have flight paths that go over similar areas of population.

Campaign group Belfast City Airport Watch quotes figures from the airport’s consultants which explain that

… 6,195 people now suffer from a level of aircraft noise deemed by the UK government to cause “significant community annoyance” – compared to 3,522 in 2007.
On the other hand, only 41 noise complaints were lodged with the airport during 2011 (a significant decrease on 135 in 2010) and while many schools sit under the flight path, none have complained. Over a thousand individuals have submitted responses to the consultation (often signing pre-printed letter templates). [Originally I posted that a hundred individuals had replied - my mistake, it was one hundred pages of responses.]

There is no proposal to change the existing 48,000 annual flight limit. Having operated 41,941 flights in 2011 and with 40% of the airport’s business disappearing with the loss of bmibaby, it could be some time before the economy and the local demand for flights recovers to push towards either the 2 million seats for sale or 48,000 flight limit.

The airport reckons that given that 50% of its passengers are tourists. The indirect economic benefit to the local tourism industry on top of direct employment at the airport due to expansion could amount to between 320 and 350 full time equivalent jobs, and between £20.9m and £22.5m economic growth (varying between low and high growth scenarios in its Economic Impact report).

The Environment Minister Alex Attwood has promised a decision by the end of the year. However it is quite foreseeable that the City Airport’s main competitor Belfast International Airport would (again) apply for a judicial review if the seats for sale restriction is removed. (I could speculate that their motivation would be a commercial desire to limit the ambitions of its short haul neighbour rather than out of any desire to reduce noise in East Belfast, South Belfast and North Down!)

It will be interesting to see how the DOE and its minister balance community (noise, jobs) with economics (flights, passengers, tourists, jobs) and justify their decision.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

New flagship Eason store opens in Belfast - dead trees, a wooden tree, ebooks and coffee!

It’s not often that I review a shop on the blog, but there may not be any other Belfast shops getting a £1.1 million pound refit this year.

Easons (Eason and Sons Ltd) bought over the WHSmith unit in Donegall Place last November and will reopen the refurbished store for trading on Friday as the company starts a new chapter in its retail history.

Having looked at the best book, magazine and stationery retailing in Europe and the US, Easons management team have made a serious attempt to increase the ‘stickiness’ of their store and keep customers in there for as long as possible.

Gone are the low tiled ceilings and intimidating rows of parallel book shelves. They’ve been replaced with bright vertical splashes of colour, curved shelving and zoning.

Managing Director Conor Whelan spoke to me about the new flagship store, Easons’ approach to the electronic/online revolution as well as the commercial realities of resizing stores and the workforce.

Magazines and stationery still dominate the ground floor. The escalator or stairs take you down to the larger bookish basement level.

The children’s section has low seating that’s a good deal comfier than the local library, and the teenage zone is nearby but deliberately separate.

The card and gift section is now downstairs, surrounding the wooden ‘gifting tree’ which will be redecorated as the seasons change. Self help and spirituality books are obviously big sellers and sprawl around the bottom of the flight of stairs.

Despite the dominance of dead trees in the form of papers, magazines, cards and books, the shop has a central section selling ebook readers.

Sony and iRiver devices are on sale, rather than the commercially more terminal Kindles. A couple of PCs also allow customers to order directly from the Easons website.

A giant picture frame downstairs can be used as a focal point for book launches, events and perhaps even festivals. Easons have teamed up with HP to offer a photo printing and personalisation area (prints, mouse mats, mugs etc) and there’s a forty-seat Costa coffee franchise to start reading your purchases, or wait for your photos to print.

One structural change from the previous tenant is the addition of a second escalator to bring customers back upstairs, cunningly depositing them in the back corner of the upstairs and forcing them to walk through lots of stationery and magazines to get out to the door!

Only time will tell whether novelty innovations like the HP personalisation area will be commercially sustainable. And an underground coffee shop so far away from daylight and mobile coverage doesn’t offer much scope for people watching (or picking up those late cancellation texts when you get stood up)!

However, the brighter and less rigid structure and zoning of the store must be welcomed … and will be rolled out as part of the wider refurbishment programme that will see the Foyleside Shopping Centre and Bow Street Lisburn branches renovated later this year.

With its proximity to the City Hall and sitting across the road from the Belfast Welcome Centre, all Easons now needs is a splash of local Belfast merchandise (beyond a few local authors) to resell local products and support local producers of cards and crafts.

At tonight’s preview Glenn Patterson reminisced about his days working in Cranes bookshop. Independent bookshops have all but disappeared, with No Alibis the only surviving one in the city since the closure of the University Bookshop Bookshop at Queens closed last year.

I remember buying home computing programmer books in a bookshop tucked away on Rosemary Street before it closed. NPO disappeared. Dillons became the second Waterstones, and then the only Waterstones when the other branch went up in smoke. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the new flagship Easons is at the expense of closing their other store: two into one meant job losses.

Easons have been trading for 140 years, and have already bought over WHSmiths local operation once before! From the look of their new store, Easons will be remaining a name about stores in Irish towns and cities for a few years more.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Modelling a fabricated dream world - University of Ulster end of year show

Each year I wander around the top two floors of the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus (the ‘Art College’) in awe of the architectural models and product prototypes that fill the floors. Wood, cardboard, perspex, trees with green fizzy foliage, trees made of wire loops. And then there are the hundreds of white plastic figures inhabiting the buildings, sometimes completely out of scale with the height of the rooms!

Last year someone had moved the Northern Ireland Assembly into the city centre and floated it on top of the roof of office accommodation on Chichester Street, while others designed a variety of multi-faith spaces.

Against the backdrop of St Anne’s Cathedral and the MAC Belfast, this year’s end of year show features plans for a Civic Forum near Belfast City Hall, an Info-Space (modern library or “multifunctional piazza urban sanctuary context”), a building entirely clad in greenery, enormous spherical lights (built around rather underwhelming low wattage bulbs), and an office block that looks to have been inspired by Enric Miralles’ window seats in the MSP offices at the Scottish Parliament.

As an experiment – though not an entirely successful one – I took some timelapse shots flying through the models. In retrospect it would have been better to take a shot ever half second (rather than every second) and to hold the last frame for couple of seconds to better transition between models. Next time ...

While blown away by the models and the creativity behind the plans that back them up, I’m always a little bemused that many of the students either fail to identify themselves clearly on the huge posters surrounding their work, and often fail to display the title of their work in a font size big enough to catch your eye as you walk over to their area of the floor.

The showcase of graduates’ work has taken over the entire Belfast campus – covering ceramics, fine art, textiles, photography, jewellery, architecture and more – and is open to the public between 10am until 5pm until Saturday 16 June (open late until 9pm on Tuesday evening). Well worth a visit.

Up the road, the QUB Architecture end of year exhibition is also underway in the Former Science Library (Chlorine Gardens). Doors open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm (until 8pm on Thursdays), running until Friday 22 June.

(The music on the video is "The Air Up There - ambient (gameboy Korg DS10") by Receptors and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.)

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The IKEA Song

For goodness sake no one tell Ruth that a whole music video could be surreptitiously shot inside IKEA!

via Ikea Hackers blog

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Bookseller of Belfast: dreams, books and friendship

The Bookseller of Belfast is a marvellous film, and deserved its place in this year's Belfast Film Festival.

John Clancy is a man of letters. For years he ran a second hand bookshop in Smithfield. He admits to being a "crap businessman" often giving away books for free to customers. But he's a believer "in what goes round comes around" and always reckoned his generosity will be repaid. With the shop gone, his house is now stuffed full with books. But that doesn't stop him matching books to his old contacts.

John Clancy is also a man of community. He hails from Sailortown - a mixed community with poverty in common.

"We were so poor we got parcels from the third world. But you get fed up with bananas."

With an easy humour and a willingness to help, he's comfortable relating to all ages. Robert is a neighbour who lives across the road and dips into John's back catalogue to read books about Rome and the great emperors. The camera focuses on individual words as he voices each one under his breath, moving line at a time down the page. His brother Connor writes and performs raps about what he sees around him.

By day Jolene serves John his fry in the local greasy spoon. By night she's singing along to karaoke and entering music competitions, belting out medleys of country and western hits. And John's there in the audience proving support and enjoying the craic.

With amazing close-ups of the characters, it's as if the director Allesandra Celesia McIlduff is looking into their souls as she captures each person's image. Linkages across the generations - smoke, combing hair - are visually reinforced in exquisite shots that linger and resist the urge to pan away to action off screen.

As the director admitted in the Q&A after the screening, it is a film about dreams. Alcoholism played its part in shaping John's life. While he looks back on the pain in his family life, his younger friends look forward to a life in Detroit, or to musical success. And John - surrounded by a cloud of smoke - will be behind them all the way.

It's a beautifully shot film, that warmly portrays four wonderful open and warm Belfast characters. An amazing film that shouldn't be missed if you spot it popping up at a cinema or a festival near you.

Update - the award-winning film is being shown on BBC 1 NI on Monday 10 June at 10.35pm.

Quick synopsis of TEDxBelfast 2012

TEDxBelfast logo
A huge mix of disciplines and backgrounds were represented at tonight’s TEDxBelfast, the second TEDx event to be held in the city. The audience of one hundred sat in front of *those* cinematic stairs and listened to nine short talks with ideas worth spreading, as well as a musical interlude. Davy Sims was part of the team organising the event, and he explained before the evening began what it was all about.

David Maxwell spoke about fuel poverty and ways of tackling heat loss in new houses. Eliminating the need for a central heating system also removes the cost of fuel and maintenance. Find out more at Tyrone Timberframes.

Maureen Murphy said that 70% of traditional work-based training is a waste of money and suggested better ways of making learning stick, including better use of story-based and social approaches, and noting being afraid to raise emotions. Find out more at Aurion Learning.

Fransuer Mukula compared and contrasted world views of children in Kenyan slums (who “dare to dream”) with children in NI and spoke about the effect of taking a group of children from the school in which he teaches to Kenya. Find out more about his charity Jengana.

Colleen Hardwick spoke about the need for deliberative democracy and the need for politicians to continue dialogue throughout their term of elected office. Evidence-based decision making was key, but to avoid gaming consultations responses, it required people to be less anonymous. PlaceSpeak offers a way to authenticate end users’ geographic location, and allow them to be surveyed/feedback to those running consultations, without giving away their personal details.

Declan McKerr and Andy Toman provided music during (and after) the break, beautifully playing locally-made Lowden guitars.

Chris Blake talked about the act (and art) of “accompanying”. In his case, it’s playing along with autistic children as they explore their musicality, and building relationship with them through music. But his three steps of “listening; looking for cues; and taking the risk to join in” seem to apply to others fields too.

Nigel Hart spoke about mountains, medicine and mantras. He was part of a University College London team who climbed Everest to investigate how and why hypoxia affects some people more than others. Mountains offered perspective and space, and he offered some of his own observations (mantras) on journeying.

Anne McReynolds’ self-deprecating talk got most the most laughs of the evening as she outlined a set of lessons she learned while building the MAC: the human mind and abstract concepts don’t always mix; you need to learn to accept what you’re not good at; involve the end users early and often; some people will give generously with their time (particularly when you have access to them in the first place). Her passion and enthusiasm at least partly explains how the MAC came to be built.

Colin Williams runs Sixteen South, a production company that makes children’s television for broadcasters around the world. He spoke about fear, illustrating it with his owns fears about setting up his own business, fears about being able to keep winning work. He also talked about childhood experiences of violence, saying that @the years of violence and fear consumed our [NI’s] creativity”. He finished with a vision for Belfast:

Our city needs

New fathers

Trusted rulers

People of integrity

Not people of fear.

Chris Horn was the final speaker and asked where science and art collide? Science Gallery has been set up in Dublin to be a dynamic showcase for science. With no entrance fee and a decent café in which you can meet scientists and artists, their exhibitions go beyond simple childish scientific displays and offer an insight into real science. With a grant from Google to spread Science Gallery to other cities and exhibits from Dublin that are touring around museums world-side, he offered a vision of high-quality, accessible science that paid attention to how the science was explained in a way that art exhibits might.

The videos from tonight’s TEDxBelfast will appear on its website over the coming weeks.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Top Cat: The Movie - not quite as tip top as I remembered it

Can a total lack of crime be achieved without creating a totalitarian and surveillance regime that also sucks the fun out of society? That's one of the questions asked by the Mexican-Argentinian resurrection of Hanna Barbera classic cartoon Top Cat.

Unfortunately one of the other questions the film asks is whether a rights owner should ever licence out a format without more rigorous quality control over the script and the animation.

It's great to hear the familiar theme tune at the start of the film and see Top Cat travel through New York in style on his way to scavenge and con. The fake Sheik jokes are good. But then the plot kicks in.

Lou Strickland is the new police chief. Corrupt to the core, he's replacing all the officers - except one - with computers and robots. Ever-bumbling Office Dibble is being kept on to keep the technology running. Strickland's first mission is to disrupt TC's grifting and crime.

As the story unfolds we see how Benny, Choo, Fancy Fancy, Spook and Brain survive without the leader of the gang? And can effectual Top Cat reinvent himself to come out on top in a new environment?

Thirty years on from watching the cartoon on a black and white television, the criminality of Top Cat is more noticeable. He's no Robin Hood, and his charity always begins at home.

While the film ticks boxes by including a love interest and a smattering of modern gadgets, it was ultimately disappointing. (TINY SPOILER: The screen blacks out for a couple of seconds while there's a solar eclipse - coincidently while Benny tries to think - which fails to get a laugh.)

It's better than the dreadful Chipmunk films, partly because it's unlikely to spark a series of follow-up movies. And on a wet afternoon, it was a harmless way to combine some reminiscence with keeping warm in the Newry Omniplex (who need to do something about the distracting fuzzy edges of the projection onto the screen). But don't rush to see it.

Our three £3.50s could have funded the purchase of the complete box set of the original Top Cat cartoon episodes!

Monday, June 04, 2012

No News At Throat Lake (Lawrence Donegan)

It's 1998 and English journalist Lawrence Donegan is drawn back to the promise of idyllic rural living in the village of Creeslough in County Donegal. He documents a year of exploring the local community through his job at the bi-weekly Tirconaill Tribune newspaper in his book No News At Throat Lake.

This humorous memoir was one of a number of books suggested by commenters after I posted a review of Tom Rachman's newspaper novel The Imperfectionists.

Following a spell as the bass player in a couple of bands, Lawrence Donegan has spent long periods of time living in unusual places and experiencing unusual professions before writing about his insights and experiences. Over the years he has caddied for a poorly ranked golfer, a used car salesman in the US, a steward at the Ryder Cup, and in-between these adventures he writes for the Guardian.

His initiation into working on a Creeslough farm involved helping a farmer and the vet to take the horns off some cattle.

I had already been sick three times, a fourth helping from the pit of my stomach wasn't going to make much difference. He pointed at the hole in the cow's head where the horn used to be. I looked inside and at the end of a narrow, swirling tunnel of bone, I could see something red and alive. [Its brain!]

But an ex-Guardian hack was ultimately more suited to working for the disruptive community voice, the Tirconaill Tribune. Its editor John McAteer singlehandedly opposes local public bodies like the Council and the Gardaí. Articles are cutting; editorials are angry.

With a tiny staff but a growing readership, Donegan writes up stories about local folk and threats to the community (mobile masts and beached whales), joins pilgrims on a trip to Knock, as well as marking major cultural moments (like the visit of Newt Gingrich to curry up favour with Irish-American voters, and the attendance of his idol Meryl Streep at a Donegal film première).

Donegan trains with the local Gaelic football squad, attends the wake for his boss' mother, upsets local monarchists with his disrespectful poem about Lady Diana, and starts attending mass.

I hate to admit this, but I felt strangely euphoric. I'd actually enjoyed the experience of going to mass - not the religious part but the act of attending. I think the reason was this: the occasion had a sense of a whole community coming together ... Mass seemed to be as much a social event as it was a spiritual one. people were pleased to see each other and their happiness was infectious. I felt as if I belonged.

Woven around the normal comings and goings in Creeslough, Donegan investigates the truth behind Bernard Lafferty's involvement in the (financial) affairs of American millionairess Doris Duke. Her butler and executor, "outrageous claims that Bernard murdered Doris Duke were never proved".

Eventually, the lure of the mainland pulls Donegan away from the editorial excesses of the Tribune and the happenings around Creeslough. I wonder whether fifteen years on Lawrence Donegan ever returns to the village to catch up with the success of his GAA team and to check the circulation of the Tribune.

It's an easy read, and most of the unsuspecting cast come out of the book well. Having holidayed in Buncrana last summer, No News At Throat Lake feels quite familiar. Yet its rural focus overlooks the pressures - even back in 1998 - on the less than bustling towns and remaining industry in Donegal.

Next time I'm across in Donegal, I must try to pick up a copy of the Tirconaill Tribune!

Saturday, June 02, 2012


Urbanized was the first of three films that PLACE and Forum for Alternative Belfast are supporting at Belfast Film Festival.

It's a documentary that looks at the design of cities.Taking examples from across the globe, Gary Hustwit looks at how individuals, architects and public authorities have intervened. Most of the areas examined have been stressed or neglected.

The film tackles strategies for increasing public safety with overlooked walkways in a township; building social housing with the tenants involved in decisions around compromises (having a bath tub beats having hot water if your shack up to now has had neither); introducing cycle lanes by deliberately neglecting roads for cars and leaving parked cars as a buffer between cyclists and motor traffic; creating a cost-effective Tube-like bus network with stations and dedicated lanes; converting disused elevated rail tracks into soft public spaces providing escape from the bustling city underneath; and the power of local activists to broaden a community's imagination and self belief not to mention introduce unregulated community gardens.
There's also an insight into an experiment along a Brighton street in which residents monitored their energy usage and the results were tracked on graphs spray painted onto the road outside their front doors.

The film is focussed on the statistic that 75% of the world's population will live in a city by 2050. If there isn't to be a massive increase in slum-dwelling, congestion from the number of cars on roads, and dysfunctional city layouts, then the voices in this film need to be listened to in order to avoid the worst aspects of urbanism.

Applying the film to Belfast, Derry and gather urban sprawls cities in Northern Ireland, there are lessons about bike safety, metro public transport and social housing.

A great film to start the short Belfast Film Festival season, marred only by the odd typo in the subtitles (every voice is subtitled even the English ones) and the unusual screening in the Belfast MAC (where the audience sat far away from a relatively small screen).

Friday, June 01, 2012

People Matter to God

Last weekend I wrote a short opinion piece to accompany Thursday morning's News Letter coverage of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

- - -

People Matter to God

When Rev Dr Alastair Dunlop became Presbyterian Moderator in June 2001 he chose “People Matter to God” as his theme. Ten years later and the familiar strapline that encapsulates the heart of the Gospel still reverberates around congregations.

General Assembly is dominated by internal denominational administration, reports from boards and committees, appointments, messages from sister denominations around the world and a lot of strong tea and coffee.

This week of introspection will be reported in the press as long debates on money (strategies to maximise congregational giving), sex (discussions around homosexuality and same-sex marriage are never far away) and maybe even the length of ministers’ annual leave.

Is that what I as a Presbyterian want to be known for? No.

I want Presbyterians to be known for loving the poor: the poor in health, poor in wealth, poor in spirit, poor in self-esteem, poor in literacy and numeracy. Jesus’ ministry was dominated by his interaction with the poor, reaching out his hand to walk with those who were less fortunate.

Whether in Derry, Dublin, Delhi or Durban, Presbyterians should be known for their habit of looking beyond themselves and their own comfort and making a positive difference right round the world.

I want Presbyterians to be more inclusive. Irish history shows that Presbyterians tend to turn up on both sides of a fight. Not all Presbyterians signed the Ulster Covenant. Presbyterians haven’t been universally loyal to the British monarch.

While the default perception is that most Presbyterians are unionist – and the more liberal ones vote Alliance – this assumption must be broken. People with diverse opinions on border, identity or language issues need to be given space and indeed welcomed. And there needs to be a constant reminder that it is the Presbyterian Church of all Ireland.

I want Presbyterians to be more aware of their own hang-ups and sinfulness and less condemnatory of others. Presbyterians should prop their doors wide open and be known more for our grace than our judgmentalism.

The very point at which parents take the initiative and approach a minister to ask for their infant to be blessed should be a chance to welcome people into the setting of a loving congregation, rather than an opportunity to get out a checklist and see if they qualify for God’s blessing.

I want Presbyterians to have the freedom and power to challenge structures which perpetrate injustice: politicians who fail to stand up for the rights of all; businesses and corporations which discriminate and exploit.

Bill Hybels said: “We never lock eyes with someone who doesn't matter to God”.

Presbyterians should lock eyes with greater numbers of people, and let their eyes search our souls. That should be the mark of Presbyterians in the months and years ahead.