Poignant pilgrimage down Van Morrison's memory lane
On the eve of Sir Van Morrison's concert at Cyprus Avenue, Ivan Little visits the area that inspired his music
They started turning east Belfast's most famous street into Cyprus a-VAN-ue yesterday for one of the biggest birthday parties the city has ever seen, in honour of the biggest musical star it has ever produced.
And speculation was mounting that a number of celebrities will be flying in for the concerts, among them singer Bob Geldof, Downton Abbey stars and Ballymena-born actor Liam Neeson, who once recorded his own version of Van's classic song Coney Island on a tribute album.
Yesterday, on the stroke of 2pm, after the end of church services in the area, BBC technicians started to unload tons of equipment which will be used today to broadcast the first of Van Morrison's two 70th birthday shows live on Radio Ulster and to record it for a TV airing later this week.
But the full-scale preparations for the two sell-out gigs on the avenue which Van wandered in awe as a young man, only began in earnest at 5am today as teams of workers started constructing the stage which must be dismantled before dark.
All along the tree-lined avenue yesterday residents were readying themselves for parties in their gardens and David Butler and Johnny Mains from Belfast Marquees were pushing a delivery up the middle of the road to one of the houses.
"This marquee is big enough for 100 people," he said.
Residents have been given passes to enable them to get in and out of their homes but fencing is being erected on Cyprus Avenue at its junction with Sunbury Avenue and only paying fans will be allowed beyond.
Residents without tickets will only be able to watch the concerts from the part of the avenue which is behind the ticketed area.
It's not anticipated that Baroness Bannside, the widow of the best known resident of Cyprus Avenue, Dr Ian Paisley, will be joining in the festivities,
Her MP son Ian, however, is a huge fan and rarely misses a Van gig.
A husband and wife team from the Alliance Party who live further up the avenue said they thought the concerts were a major boost for the area.
Jim Hendron, who once stood unsuccessfully in a Westminster by-election against Peter Robinson, said: "I think everyone is thrilled. Most of our neighbours are having parties and we'll be taking up some of the invitations. I'm a big traditional music fan and I play the fiddle but I do like the Van Morrison sound.
"I got to see him when my wife Maire was the Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast and she and I were guests at a concert. I thought he was absolutely brilliant."
Another woman who would only give her name as Gerri, and who knew Van in his teenage years, will be spoilt for choice tomorrow because she has two sons living on Cyprus Avenue.
"Van used to tell me that he walked along the avenue as often as he could. He said it was a source of great inspiration for him," said Gerri, who added that Van used the avenue as a shortcut from his home to a pub at Ballyhackamore.
Even though he has passes, resident Mark Keown has also bought tickets for the first show.
"It's historic," he said. "You couldn't miss it. I love Van's music and when you walk up and down Cyprus Avenue there's a remarkable sense about the place.
"You can understand why Van wrote the songs about the avenue on Astral Weeks. Everything was bucking the musical trends of the time and the songs just seem to float along."
Mark, who has lived in the area for 23 years, said Cyprus Avenue was buzzing.
"It has been alive with people for ages. Lots of tourists have been getting pictures and while that is a common occurrence throughout the year, it's happening even more than normal."
Mark said the organisers of the concerts, which are the climax of the EastSide Arts Festival, had worked closely with residents about the planning of the gigs.
"The arrangements have been very happy and harmonious. We have been kept informed on a regular basis and any queries have had a response very quickly. I know some people are going to be inconvenienced but it's been kept to a minimum."
Yesterday, church services in Bloomfield Presbyterian Church, right beside where the recently knighted singer will perform this afternoon and this evening, went ahead as usual just before the Beeb's men in vans turned up to set up for the extravaganzas.
Church minister the Rev Frank Sellar, who said prayers for the success of the concerts, had his own celebrations on Saturday when his daughter Rebecca was married in the church.
"Van's concerts will make it a weekend to remember here," said Mr Sellar. "There's a real sense of delight and huge joy that the church is going to be part of what is happening and of course everybody loves it when a local person does well and enhances the city as a whole. "
But will Mr Sellar be there to see his illustrious guest in action?
"Oh yes," he replied, "I want to see him. I know his music and I think everyone will really enjoy it. It should be a great day and I hope he enjoys it himself." Churchgoers leaving the morning service yesterday were fascinated by all the to-ings and fro-ings on Cyprus Avenue, immortalised on his 1968 album Astral Weeks, which he wrote exactly half-a-mile away in his old family home in Hyndford Street, off the Beersbridge Road.
Cecil Carson who lives on Grand Parade said: "I heard Van playing in his younger days and I am delighted that he has done so well. It's great that he is coming back."
Another church member, Alan McBride, who lost his wife and father-in-law in the Shankill bombing in 1993, is going to see Van today, even though he's not a huge fan.
"I bought my tickets because it's such an unusual event," he said. "I just have to be there."
The church's clerk of session, John McKibbin, will be listening from a friend's garden on Cyprus Avenue.
"My mother and Van's mother used to be close friends," he said. "And I would have been in and out of his house on Hyndford Street. I also went to Orangefield Boys School like Van and I was at one of his return concerts when the place closed down."
Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane, who was at the Bloomfield service yesterday, will be partying on Cyprus Avenue today at her family home.
"I was brought up here and it's always been fantastic to see the reaction of people on holiday when I say I'm from Cyprus Avenue. It's really well known because of Van's song.
"I was doing the housework yesterday to the soundtrack of Van's music - I have nine of his CDs - but this will be my first time at one of his concerts"
A group of Vanatics - fans of Morrison's who are mainly from America - couldn't resist having a look yesterday at the leafy avenue they know so well from their hero's songs
Several hundred of them have been here for over a week visiting Van's old haunts, attending special concerts and even a reception at Stormont.
Like the real thing, a Van party at a Belfast hotel last night with a Morrison tribute band was sold out long ago.
Among those who couldn't get tickets were two women from the Loch Lomond area of Scotland, but their visit to Cyprus Avenue yesterday was more than consolation as they took photographs of each other beside the street sign and saw the thoroughfare for the first time.
"I absolutely love him," said Ingram Wilson. "I've been listening to his music for over 40 years and I've seen him six or seven times in Scotland.
"But this is a real biggie, to see him in his own back yard, at Cyprus Avenue, which is an amazing song."
Her friend Margaret Stewart said: "We've been grinning since we stepped on board the plane in Glasgow on Friday night.
"We've had a fantastic time and we are really looking forward to the concert on Cyprus Avenue, plus we have tickets for an after-show party too."
The women have sent Van a birthday card by email and said they would love to meet him to pass on their greetings in person and to invite him for a tour of Loch Lomond.
Ingram and Margaret were disappointed that they arrived too late to go on a festival trip to Van's landmarks around east Belfast.
Bobby Cosgrove, who pioneered the first Morrison walking tours, stepped into the breach yesterday and showed them places associated with their idol.
He drove them to Hyndford Street; to his old schools at Elmgrove and Orangefield; to the hall where he first played with Them; to the Castle cinema on the Castlereagh Road and the mission halls where he used to worship with his mother.
Sadly, however, they weren't able to get a close look at the Hollow which Van sang about on Brown Eyed Girl, as the area off Abetta Parade, with its waterfall and its old mine, is currently closed off to the public for work on the Connswater Community Greenway.
Back on Cyprus Avenue, it was clear that not everyone who was there to sample its magic was an outsider. Sheila Hannon, from north Belfast, said: "I just took a drive over because I couldn't get a ticket for the concerts and thought it would be nice to see the Avenue. I don't really know east Belfast at all and the journey was worth it. The trees and all the surroundings are beautiful."
Further along the Beersbridge Road a number of Van tourists were being shown around St Donard's church, which he also made famous in a number of his songs.
Rector's warden John Gilmore who, along with his wife Pamela has been a parishioner since 1972, said people in the church were proud of the Van Morrison connection.
"I think everyone is aware that he sang about the six bell chimes of the church and that his mother and father Violet and George Morrison were married here on Christmas Day, 1941."
Amid all the activity in and around Cyprus Avenue, however, there was no sign of the Man himself as he enjoyed the last day of his 60s before appearing for the first time on stage this afternoon as a septuagenarian, celebrating the occasion with a party at a secret venue in Co Down tomorrow.
On social media yesterday there were a number of pleas from fans for anyone with spare tickets to sell them.
"But they're like hen's teeth," said a source close to the organisers, who have ruled out any hopes that any more tickets might be made available at the last minute.
"The best way to hear him if you haven't got a ticket is on the radio," he added.
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