Spring Féile Fever
It may be the smaller sibling of the Féile an Phobail, but timing of this year's Belfast festival sees it take on a greater significance than ever before
The sap is rising, we're well into March and it is time to reconnect with the Celtic celebration of the turning of the year towards spring and summer. In other words, don't miss the Féile an Earraigh which takes place in and around the Falls Road, Belfast from March 21 - 28.
It may be the younger sibling of the great annual August Féile, but this year's 1916 commemorations have given events a particular edge. So says local historian Tom Hartley, Tom Hartley, who has organized the first ever spring Féile lecture series, entitled Perspectives on 1916: The Easter Rising.
'In Belfast, the festival was always centred around St Patrick's Day and it is a natural extension of the much larger Féile an Phobail in August,' says Hartley. 'From March 21 to March 25, there will be lectures at one o'clock in the Falls Library and at seven every night in St Mary's College on the Falls Road.'
The topics look fascinating. A couple of lectures examine the role of women in the Easter Rising. Young historian Jason Burke, currently taking a master's in modern history at Queen's, will address the Unionist perspective on the Rising and talk about the way figures such as Edward Carson, who referred to the 'shame of Easter week', reacted to events in Dublin.
Burke says the views of some Unionists of the period are surprising and will offer a historical take on the arguments. 'Carson himself said other things about the events of 1916,' he explains. 'He stood up in the House of Commons and argued that the government should be careful of how it treated the leaders of the Rising and guard against looking for retribution but aim for justice rather than revenge.'
He adds that he detected an unwillingness on the part of Loyalists to blame the Irish revolutionaries and a desire to criticize the British instead for their role. 'At first, the Unionists tried to play down events. One of the things they were concerned about was that the British response to the Rising might involve taking weapons from all the paramilitary groups in existence and the Ulster Volunteer Force still existed. They felt they shouldn't be punished for what the "Sinn Feiners" did.'
A final footnote is that the British Army, short of weapons to quell the Easter Rising, were kitted out by the UVF and when the weapons came back they were in pristine condition, having been beautifully cleaned.
But there are other Féile events to enjoy. Musically, it's a strong programme with Songs of Revolution delivered by Frances Black, Andy Irvine – influenced by the great Planxty, among others – and Grainne Holland and featuring Bill Rolston and Brid Keenan is a must-hear. After all, legendary Nanci Griffith, who has appeared many times at the Belfast Songwriters' Festival, dubbed Black's recognisable timbre as 'the sweetest voice of Ireland'.
Plus there is a fascinating play from Brass Neck Theatre Company, Belfast Rising. The drama incoporates songs and visual elements to illuminate the impact Belfast had on the historic Easter Rising. People like Winnie Carney, whose influence on the Rising is now fully acknowledged. And of course, the creation of the UVF was at the start of the timeline, which led to the tragic events that unfurled in Dublin and Éire through 1916.
There is also the question of the industrial action going on. As the blurb puts it, 'Belfast 1916 an industrial powerhouse at the heart of the Empire. A city immersed in the revolutionary and radical politics of its time that would drive a number of its citizens to strike for their country's freedom.'
To find out more about the Féile an Earraigh and book tickets visit www.feilebelfast.com. The festival is highlighted as part of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland. To view the full programme of events taking place throughout March visit www.creativityni.org/events.