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Pop for Peace remembered: How concert was scuppered... by a riot

Fifty years ago promotors organised a music event in Belfast aimed at bringing young people from both sides of the divide together but things didn't go exactly to plan. Now, this Sunday, its anniversary will be marked by music, poetry and a peace reading from Derry Girls actress Tara Lynne O'Neill. Ivan Little reports

Scenes from the Pop for Peace concert
Scenes from the Pop for Peace concert
Tara Lynne O'Neill
Joe Dolan
The Tremeloes
Scenes from the Pop for Peace concert
Scenes from the Pop for Peace concert
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Colin McClelland knew his Belfast peace concert was in trouble the moment he spotted the huddle in the area where journalists had gathered. For the reporters - local and national - who were there to cover the Pop for Peace gig 50 years ago were clearly swapping stories. And they weren't smiling.

It wasn't long, however, before Colin and the other organisers of the free open air gig at what's known as the Sandpit Field at Minnowburn, near Shaw's Bridge, found out why the Press were leaving even before the headline acts appeared on stage.

"Word had reached them that there were sectarian riots on the Shankill Road around Unity Flats," says Colin.

Sadly, the good news from Minnowburn on August 2, 1969, became a throwaway footnote on the news bulletins and front pages, not just in Northern Ireland but farther afield too.

The clashes on that Saturday afternoon lit the touch-paper for days of unprecedented street violence in Belfast and huge numbers of people fled their homes.

So much for Pop for Peace, an idea that had been born out of concerns over rising tensions across Northern Ireland and rioting, primarily in Londonderry. Civil rights marches had also been attacked and the hope was that the concert might bring young people together.

Beatle John Lennon and Yoko Ono - who'd had "bed-ins" and a hit song Give Peace A Chance - enthusiastically endorsed Pop for Peace as a way of sending out a message of hope from divided Belfast.

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Lennon was also invited to sing at Minnowburn, but he and Yoko had to turn down the chance to give peace a chance in Northern Ireland and they sent their apologies via telegrams, which were offered as prizes at the concert.

The organisers' regrets ran even deeper. They knew that the violence in Belfast, which erupted at the very same time as they were trying to promote peace, had effectively scuppered their initiative.

Colin McClelland was left with a feeling of desolation. "It was suggested that we should do another concert. But because of the riots, there was simply no enthusiasm for it. And after the gig there was a sense that people were scurrying off to their own ghettos."

A more upbeat Colin will return to Minnowburn this Sunday for a special anniversary gig, which is being held close to where the original concert was staged, and like its predecessor, Celebrating Pop for Peace at 50 is completely free.

Another organiser, Sam Smyth, can't make it on Sunday, but he's fully behind the event.

Both he and Colin were managing pop bands 50 years ago and they were also promoters of 'rival' music venues, Romano's ballroom in Queen Street and the Marquee just around the corner, off Castle Street.

By a bizarre coincidence, both men went on to establish themselves as influential journalists south of the border.

Colin became editor of Sunday World and Sam is still a highly respected political commentator and columnist on the Irish edition of the Mail on Sunday.

Colin remembers the optimism that surrounded Pop for Peace, which blossomed in what were the early days of tensions in Northern Ireland.

The mission statement for the concert said: "The Pop for Peace movement means exactly what it says - an end to the senseless bickerings and an understanding through pop and allied forms of art."

"It was the summer of love, of flower power and hippies," says Colin. "And unusually for Belfast, things were changing. Protestants and Catholics who used to dance in their own places were starting to mix in the town. Music was the unifier and the Pound music club in Oxford Street was bringing youngsters together, too."

Two of the other prime movers behind the gig were like chalk and cheese - straight-talking politician Paddy Devlin and maverick Ardoyne priest Fr Tony Marcellus, who was also a manager of a pop band.

"Tony was a hip priest," says Colin.

"He was very much in tune with what was going on in Belfast in the entertainment business." The involvement of a priest was cited as one reason for opposition to the concert from loyalists, who also had little time for John Lennon because of his oft-voiced pro-nationalist sentiments.

But the organisers, who also included the late Belfast music journalist Donal Corvin in their ranks, ploughed on and managed to pull together the concert in just three weeks.

A number of possible venues like the City Hall and the King's Hall were ruled out, but the National Trust had no problems with the organisers using their Sandpit Field - a natural amphitheatre - at Minnowburn

Chart-toppers Marmalade and The Tremeloes from Britain agreed to play for free.

And all was set for a day to remember. Sadly, though, what Colin McClelland can't forget about the build-up to the gig is the weather.

"It rained out of the heavens the night before and that morning," he says. "I suggested to Paddy Devlin that we should consider calling it off. But he replied: 'Under no circumstances'. So we went ahead."

Reports from the time put the crowd at between 5,000 and 8,000, which was a lot less than the organisers had hoped for.

Given the inclement conditions, local bands like Creative Mind, Pennyfeather, and John Farrell And The Dreams literally were the warm-up acts, but before the main act Marmalade were due on, Colin noticed that aforementioned exodus from the Press enclosure.

"I don't know how they got to hear that something was happening elsewhere, but the journalists and the camera crews started to drift away very quickly," he says. "Then we were told that rioting had broken out at Unity Flats and that's what made the news that night."

Even so, neither Colin nor Sam have any regrets about the concert, which came just before hundreds of thousands of people attended the legendary Woodstock festival headlined by Jimi Hendrix in New York State.

"Maybe we were a bit naive that Pop for Peace could make a difference," says Colin. "But in the spirit of the time, it was a valid thing to do.

"Certainly, it was better to do it rather than not to do it."

Sam Smyth says: "There were friends of mine who thought I'd taken leave of my senses in organising the concert. And they rubbished the idea that 'boys running round with guitars' might solve the problems of Northern Ireland.

"But none of us on the organising team really thought pop music could stop the violence. But there was a very idealistic notion about peace and love and it was one of the nicer things at the time. That atmosphere was very evident on the day. Don't forget that there were a lot of people around Belfast at that time who had created a vibrant movement in the city that cut across the divide.

"They weren't interested in getting involved in any tribalism. They just wanted to hang out together and listen to music that was very important to them. It was a great common denominator and I think it brought out the very best of people."

However, Sam acknowledges that the violence of August, 1969 was the start of the worst of times in Northern Ireland.

Within days the violence had spread. Eight people were dead, hundreds were injured and more than 1,500 people had fled their homes.

The Troubles were here, and were here to stay. For decades.

Yet Sam says that he and many other people in Belfast were convinced at the time that the violence, bad as it was, was a flash in the pan.

Sam says: "We thought it would all be sorted out very quickly, that a deal would be done and within a year we would all be back to a half normal way of life. And probably that's what kept us all sane."

One of the hosts at Pop for Peace was Michael Henderson, aka DJ Hendi, who for years was a stalwart of Downtown Radio.

The veteran broadcaster, who is still presenting a radio programme on an internet station, says Pop for Peace wasn't Woodstock.

"Far from it," he laughs. "The weather didn't help. It was all a wee bit shambolic, but I think people enjoyed themselves."

Half a century on it's hard to get confirmation if The Tremeloes actually played at Minnowburn, which is now at the heart of the Lagan Valley Regional Park.

Several people I spoke to thought Brian Poole's former backing group did perform. Others don't recall seeing them.

But a newspaper report from the time said the band got lost en route to Minnowburn.

Showband singer Joe Dolan was late. The car taking him to Minnowburn got a puncture, but he still sang at the concert.

On Sunday the National Trust are hoping to rekindle the spirit of Pop for Peace with a 50th anniversary celebration in the Terrace Hill Gardens at Minnowburn, right next door to an imposing house that was once linked to Van Morrison.

During the afternoon there'll be a 'peace reading' from Derry Girls actress Tara Lynne O'Neill, music from Sara Dylan and Nick Boyle And The Shillelaghs, as well as poetry for peace associated with Seamus Heaney.

Visitors will also get the opportunity to walk to the Pop for Peace location at the Sandpit Field in the company of National Trust assistant curator and researcher Julianne McMahon, who will explain a little bit of the history surrounding the concert.

The National Trust have also appealed for anyone who was at Pop for Peace 50 years ago to come along and share their memories.

The concert didn't bring peace, of course, but nearly 30 years later in 1998 pop music was credited with helping to cement the Good Friday Agreement.

Just a few days before Northern Ireland went to vote on the GFA, U2 and Downpatrick band Ash were recruited to give a 'peace' concert in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

At one point Bono held the arms of John Hume, the SDLP leader, and David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, aloft in front of the audience of 2,000 young people.

Television footage of the gesture, and the concert, was said to have played a pivotal role in securing a 'yes' vote in the referendum.

Sam Smyth says that the organisers of Pop for Peace had every reason to feel proud of what they did too. He adds: "It was a very small pinpoint of light in what was becoming a very dark time, which lasted for decades."

Celebrating Pop for Peace at 50, Terrace Hill Garden, Minnowburn, Sunday, 1-5pm, admission free.

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