Belfast Music Tour guide Dolores Vischer on stepping out to the Belfast beat

As a new Green Tourist Guide for Belfast, Dolores Vischer brings a wealth of knowledge – and craic – to music fans and walkers exploring the UNESCO City of Music. Here, she tells Gail Bell about her passion for music, her pride in Belfast and why she just can't stop jumping on a stage...

Belfast Music Tour guide Dolores Vischer
Belfast Music Tour guide Dolores Vischer Belfast Music Tour guide Dolores Vischer

TOO Old to Rock n' Roll? Not if you're Dolores Vischer, punk fan, drummer, choir member and ("mature") graduate of Girls Rock School Northern Ireland who, at the age of 60, has found a new path with the Belfast Music Walking Tour.

It is the dream job for the former PR consultant and events manager who, after qualifying as one of the new Green Badge Tourist Guides for Belfast – tying in nicely with the city being designated a UNESCO City of Music in 2021 – set up Creative Tours Belfast earlier this year.

"I love music, I love walking, I love history and I love showing off Belfast, so there were no doubts about what my walking tour theme would be," says Dolores, who has built up an impressive repertoire of entertaining musical anecdotes to share with walkers ambling through the city's streets.

One of her favourites is the night she unexpectedly took over the drumming for punk and new wave band The Stranglers when drummer, Jet Black, took an unscheduled toilet break during a show at the Ulster Hall.

These were anarchic times, she reminds me, and so there was nothing really unusual about boisterous fans like herself jumping up on the stage and "bouncing around" with the musicians.

"It was 1978 and it was the punk days – there weren't really bouncers or barricades around the stage or anything – so I bounced over and started talking to the drummer," she says, matter-of-factly.

"I told him I played the drums a bit, so he invited me to take over while he went to the bathroom. I thought I had better give it a 'go' – there were so many people bouncing around, no-one seemed to notice.

"The track was called Peaches and I kept the basic time and was quite happy with myself. I didn't do any fancy flourishes or anything, but I didn't make a total disgrace of myself.

"Luckily, he reappeared soon after and booted me off."

It is little nuggets like this, mixed in with facts and figures relating to Belfast's rich musical heritage, that have her walkers immersed so deeply and entertained so completely, that, before they know it, two-and-a-half hours are up and they are sitting down to their own private gig.

"We start at the Ulster Hall and finish the tour at the Oh Yeah Music Centre where there is a chance to browse the music memorabilia and then enjoy a live performance – often from a rising star who has completed the Oh Yeah Talent Development programme," she explains.

"Around nearly every corner in Belfast there is a musical story to tell, whether about 1950s hitmaker Ruby Murray, blues singer Ottilie Patterson, the Rory Gallagher link to the city or discovery of Van Morrison at the Maritime Hotel."

During 18 months of intensive study for her Green badge – which requires more specialist knowledge of a smaller area – she got to grips with the economy, ecology and geology of Belfast, as well as the history, and was surprised at what she learned along the way.

"I grew up in Belfast and went to school in Belfast, but you don't get much history in schools here," says the St Andrew's graduate (English with French and Spanish) who worked in the marketing department of Queen's University for 20 years before her retirement just before the pandemic.

"I didn't even know that Belfast was seen as a liberal city in the 1700s – that we were the first to have newspapers and printing organisations and that Belfast was then known as the 'Athens of the North'.

"It was fascinating to discover that the Harpers' Assembly of 1792 – essentially the first music festival in Belfast – was organised by liberal Presbyterians who were trying to conserve Irish music that was being lost."

Because of this connection, the tour stops off at Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, the oldest church building in Belfast and today a music venue with its own harpist-in-residence.

"Members of early congregations at Rosemary Street organised that very first harp festival, so people find snippets like that really interesting," says Dolores, a musician with the Over the Hill Collective (OTH), a 'pupil' at Girls Rock School of Northern Ireland and a member of Katie Richardson's Cathedral Quarter Choir in her spare time.

"At Girls Rock School we had to form a band, write our own songs and perform those songs – all within eight weeks, so that was a fun challenge," she recalls, laughing.

"When I joined up, I initially thought I would just be getting a quick drumming refresher course.

"We called our band ReSisters and I loved it so much I stayed on to be part of the Girls Rock School organising committee, helping run events for them in 2018.

"I met this other mature woman, a granny called Irene – who is my good friend now – and she and I wrote some songs together. We got a chance to record one called On a New Path, written from an older woman's perspective, and we thought it was great. We did some gigs but then lockdown came and that was that."

The pair kept in touch, though, and were recently invited to join the OTH music collective, each contributing a song to a an OTH album set for release later in the summer.

"OTH is a great initiative to get more mature women back playing music together," Dolores enthuses.

"There is quite a lot going on in the music scene now for women in Belfast. I got back into music myself in 2018 after jumping on stage – again – to sing at a band karaoke night as part of the Women's Work Festival organised by Oh Yeah."

She did join a band in her university days, but laments it was only as one of the backing singers.

"Back then, girls didn't really believe they could be in bands," she says, "but I had friends in bands and a drummer friend taught me how to play the drums in his garage.

"I started off playing the bodhran and had a fairly good sense of rhythm. Then, at uni, I joined a band as a backing singer – they were called Life Support and they were woeful. I think I might have been better on the drums, but I was only allowed to 'ooh' and 'aah' in the background."

Now a nominator for the NI Music Prize run by the Oh Yeah Music Centre, Dolores likes to support up-and-coming musicians and provide a platform for young talent at every available opportunity.

"As Gary Lightbody [Snow Patrol], has said, music is woven into the DNA of Belfast," she adds.

"It beats in echoes of the past through to the present day with contemporary new bands coming up, as well as talented classical musicians in the Ulster Orchestra and, of course, the vibrant hip-hop scene.

"Music in Belfast covers all traditions and cultures, all genres and all tastes. It's great to bring locals and international visitors on a musical walk to discover it all."

:: The next Belfast Music Walking Tour takes place on Friday August 5, with another planned for Saturday August 20. Further dates and information at creativetoursbelfast.com, email creativetoursbelfast@gmail.com