Northern Ireland's longest-running literature festival continues to spread the word

Aspects at 25 may be a tough act to follow, but this year brings more big names to Bangor while celebrating centuries of writing heritage

Aspects, a festival of Irish writing, returns to Bangor, County Down this month following its silver anniversary last year. Running between September 14 and 24, you could be forgiven for expecting a programme which doesn't quite rival 2016's milestone offering, but that certainly isn't the case.

'We have everything from poetry to prose to plays to children’s events to music,' says Patricia Hamilton, Director of Aspects and Arts Officer at Ards and North Down Borough Council. 'We have a real core Aspects audience but certainly in recent years, we are very much trying to reach out to people, too, who think literature isn’t for them.'

Hamilton has been permanent Arts Officer since 2013, and has overseen several Aspects festivals in that time. 'Last year was the 25th anniversary of the festival and as part of that we produced The Bangor Book, complied by a founder of the festival, Kenneth Irvine. It’s got everything from Comgall to the present day, to the likes of Derek Mahon. It’s writing about Bangor or influenced by it. It’s really about celebrating the talent in the area.'

Bangor is not a place in Northern Ireland that is tied in the national consciousness with a big name; we think Heaney for Derry, and Wilde and Beckett, for Fermanagh, for example. Yet, Sheila O’Flanagan has named the festival as her favourite, and it has always attracted big names; this year, Colm Tobin and Frank McGuinness. In the earlier years, the likes of Maeve Binchy and Jennifer Johnston. Hamilton believes Aspects serves to draw out hidden literary pasts and highlight the thriving present.

'Aspects is one of the longest running literature festivals in the country, the longest running in Northern Ireland certainly but one of the longest running ones in the whole of Ireland,' she says. 'There’s not maybe one particular person that you think, oh, they’re a big, big name, from Bangor. Now certainly, there’s lots of talent in this area including the likes of Colin Bateman, Kelly Creighton and what The Bangor Book shows, is that lots of writers would have came here, say in their childhood, and have been influenced by the town. The likes of Erin Halliday and Paul Maddern are local poets.'

One of the most interesting events, that highlights a little-known past, Replanting Paradise: Bangor on the Hereford world map (c1300), takes place at Studio 1A on September 23. Dr Diarmuid Scully of University College Cork will present on the significance of Bangor in the 13th century, with it and Dublin being the only settlements marked on it, in Ireland.

'At that stage, Bangor was a key settlement, that sent on pilgrims but it was also where writing was taking place,' Hamilton explains. 'Writing was key to Bangor, when it was much more significant than it is these days. Bangor was known throughout Europe, and I think a lot of people don’t know the influence that was apparent then.'

In terms of poetry, this year’s festival hosts two very different voices, in Peter Fallon and Rachel McCrum. The former, Hamilton describes as 'a real poetry national hero.' McCrum from Donaghdee, has served as BBC Scotland’s Poet in Residence. They will both read at North Down Museum on the evening of September 20.

'Those are two very different poetry focuses and I’m trying to challenge the audience to come to both,' says Hamilton. 'If you are a budding poet, the wealth of experience both can give, from a self-publishing and a more straight-forward publishing house method, is immense.'

The festival seeks too, to nurture budding writers. There is a ‘meet the editors’ event with staff from Blackstaff Press and The Stinging Fly fielding questions on getting published, September 23, at North Down Museum.

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Aspects also has its place in the community, working with students at South Eastern Regional College and local schools, sending some of the writers from the festival into schools, with Rachel McCrum doing a pupil’s session this year.

A fresh development for the festival is the Clandeboye Reading Party, now in its second year, which presents a free event on 'Heritage, History and Place' on September 14. Conceived by Clandeboye Estate owner Lady Dufferin, the idea brings around a dozen PhD students from Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast to the grounds for research culminating in the presentation of their work to the Bangor public. This year’s theme has been remembering the World Wars.

Hamilton hopes Aspects has something to appeal to a wide range of tastes.

'It is a real mixture of a festival, we’ve a very broad range of events and the likes of Joshua Burnside is going to have a very different audience maybe than a writer. We are writing in its broadest sense, a singer-songwriter is much about words as David Park. We have a beautiful event by Frank McGuinness this year, so Frank’s coming to talk about his plays, but in addition we’ve got Kevin Doherty, who is part of Four Men and a Dog and he wrote the music for Frank McGuinness’ play Donegal. They both grew up in the same town. Kevin is going to do a short performance after his interview. There is a lot of merging of genres, and of the arts, as well.'

Aspects Festival takes place in Bangor from September 14 - 24. For further information and ticket booking visit www.aspectsfestival.com or call Ards Arts Centre on 028 9181 0803.