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Hillsborough's Oyster Festival is a real pearl for pubs and bars

By Rachel Martin

Published 19/07/2016

Colin Shirlow has won every oyster-eating prize over the past decade
Colin Shirlow has won every oyster-eating prize over the past decade

Bars and restaurants could reap the rewards of up to £2m in extra spending next month as crowds gather for the annual Hillsborough International Oyster Festival.

More than 21,000 people are expected to take to the streets of the Co Down village next month for the festival - now in its 24th year.

From August 30 to September 4, the festival will showcase the best of local produce, hospitality and arts and entertainment.

And it hopes to gain a reputation as a global food festival - with the help of support from international and local brands.

Turkish Airlines is a first-year sponsor, joining Phoenix Natural Gas, Quilter Cheviot and Tourism Northern Ireland.

Oyster Festival committee member and Lisburn businessman Sean Hall said the festival was a big boost to the area.

He said: "There's a considerable international following to the competition. We host the World Oyster Eating Championship at the festival every year and bring in 16 competitors of different nationalities - but yet every year for over 10 years it's been won by Dromore man Colin Shirlow.

"There's a lot of tourists who come every year for it and now if there's a cruise ship in the country at the time, it's on the itinerary."

A marquee set up in the village usually attracts 1,200 people, "but every pub in the village will also be packed".

"It's getting harder every year for us to find accommodation for the international challengers -last year we had to put some up in Moira because everywhere in Hillsborough and Lisburn was booked out."

Derek Patterson, owner of four bar and restaurants in the area - the Plough and the Vintage Rooms in Hillsborough, as well as the Pheasant in Annahilt and the Tannery in Moira - founded the festival in 1992.

He said: "I enjoyed the Galway Oyster Festival and I read somewhere that it brought around £7m into the local economy.

"I was working as a chef in Switzerland serving up oysters from Donegal and wondered why I was serving up these things in a land- locked country but yet no one at home in Northern Ireland was trying them. I've always been fascinated by seafood and really loved it so I wanted to bring that same excitement back home.

"There's a lot of businesses who benefit from the festival - there are ones who want to see what they can gain from it.

"But those who want to make it better and really get involved are the businesses who really reap the rewards from it.

"We find a lot of people see it as a tradition - they'll come to the festival bar every year and will keep meeting up with their friends - the festival is completely focused on the social aspect."

Entertainment will include the Oyster Masters Golf Day, as Magic of the Movies musical evening, a Pearl and Oyster Ball and the Turkish Airlines World Oyster Eating Championship.

Don Spence, chairman of the Festival's organising committee, said: "We are thrilled with the support the Hillsborough International Oyster Festival is receiving in the run-up to this year's event.

"The number of big-name brands coming on-board in 2016, alongside our long-term supporters Tourism Northern Ireland and Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council, is testament to the festival's long-standing position as a successful and prestigious event.

"We are confident this additional support will help continue the Festival's reputation as one of the best festivals in the UK."

John McGrillen, chief executive of Tourism NI, said it was delighted to support the festival again.

"With such a variety of entertainment on offer, and celebrating Northern Ireland's Year of Food and Drink, visitors to Hillsborough will be greeted with a fantastic atmosphere within the town."

The Hillsborough Oyster Festival takes place from August 30 to September 4

Belfast Telegraph

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