Arts

Tradfest returns with nourishment for the cultural ecology of Belfast

As Tradfest returns to Belfast for its Winter Weekend of music and song, Robert McMillen picks his highlights from a programme already well on the way to being totally sold-out...

Robert McMillen

Megan Nic Fhionnghaile is just one of the many performers at this year's Tradfest

SCOTTISH journalist and author Cal Flynn has written a wonderful book called Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape about spaces from which humans have been forced out or have decided to abandon.

Imperceptibly, their place has slowly been taken by all sorts of exotic flora, fauna and fungi which thrive on the freedom of the open spaces.

Belfast has never been completely abandoned by people, although its streets were eerily empty at the start of the pandemic, and Amazon and other on line shopping behemoths have also drawn people away. While people still work there and visit whatever shops are left, there seems to be an emptiness in the soul of Belfast city centre.

However, rather than it being taken over by invasive species, this weekend it will be taken over by a festival of traditional and folk music which will undoubtedly provide nourishment for the cultural ecology of our ever-changing city.

Tradfest has grown from the seed planted by Ray Morgan from the Glengormley School of Traditional music, which came to fruition in the Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music. They were hugely successful, based as they were in the University of Ulster in York Street, but spreading out to the four corners of the city in 2017 before being re-branded as 'Tradfest'

Covid, however, stopped it in its tracks: but I was delighted to read that this Sunday one of the events at this year's festival will take place at 2 Royal Avenue, formerly home to Tesco and to the Provincial Bank before that.

Just outside its doors, beside the Bank Buildings, the last public execution in Belfast took place when three weavers were hanged for allegedly attacking the home of their employer. 350 yards away is another former bank and Belfast's former stock exchange, the Assembly Rooms.

You can imagine the delight (or consternation) of those in attendance at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival – at a time when Belfast was known as 'The Athens of the North' because of its vibrant intellectual and cultural life – if they were to go up Rosemary Street and across to 2 Royal Avenue to hear how their music was being played 230 years later.

Ó Lionáird and Cooney in action

And what a an afternoon it is going to be: between 2pm and 6pm, you can feast your ears on Gaeltacht singer Diane Cannon and Maghera's own Jack Warnock, Brighde Chaimbeul & The Belfast Smallpipers, Good Morning to your Nightcap, pupils from the Glengormley School of Traditional Music, Trad Arts Partnership from South Armagh – whose aim is to make traditional music as accessible as possible – and a Sets Céili with Rónán Eastwood.

And this is all free. Just pop in or stay all afternoon. With a coffee shop, it's the perfect way to spend a Sunday.

However, the Tradfest Winter Weekend starts tonight, with gigs and sessions in both the city centre and in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, the Irish cultural centre on the Falls Road at Broadway.

You can get yourself into the swing of things with flute players extraordinaire Harry Bradley with Manchester-born Martin Meehan and fiddler Siobhan Meehan in the Mecca of Music that is Madden's Bar, before heading to the Sunflower where you can feast your ears on Ciara Maguire, Brendan Loughran and Gary Duffy in session.

Theoretically, you could then have headed up to the Cultúrlann, but the 8pm Zoe Conway & John Mclntyre gig with Pearse Larkin is sold-out, as is the 10pm Festival Club, hosted by Jack Warnock with Sinead McKenna, Ciarán Fitzgerald and Megan Nic Fhionnghaile.

Of course, it wouldn't be a trad festival without the workshops, and tomorrow and Sunday you can improve your playing skills at St Malachy's College on the Antrim Road (details at belfasttraditionalmusic.com).

If your musical skills end at tapping your toes and nodding your head then tomorrow is made for you. Beoga's accordion player and songwriter Damien McKee is joined by his musical friends at Madden's Bar for a sesh at Madden's from 2pm to 6pm, while Ciara Maguire, Aislinn Fegan and Clare McGreavy get to play at the Titanic Belfast Visitor Centre (sorry, I mean the "iconic" Titanic Belfast Visitor Centre).

Again, it's lovely to hear the sound of traditional music grow out of what used to be quite a bleak, post-industrial landscape.

Back in the city centre and The Black Box will be shaking to its rafters, not because of the wind – but who knows – but because the fiddling siblings Cathal and Stephen Hayden are joined by former Dervish great and Scottish small piper Brighde Chaimbeul for what promises to be a rollocking afternoon starting at 4pm.

Again, this is an already sold-out show but you can make your way to the upstairs Sunflower Bar for a singing session hosted by BBC's Radio Ulster's Brian Mullen. I last saw Brian in the same venue when the much-missed Folk Club was up and running and it was a tremendous event.

If you're not up for singing a few verses, then head to The Deer's Head where Ryan O'Donnell, Jack Warnock and Moya Sweeney will be entertaining you.

Tomorrow night also sees two unmissable gigs – although we'll have to wait on Mark Zuckerberg's Metaverse before we can be in two places at the same time.

The Cultúrlann is the perfect venue to host Muireann Mic Amhlaoibh, a traditional singer who is always happy to bring the songs she learned in her native Kerry along the road less travelled.

Scottish band Trip

She is joined by regular accompanist Gerry O'Beirne while back downtown at The Black Box, Tradfest welcomes to Belfast (for the first time, I believe) Scottish band Trip, whose first album A Drop for Neptune has just been released. They are joined by the ever-creative Pádraig Rynne and Elaine Hogan.

You're too late to get tickets for the Festival Club tomorrow night which features Niall Hanna and friends, but you can get some rest for the super-sesh in Royal Avenue on Sunday.

As well as the Royal Avenue shenanigans in the afternoon, Melanie Houton, Paula Houton and Kevin Sweeney are in session at The Second Fiddle before the main show of the weekend takes place at The Empire Music Hall with folk A-listers Íarla Ó Lionáird being joined by Steve Cooney.

Wow – Tradfest's Winter Weekend will undoubtedly raise the spirits of Belfastians, music fans and tourists alike. In the face of adversity, we always reach for the song or the tune.

The bad news is that almost all the concerts are sold-out. There are still some tickets for Trip on Saturday night and the Ó Lionáird/Cooney gig on Sunday night, but hurry as they're disappearing fast.

Full Festival details from belfastradfest.com.

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