Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 28 May 2016

Festivals bring people of Northern Ireland together together

By Damian Smyth

Published 23/07/2014

Ginger Baker played the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival
Ginger Baker played the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

The idea that "there are too many festivals" here can arise within the arts community itself, as times are hard and getting harder. But that's based on the notion that all festivals are 'the same', work in the same way and do the same things. At the Arts Council we know that simply isn't true.

Yes, the arts have a special ability to bring people together in the safest of circumstances. They give us the vehicle to express who we are and what we value, in positive ways.

The arts by their nature are celebratory, so it's not surprising that when communities think of demonstrating what they can achieve, the idea of a festival comes to mind.

Around a quarter of a million people are on record as attending events in the three main Belfast festivals in the last year alone – that's the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the Belfast Festival at Queen's and Féile an Phobail.

While wanting to sustain the festivals which showcase the very best of our arts for visitors, there's a perception that it's easier to attract people from across Britain and Ireland than to persuade our own people to travel even a mile across town.

In our cities and towns, the arts work in surprising ways – festivals that express identity in one location find themselves opening out to other identities and communities, sharing audiences and participants.

Look around. From the co-operation between Féile and the newest festival in east Belfast – Eastside Arts – communities are opening up to each other. From the international audiences flooding into Enniskillen for the Happy Days Beckett Festival to the positive local impact of Humdingers in Derry or Stendhal in Limavady, to name but a few.

So it's important both to nurture arts provision at the grassroots and to encourage diversity in straitened times. Festivals aren't just about celebration or cultural tourism or filling hotel rooms.

They challenge us; make us question what we thought we knew. One thing they won't be is boring.

Too many festivals? Can there be too much fun?

Damian Smyth is Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

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