This is the 47th year of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
In a way that is the greatest tribute that can be paid to this annual extravaganza of arts and culture, both esoteric and popular. It predated the Troubles, those three decades of vicious sectarian conflict by which Northern Ireland is remembered in many parts of the world, and it has also outlasted it. In the dark days of the Troubles, when scarcely any entertainer of any repute wanted to set foot in the province, the festival still managed, quite miraculously, to stage events of cultural significance.
Artistic and cultural festivals give a city a cachet which nothing else can. That is why, for example, the title of European City of Culture is a much-sought accolade. Edinburgh, to give another example, is defined as a cultural capital because of its annual festival. Belfast has a festival of which it can be proud and which annually produces a programme of immense diversity and richness.
Where else would we be able to listen to the poetic magic of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and his contemporary Michael Longley to the accompaniment of the talented Ulster Orchestra or witness a stunning adaptation of arguably Shakespeare’s most famous work, Macbeth, in which the main protagonists arrive on stage by motorbike. Or why not listen to one of the most celebrated lawyers of modern times, Michael Mansfield, a man not afraid to put the establishment in the dock.
Looking through the dozens of acts which will take place during the next fortnight, the most striking feature is the range of the programme. It used to be a criticism of the programme that it was too highbrow, appealing mainly to those who lived in south Belfast or north Down, but forsaking those who believed in popular culture. Those days are gone and there is something to suit virtually every taste in this year’s offering. If there is a slight fault to be found, it could be argued that teenagers may feel a little left out.
But the festival should not be viewed in isolation. This year the extensively revamped Ulster Museum and the refurbished Ulster Hall, two of our cultural and artistic centrepieces, will re-open in time for the festival. And its reach continues to be extended, taking in such diverse venues as Clonard Monastery and the North Belfast Synagogue.
What probably differentiates the festival from the rest of the year’s entertainment provision is its inclusion of more thought-provoking material than is possible in a purely commercial venue. Entertainment should not be merely a pleasant moving, talking wallpaper which we can view or ignore at our leisure. It should also make us think, challenge our intellect and our perceptions and leave us viewing the world through a different lens.
The Festival at Queen’s does all those things and, through its example, has spawned many other community festivals. Just by being it has helped to spread its cultural message throughout the province and left us, as a community, much richer for the experience.