Féile na hAbhann makes triumphant return

The joyous Féile na hAbhann was an indication of what an open, inclusive Belfast at ease with itself could look like, writes Robert McMillen

Stunning performances from fiddler Cathal Hayden, box player Máirtín O'Connor and singer/guitarist Seamie O'Dowd helped lift the roof off St George's Market at the Féile na hAbhann concert.
Robert McMillen

WHILE going out to a festival event at one of our bigger venues is great, there are many communities in Belfast which have traditionally been starved of affordable cultural events to attend.

That's why representatives of the Markets area of central Belfast, Short Strand and Lower Ormeau got together to set up Féile na hAbhann, a river festival along the Lagan which ended on Monday night with a fabulous folk night in St George's Market.

The first year the festival ran was in 2019 when, despite being organised at short notice, 11,000 enjoyed the carnival atmosphere along the Lagan walkway.

Covid postponed it in 2020 and restrictions were in place in 2021 but Sunday past saw the Lagan Walkway burst alive with Mexican dancers, Irish trad musicians, fire eaters, dinosaurs, free food stalls cooked up by members of the areas' ethnic minorities, a children's games area a water sports on the Lagan itself and much more.

The musical highlights featured The Rapparees fiddler and singer Clare Sands, pop singer Rachel Mae Hannon and the award-winning duo of Joshua Burnside and Laura Quirke but there was some great music emanating from the acoustic tent which featured some of the most promising singer-songwriters in Ireland playing throughout the day.

Monday night however saw folk fans flocking to St George's Market for what was definitely one of the gigs of the year so far.

The 400 free tickets were quickly snapped up - the first 200 going to the local community, giving them the rare chance to hear some of the country's best musicians right on their doorstep.

Niall Hanna, Beoga's Damian McKee and Rachel McGarry kicked off proceedings with a rousing set of tunes and songs, followed by the unbeatable Alan Doherty on flute and whistle, joined by guitarist and singer Brendan Quinn and bodhrán-player, Robbie Walsh for a high-octane set of tunes and songs.

By now, the the 130-year old market. was buzzing when, enter stage right, three of the best musicians of any genre in Ireland: fiddler Cathal Hayden, box player Máirtín O'Connor and singer/guitarist Seamie O'Dowd.

The finest of traditional music, old and newly-composed, was interspersed with some Handel, Rory Gallagher and Stephane Grappelli in what was a rapturous set in front of the full house.

One of the musicians told me they had trouble earlier with the sound check which disappeared when the audience arrived, as if they absorbed all the extraneous sounds and freed the music to soar as it did in an area more used to the sound of car engines and trains going by.

As Fionntán Hargey from the Market Development Association points out, inner city communities in the south and east of Belfast are marginalised in so many ways.

"There's the physical marginalisation of the road network which cuts off Short Strand and cuts off the Markets while Cromac Street must be one of the most congested streets on the planet," he justifiably says.

Féile na hAbhann won't end that physical separation but it will certainly awaken communities to the exciting possibilities that surround them.

It was an indication of what an open, inclusive Belfast at ease with itself could look like.