The Priests set to launch Ballymena Festival's centenary celebrations in style - The Irish News
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The Priests set to launch Ballymena Festival's centenary celebrations in style

The Ballymena Festival of Music, Speech and Dance is about to celebrate its centenary, with The Priests in concert, a four-week festival and a commemorative book featuring a contribution from Liam Neeson. Festival chairman Stanley Hughes talks to Brian Campbell

The Priests play the Ballymena Festival Centenary Concert on Saturday

LAST Saturday it was Liam Neeson on a big screen and this Saturday it's singing trio The Priests on a big stage – it's all going on in Ballymena at the moment.

While Neeson was speaking via satellite to support a rally calling for investment to bring new jobs to the Co Antrim town, The Priests are appearing at a special concert to mark 100 years of the Ballymena Festival of Music, Speech and Dance.

The event is set to draw more than 20,000 competitors and spectators to Ballymena over the next four weeks. And the Centenary Concert at the Braid Arts Centre on Saturday evening will kick things off in style, with performances from The Priests, soprano Rachel Thompson, cellist Eva Richards, flautist Stephen Rankin, traditional act The McCloskey Family, a selection of dancers and an appearance from actress Alexandra Ford (Give My Head Peace).

Festival chairman Stanley Hughes says the 100th anniversary celebrations will make this year's event one to remember.

“The Priests are very popular. When they were in Garron Tower [the school on the Antrim coast the three attended, now called St Killian's College], they used to come over to the festival. They're very happy to be involved.

“We're also hoping that [Ballymena-born] James Nesbitt will do a video for us. We had wanted to get him over to open the festival, but he's busy filming.

“Liam Neeson has also given us a bit for the centenary book we've put together. He likes to promote Ballymena when he can. He wasn't directly involved in the festival himself, but his extended family was. Peggy McCann, who was a Neeson, is on the committee. So there's a family link there.”

Stanley laughs about the length of time he's been involved with the festival.

“It's more than 25 years now. Not the full 100, but I'm getting there slowly.”

There will also be an exhibition of photographs, trophies and artefacts marking the history of the festival.

“Mary Dinsmore started it all in 1915 and then the first actual festival was May 1916,” says Stanley. “A lot of the local mills took part in it. There was actually a great rivalry among them and the halls were always packed out, because there were no diversions like television then.

“It was held in Ballymena Town Hall until 1919, when the building burned down, and got back to the Town Hall in 1926.”

In recent years the festival has been based at the state-of-the-art Braid arts centre and museum, which is adjacent to the Town Hall.

The festival had to be suspended during the Second World War but Stanley says there were no real disruptions during the Troubles in the north.

“It's a non-sectarian organisation, with people of every persuasion, and everyone gets on awfully well. It cuts right across the community,” he says.

The festival is always “good craic”, according to Stanley, and the standard of competition across all the music, speech and dance categories is of an incredibly high standard.

“We get adjudicators from across the water and they're astounded by the standard of performance. The competitors, generally, are of school age and after-school age. They come from all over Northern Ireland and from Queen's University and from Dublin and all over.”

The festival is said to be aimed at “children and young adults aged four to 35 years” but Stanley isn't sure if that age range is strictly enforced.

“Somebody said the other day, 'It's more like four to 84!'”

:: The Ballymena Festival centenary concert takes place at the Braid Arts Centre on Saturday from 7.30pm and the festival runs until March 12 (ballymenafestival.org.uk).

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