Belfast Festival Anthology

Were you at Queen's University when Jimi Hendrix played the Whitla Hall, or when Seamus Heaney first read in 1961? Archive your festival memories

On Jimi Hendrix’s 25th birthday, on November 27, 1967, he played Belfast. The Whitla Hall at Queen’s University, to be precise. That year the Jimi Hendrix Experience were at the peak of their powers, and were an obvious highlight of the Belfast Festival at Queen's programme.

The Belfast Telegraph were outside on the night, listening in. They were reserved in their praise for the greatest rock guitarist who ever plugged in an amp. ‘[The noise] was so bad you could feel your insides… the enormous amplification swamped everything. Their performance received a polite but cool reception.’

For those students lucky enough to have experienced the explosive creative frisson that existed at the time between Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding (who would not be matched as a rock trio in terms of energy and influence until the arrival of Nirvana in the early 1990s), no doubt it was a gig not easily forgotten.

If you were there – or indeed at any other Belfast Festival at Queen's event that was in some way memorable, transformative, enlightening or, conversely, disappointing – now is your chance to have those memories recorded and archived for posterity as the Belfast Festival celebrates 50 festivals, and looks to the future to consider how its programme might look in 50 years time.

The Belfast Festival Anthology is a three-pronged project that aims to ‘celebrate and commemorate the 49 festivals that have gone before’, says Belfast Festival Anthology project manager, Hugh Odling-Smee. It stands out as an interesting addition to the 2012 Belfast Festival schedule.

‘This isn’t the 50th year of the Belfast Festival, it’s the 50th festival,’ Odling-Smee clarifies. ‘In 1961-62 there was a jazz and arts festival that took place at Queen’s. Nothing happened in 63 but the festival returned from 64 to 69. In 70 and 71 there was no festival, basically because of the Troubles.'

‘After that,' adds Odling-Smee, 'a new festival director was swiftly replaced with another new director, and there has been a Belfast Festival at Queen's every year since. With the Anthology we want to look back at all the festivals and ask people to tell us how and why they were important to Belfast, and also to them as individuals.’

For some months now, Odling-Smee and his team have been busy rummaging around in the archive at Queen’s University for film footage, photographs, press cuttings, audio recordings, fliers, branding and anything else relating to the history of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

The public will be able to view some of that archive material when a new Belfast Festival Anthology website launches on October 10. Odling-Smee explains that this year's festival, which runs from October 17 to November 4, will inevitably have a nostalgic feel.

‘There are three main elements to the Belfast Festival Anthology,’ he explains. ‘Firstly we’re going to have an outdoor exhibition in the grounds of City Hall that will use some of the treasures we’ve rediscovered during recent research.

‘Secondly we’re going to have a website that will show some of the archive material that we’ve managed to gather together, but will also give people the opportunity to record their memories of the festival and also to consider and debate what kind of a festival we will have in the future.

‘Lastly we’re going to have 50 red plaques that will be erected temporarily at 50 different venues across the city that have been a part of the festival in some way, such as the Jewish Synagogue in north Belfast, which acted as the venue for a play by Kabosh Theatre Company in recent years.

‘Some of those venues aren’t there anymore, like the King George IV Social Club on May Street, which is just a carpark now, but we’re going to put a red plaque there anyway. We hope that people will follow the trail and learn about the history as we have.’

In the video above, Noble Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney gets the ball rolling with fond memories of the festival during its formative years.

The Belfast Festival Anthology is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Email your festival stories to festivalanthology@qub.ac.uk, or visit the Belfast Festival Anthology website.

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