Bangor's Ghost Returns

Master curator Rachel Coulter gets set to summon the spirit of the seaside town's past with her yearly Open House Festival showpiece

No matter how passionately a person may feel about his or her pet project, there is usually a self-imposed limit to what constitutes working hours. In the case of artist and singer-songwriter Rachel Coulter, normal rules simply do not apply.

For the past three years Coulter has been the driving force behind one of the most intriguing events on the eclectic all-year programme of the Open House Festival, which takes on a particularly salty flavour during the month of August, when activities are focused on the North Down seaside town of Bangor.

Bangor’s Ghost is now in its third year and, somewhat surprisingly, is proving to be one of Open House’s hottest tickets. Through music, poetry and readings, it uncovers all manner of fascinating facts, fictions, anecdotes and hidden histories about a town whose outwardly staid respectability proves to be deliciously at odds with its rich cultural heritage.

The Seamstress & The Scholar

Even by her own high-energy standards, Coulter has had a few weeks of frantic activity in planning and curating the event in an atmospheric new venue, putting together an exhibition of her own work and, oh yes, getting married.

In spite of this writer’s insistence that she has far too many things on her agenda to detain herself with this interview, Coulter is happy to engage in conversation from the incongruous comfort of the hairdresser’s chair, just hours before heading for her wedding.

Last year Bangor's Ghost worked its magic in the colonnaded upstairs space of The Windsor, one of the town’s oldest seafront watering holes. Alas, The Windsor is no more, but, as Coulter explains, the new setting of Bangor Abbey is entirely appropriate to the content of the evening...

'The inspiration for Bangor's Ghost began one lovely sunny morning when I was early for an appointment at the GP’s surgery on the Newtownards Road. I decided to take a stroll through Bangor Abbey graveyard. I was reading some information about interesting graves on the Abbey’s notice board. One entry stood out. 

'It was a description of the grave of Captain George Colvill of the Ulster privateer The Amazon, which was wrecked in Ballyholme Bay in 1780. Colvill, along with around half of his crew, lost his life on that stormy February night.

'The words on his headstone poetically described his last moments and I instantly felt compelled to write a song about him. I couldn't find much more other than that he was only about 28 when he met his end, not much older than me.

'While writing and researching the song, I got so caught up in the mystery of it all that it led me on to wanting to know about other peoples' stories. I became very wrapped up in it all. Gradually, I formed the idea of creating a platform where others could come and share their stories and bring some of Bangor's lesser known past back to life.' 

Far from being the éminence grise behind the scenes, on the night Coulter will be centre stage as the lead vocalist in the popular folk group Farriers, appearing alongside her best friends Stephen Macartney and Kate Squires on guitars, viola and vocals.

The biggest name on the bill is that of Duke Special, who, once again, adds his modest, low-key genius to proceedings on the basis that he just loves this gig and long ago had a summer job in an ice cream van on Ballyholme Esplanade.

They are joined by poet Moyra Donaldson, musician and local historian David Lennon and BBC presenter Cherrie McIlwaine. For Coulter, a major part of the appeal is that this gathering of creative talents feels a bit like being at a great party.

'There is such a wonderful mix of artists,' she says. 'Moyra’s poetry always has me on the edge of my seat, especially the poignant 'When He was Deposed', which describes a mother’s perspective of her baby being born on a ship sailing in a massive storm from the Bangor coast to Scotland. She named her baby Seaborn Calver.

'Cherrie helps me with the research and is such a captivating performer. She will read a very entertaining piece called 'Bangor Gossip, which was written in 1885 for a performance in Bangor Masonic Hall.

'David Lennon is a breathing encyclopaedia on Bangor's history. You think I love Bangor, wait until you meet him. He’ll be accompanied by Marcus McCauley on guitar and Niall and Bronagh McClean on violin. The combination of David's voice and their instrumentals gives me goosebumps.

'I have loved Duke Special's music for a long, long time. He has turned one of the lyric sheets from the Blackberry Path Art Studios' time capsule in to a beautiful song, which he will perform at the show. He will be accompanied by the fabulous Arco String Quartet. And there is also a surprise in store … but I'm keeping that quiet for now.'

Blackberry Path Art Studios' time capsule

As the show develops and grows, Coulter says that this year she decided that she would add a visual element. As much an artist as a musician, she felt the time had come to organise her own exhibition, using the content of the show as her inspiration.

Her intention was to explore what it was like to live in Bangor at different periods in the town’s history, to survey the land from aboard an Ulster privateer ship, to dance the night away in Caproni’s ballroom, trace the footsteps of St Columbanus, wait for your loved one to return from the war and attend concerts in the Masonic Hall.

'I have exhibited nine illustrations, all based on the material I had researched', she explains. 'The Blackberry Path Art Studios on Gray's Hill was the perfect place to hold the exhibition. It’s an old house, with exposed stone walls and much character, which is still in the process of becoming a complete working studio and gallery. It’s a lovely intimate space and people enjoyed it as much as they enjoyed the artworks.

'There’s yet another story attached to the house. A couple of years ago the builder discovered a time capsule containing bits of broken shoes, old concert programmes and a young boy’s spelling book. The 1901 Census revealed that a widowed embroiderer called Jayne McBurney had lived there, as well as a young lodger of primary school age called William Sibbison.

'The objects provided great clues into the lives of the residents so I thought it would be a good idea to set up the attic room as if it were Jayne and William's study, containing old furniture, books, and linens from all around. We put in a hidden speaker, which broadcast the voices of Tina and Fletcher Allan playing the roles of Jayne and William. 

'My intention was that the whole thing would be light and sweet, but it certainly managed to unnerve a few visitors. I must admit, I really enjoyed their reactions.

Bangor's Ghost Poster

'I have produced a number of limited edition Bangor's Ghost posters, which, along with the three remaining original framed artworks, will be on display and available to purchase at the show. Limited edition prints of all the artwork can also be ordered.'

As Coulter gathers herself for the rather bigger occasion of her wedding, she quite rightly describes herself as '… the type of person who throws myself into all kinds of projects, if the concept excites me. I may not be the most confident performer but I have a lot of ideas to share and I love working with other artists.

'I feel at right at home on stage with all the Bangor's Ghost performers. It is incredibly valuable to me to be able to work with other artists and meet new people through what I do.

'Open House has been a huge support to the whole Bangor's Ghost concept. I couldn't have it hosted by a better bunch of people. Farriers have played Open House many times over the last five years and it always has been a great experience, some of our most memorable shows, in fact. We love it.'

Bangor’s Ghost is at Bangor Abbey on Saturday, August 29 as part of the Open House Festival. For tickets visit www.openhousefestival.com.