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How Ballymena gave us a lesson in the bear necessities

By Gail Walker

Published 24/11/2015

The teddy featured in Ballymena’s internet ad
The teddy featured in Ballymena’s internet ad

Like many provincial towns in Northern Ireland, Ballymena doesn't attract a great deal of good publicity. Beyond the pale of the Greater Belfast commuter belt, the town has spent decades being the subject of drearily easy stereotyping. It's either the home of the "canny" provincial who knows the value of a penny beyond all reason and sense - from the immortal James Young through to any desperate new northern comedian on a BBC NI (groan) "topical quiz", all you have to do is go "Hey!" and speak in broad Ulster-Scots tones and you get the easy laugh.

Or Ballymena is the heartland of evangelical Ulster. The land of tabernacles and wrathful biblical texts hammered into trees where The End is Always Nigh. Base of the Big Man and all that constitutes throwback in our liberal age.

In both cases there has developed a fairly grotesque and sectarian tinge to what started as ribbing, which allows the "humour" to segue into "poking fun at Prods". Ballymena cruelly represented, for many within Northern Ireland, the same ugly, thick, backward, inhospitable and murderous nest that Northern Ireland as a whole represented for the world at large. And with as little justification.

Also - for the more sophisticated among the commentariat - Ballymena is the unlikely drugs capital of Northern Ireland. A wasteland of boarded-up estates and hopelessness (of course, the town's drug problems provides a nice easy piece of irony for commentators sneering at all the town is seen to represent).

Ballymena doesn't need these lazy stereotypes, thank you very much. It's got a lot of real problems of its own - not least the loss of hundreds of jobs at the Gallaher and Michelin factories. And, like most provincial towns here, it is locked in a life-and-death struggle for life itself: small retailers striving to compete with the behemoths of Amazon and Tesco. And, in a more profound way, struggling to leave its mark; to celebrate what makes it what it is, to remember its past and its local lore; to maintain the distinctive tang of its life and speech.

So, well done to the bods behind the Ballymena Bear Christmas advertisement which has caught the popular imagination, not just here but further afield. The four-minute story of a little bear looking for its owner (popping his head around the town's various shops and eateries) as he looks for the child he was made for is undeniably charming in a Nick Park way.

The brainchild of Grafters Design Studio (with Ballymena Bear actually made by Michele Lowry of local craft shop Penny & Rose), the ad is an undeniable yule-tide tug at the heartstrings.

And all for £5,000. The fact that there is an economy outside Belfast which doesn't simply consist of rows of hairdressers, nail boutiques and off-licences with queues of tractors circling at roundabouts is an important awareness. That there can be "design", film-making, slick promotions and hip marketing outfits - in two words, imagination and talent - with an impact much greater than its modest budget would lead one to believe, is both heartening and salutary.

It would, of course, be ridiculous as to say that Ballymena Bear is the town fighting back against crippling job losses. For those many families facing a bleak Christmas and an even more uncertain 2016, a wee bear - no matter how cute - is not going to change harsh economic facts.

But it does point to something. Despite all the lies, the caricatures, the sneering, all the cosmopolitan loathing - our small towns bristle with imagination and talent. There is more sophistication out there than we in "the capital" care to admit to and they can - given the right circumstances - outdo the big expensive boys in touch and impact. Ballymena is no longer just the home of Christian fundamentalism, tightwad farmers and druggies. It is also the home of an adorable wee bear.

And for Ballymena read Banbridge, Omagh, Carrick, Strabane, Downpatrick, Lurgan, Magherafelt, Enniskillen... it is easy to murmur cliches about "heartland" as if these places were reservoirs of universal love, kindness and good cheer. But neither are they cultural, or economic, deserts, devoid of skills, insight, imagination, opportunity.

They are places where real lives are lived. Where there are moments of inspiration, joy, of epiphany, and where genuine delights are to be had. These are places of integrity (sometimes, admittedly, taken to absurd almost insane lengths - banning the Electric Light Orchestra and the film Brokeback Mountain) but not the monochrome dullness so beloved of our commentators.

Whisper it quietly, but there are places in these towns where you can order a latte and a croissant without being chased out by pitchfork-wielding citizenry. Our small towns can - and do - nurture the senses, the heart and the imagination.

So well done to a little bear for reminding us not of the true meaning of Christmas or any such platitudes, but that there is a greater world not just "out there" but "in here" as well. Something to think about when we're doing what we call "our" Christmas shopping: stuffing cash into the wallets of multinationals.

Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

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