Trad/roots: Liam Ó Maonlaí, Damien Dempsey and Ríoghnach Connolly among stars lined up for Duncairn's Virtual Cabaret

The Duncairn Centre has a fabulous line-up of artists and performers in the coming weeks, all of whom are playing, not quite as planned, from their own homes. So make yourself comfy in yours, tune in online and join what promises to be an uplifting, if unusual, series of gigs

Damien Dempsey will be performing online as part of the Duncairn Centre's Virtual Cabaret series
Robert McMillen

AS USUAL, the Duncairn Arts Centre has put together an extraordinary line-up of folk, trad and roots artists for a fabulous series of gigs over six weeks, starting tomorrow night.

In line with the Duncairn’s long-standing terms and conditions, it’s strictly BYO, there is a ban on single-use plastic, no loud talk during the performance, put your phones on to silent, sit back, have a drink, relax and enjoy the music.

However, these particular gigs are unique in that they are not happening live – they are going to streamed online due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

As the Duncairn’s creative director, Ray Giffen, sees it, the collective of more than 40 artists who signed up in a series of concerts which “are going up to bring the sense of community and unity back into hearts of music lovers everywhere over the next few difficult months” in what he rightly calls “a series of fireside gigs.”

Millions of people will be confined to their homes for the foreseeable future in the effort to thwart the onslaught of Covid-19.

“While our doctors and nurses take care of the sick, some of Ireland and Scotland’s best-known musicians and poets have pledged to do their bit by helping to provide succour for the cultural needs of the nations,” says Ray.

The Duncairn Virtual Cabaret will bring these artists together from a safe distance in a series of 90-minute live-streamed episodes on Youtube and Facebook, featuring performances recorded from their own homes and, weather permitting, gardens.

In the past five years the Duncairn Centre has become known as one of the top venues promoting the best new musicians from Ireland, Britain and further afield but like so many other community initiatives, the Duncairn was forced to close its doors as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, in true community spirit, the north Belfast arts centre wants to provide something cultural for the community and wider world during this global time of need.

“It’s at times like this that we have an opportunity to reflect on what’s important,” explained Ray, who is co-ordinating the Virtual Cabaret. I think it is important that we, the creative community, send out an important message through our collective spirit and empathy," Ray says.

“This might only be a small project, but it can uplift people when they need inspiration now more than ever before.

“The Virtual Cabaret will be a way for musicians/artists to come together in solidarity to help each other and wider society through these difficult times."

Over the next weeks, well-known artists such as multi-award winners Mick Flannery, Damien Dempsey, Julie Fowlis and Eamon Doorley, Ian Lynch (Lankum), Joshua Burnside, Zoe Conway and John McIntyre, John Spillane, Ríoghnach Connolly and, just this week, Liam Ó Maonlaí signed up, and all these trad A-listers will play a series of intimate online gigs from their own homes straight into the home of thousands of music-lovers.

Of course, the Duncairn has long been a champion of new and emerging artists and the Virtual Cabaret is no different.

“We have about 7.5 hours recorded and we have broken that up into 90-minute shows,” Ray explains. “Each programme will feature headliners as well as artists who are beginning their careers and we also wanted to have a poet in each episode.”

The Cabaret will be co-presented by Professor Phil Scraton, BBC Northern Ireland’s Lynette Fay and local composer/musician Conor Caldwell.

Due to the stringent and necessary restrictions on public gatherings, musicians have seen their tour calendars and their incomes completely wiped out for the foreseeable future. To try and assist them in their time of need, all donations to the Virtual Cabaret will be split evenly among all the performing artists

“Our aim is to bring some much-needed happiness and light into the lives of people at a time when all of us are rightly scared and concerned for humanity," says Ray. “Music and the arts uplift so many of us. We want to let people know that will never change. But we also want to provide a much-needed financial lifeline to many of our musicians and artists at a time when they face financial hardship.”

But what of the Duncairn Arts Centre itself and other arts centre throughout the land? I ask Ray about a gig I was particularly looking forward to. Tracks is a project that features such fab artists as Pauline Scanlon, Alan Doherty, Tóla Custy and Cillian King but is it likely to go ahead in April?

“Well, everything is totally up in the air at the minute and, to be honest, the signs aren’t at all optimistic,” he replies. “We’re planning to reopen at the end of June and even that might prove to be over-optimistic. It’s a huge problem.

“When you look back at the Mad Cow disease in the 1990s, a lot of people stopped eating meat after it. Something similar could happen with coronavirus where people might be reluctant to socialise in large numbers again so we are in a real dilemma.

“On top of that, you have the added complication of those people who’ve had their shows cancelled. How do you reschedule them? They’ll all be wanting to gig but will there be enough venues?

“Take all of the arts together – the plays, the exhibitions, the concerts. There are untold consequences in terms of scheduling. For instance, if an act wants to reschedule for certain time frame but the venue isn’t available, what do you do?

“Or say everywhere is available and everyone puts gigs on and there are, say 100 gigs on around the city, is there the audience to support that?”

So many questions, so few answers but for Ray, the best thing that he can do is to support the artists by showcasing them in this Virtual Cabaret and signposting people to the fantastic work that these people are producing and that will hopefully encourage them to buy an album or a T-shirt or get them to spread the word about an artist or a band. This all helps.

“No-one has any idea how or when we are going to get back to 'normal'," Ray adds.

:: The first episode of the Virtual Cabaret will be streamed live on The Duncairn’s Facebook and Youtube pages on Saturday April 4 at 8.30pm. Donations can be made in advance of the show at or during the stream via PayPal.

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