Things to Look Forward to in Northern Ireland

Let your cultural calendar take shape with expert picks for 2016 from our own dedicated critics

After a month of merriment, the return to reality in January is nothing short of a bleak affair. The season of goodwill has left your finances in critical condition, your wardrobe more snug than you remembered and, while the weather is usually at odds with the holiday spirit, it does little to help when they're over.

Now that you're back at your desk, whether or not your New Year's resolutions are already in tatters, it's important to fill the diary with reasons to be cheerful. We've already given you our tips from the worlds of music and cinema, and having asked our cultural commentators to cast their minds forward, there is a lot more than it might seem. Mope no more!

Maureen Boyle

There are lots of books by Northern writers to look forward to in the next few months. In March there’s Peter Hollywood’s novel Drowning the Gowns, the first of his books he’ll publish with New Island Press and in May short story collections from David Park, Gods and Angels (Bloomsbury), and a first collection of short stories from Lucy Caldwell, Multitudes (Faber & Faber).

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Also in March is the ‘Women Aloud NI’ initiative, headed up by writer Jane Talbot, to celebrate Northern Irish women’s writing across the country with readings in every county for International Women’s Day. And in the early summer the Abbey’s new production of Frank Mc Guinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme will premiere and tour in the North and include a very special, site-specific performance at the battlefield itself on July 1, the centenary of the Battle of the Somme – which will be highlight of the year for anyone who can manage to be there.

Ian Patterson

There is so much tremendous stuff going on throughout the year, reflecting the vibrant state of the arts in Northern Ireland in all their manifestations. An absolute highlight, personally speaking, is the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, which runs for about ten days at the end of July/beginning of August.

The quality of the theatre, talks, music, exhibitions and comedy--all Samuel Beckett related—is simply outstanding, placing this young, multi-media festival firmly among the very best arts festivals on the island.

Pre-Christian islands, castles, dungeons, pubs, theatres, playing fields and the streets of Enniskillen are typical venues for this always stimulating and often provocative celebration of Samuel Beckett. An unforgettable experience.

Trevor Hodgett

It may lack the naked hippies, the mud and the bad acid - or, indeed, the good acid – of upstate New York’s similarly-named 1969 festival but East Belfast’s Woodstock Rhythm & Blues Festival in mid-August has become an unmissable annual event for Northern Irish blues fans.

As well as visiting legends like Chris Farlowe, who has appeared three times and whose 'Out Of Time' is one of the most memorable of all '60s number one records, the festival typically features beloved local heroes like Kenny McDowell, Ronnie Greer, Rab McCullough, Errol Walsh, Billy Boy Miskimmin and Grainne Duffy, making Woodstock feel like a celebration – a celebration of the music that has been centrally important on the local scene for decades and a celebration of the musicians who have dedicated their lives to playing it, often for scant reward. At previous festivals most gigs have sold out: 2016 will surely be no different.

Jane Hardy

The Nualas

The trio of funny girls in Strictly outfits and geek specs will be wowing the Lyric Theatre audience on February 28 with humour and song. For one night only, the Nualas, uniquely compared to both Samuel Beckett and Joyce Grenfell, will share their thoughts on men, nuns, the catering business and naturally, life.

Rembrandt and the Art of Self-Portraiture

Rembrandt, the great 17th century Dutch artist who deployed light and dark to such effect in his portraits, frequently held the mirror up to his own changing face. From January 16, you can analyze Rembrandt's final, reflective version, Self-portrait at the Age of 63, in the Ulster Museum. And on February 5, Dr Allison Goudie of the National Gallery, London, gives a lecture on the masterpiece.

Self Portrait Rembrandt

From April 18-30 at the Grand Opera House, Martin Lynch goes to the distaff side with A History of the Peace (according to my Ma). A continuation of his comedic, clever History of the Troubles (according to my Da), with writing help from Grimes and McKee, it's a 'peaceful tale of bombings, guns, punishment beatings, and riots'. Not just for Long Kesh graduates, though.

Lee Henry

There are festivals, from the eclectic Out To Lunch in Belfast and the Happy Days Beckett bash in Enniskillen, to the more prosaic but nonetheless enjoyable Aspects Irish Literature Festival in Bangor or the Foyle Film Festival in Derry.

There are books, albums, movies, poetry collections and television series to look forward to (though I'm one of the few who stopped watching Game of Thrones at the beginning of season two – too much bush for me, not enough foliage).

There are the last minute releases and the long-awaited follow ups to anticipate, and the thought of something new coming from the peerless pen of Ciaran Carson – about which, at this point, I am merely hopeful – is enough to make 2016 fly by in an expectant stupor. But nothing stands out in Northern Ireland's cultural calender for me like the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition, which takes place in the Ulster Museum every September.

RUA Exhibition

With new President Dr Denise Ferran now in her second year at the helm, it remains to be seen if the bravery that characterised former President Colin Davidson's curatorial tenure will be emulated or bettered in 2016, but the quality of entries always astounds, and since the exhibition has returned to its spiritual home in South Belfast, I've never been underwhelmed by the variety of exhibits on show nor the craftsmanship, draftsmanship and artistry of those who make the cut. Can't. Wait.

Jane Coyle

After an extremely successful 2015 under the stewardship of executive producer Jimmy Fay, the Lyric Theatre is hoping that 2016 will turn out to be another good year.

At the start of last month, it was announced that the theatre’s new artist-in-residence is Peter Wilson, better known as Duke Special. He succeeds Owen McCafferty, whose black comedy Death of a Comedian was premiered at the Lyric in February, before transferring to the Abbey in Dublin and the Soho Theatre in London.

Duke Special Lyric Theatre

This is an imaginative, unpredictable appointment and there will be keen anticipation for the Duke's musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, based on songs written by Kurt Weill, which will premiere on the main stage in the spring of 2017 as an important component of his residency. Three major shows have been announced for the forthcoming season..

In both its stage and screen incarnations, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita has become something of a national treasure. Prime Cut’s artistic director Emma Jordan will be making her Lyric debut as she takes charge of an essentially Belfast take on Russell’s story of the unlikely liaison between mouthy hairdresser Rita and booze-sodden academic Frank, played respectively by Kerri Quinn and Stephen Kennedy. It runs from 30 January to 28 February.

March will see the arrival of a new Lyric/Bruiser co-production of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller, The 39 Steps. This award-winning version ran in London's West End for nine years. Directed by Bruiser's Lisa May, four actors will take on a dizzying 139 roles, recreating the hair-raising adventures of dashing Richard Hannay and his brushes with murder, mayhem and glamorous women. It opens on 29 March and runs until 16 April.

And word has just come through of an exciting visit from the Theatre Royal, Waterford/Geva Theatre, Rochester, NY’s co-production of one of the truly great American plays of the 20th century - Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The director is Ben Barnes, artistic director of Theatre Royal and former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre. The international cast includes Dublin actor Mark Lambert, who has made many memorable stage appearances in Belfast. It is at the Lyric for just one week, from March 15 to 19.

Philip Hammond

The Belfast Music Society is one of the few groupings left in Northern Ireland who actually concentrate on promoting classical chamber music. It is a niche market, that’s for sure, but those of us who enjoy the intimacy of live music-making with just one or two outstanding musicians will know the very special rewards.

Those rewards are on offer to all at the BMS International Festival of Chamber Music, and eagerly anticipated. Between February 19 and 21, the BMS will present pianist Janina Fialkowska in an all-Chopin programme, Ioana Petcu-Colan and Michael McHale in a violin and piano recital, the Dante String Quartet with pianist Daniel Tong in a Shostakovich Quintet, and Irish tenor Robin Tritschler with pianist Christopher Glynn in a concert of song.

Dominic Kearney

Having received - at the age of 52 - a LEGO architecture set, the resulting New York UN Building sitting proudly on display, I'm really looking forward to the Brick Wonders Exhibition at the Nerve Centre, Derry-Londonderry. Running from February 6 to May 2, there'll be over 70 LEGO models, constructed by Warren Elsmore, featuring the world's finest buildings.

Padraig Coyle

2016 is likely to see a rise in the sale of French phrase books as Northern Ireland football prepare to travel to the European Championships in June. Michael O’Neill’s squad makes its debut in the tournament with games against Poland, Ukraine and world champions Germany.

The opening game against the Poles is scheduled for the Allianz Riviera stadium, Nice on June 12. Republic of Ireland supporters will be heading to Paris for their first group match against Sweden on June 13.

Elsewhere in sport Ireland travel to Rio to compete in the Olympic Games in August, while golfer Rory McIlroy is determined to regain the world number one position this year as well as having his sights targeted on the one major tournament to elude him – the Masters in Augusta in April. The opening round tees off on April 7.

And not forgetting...

  • Marking 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, Belfast-based performance artist Amanda Coogan and Terra Nova Productions will each team with the British Council to stage exciting new works, including the historic Belfast Tempest.
  • As part of a 2015-16 season that has already challenged audiences with a contemporary re-staging of Puccini’s Turandot, NI Opera revisit Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw at the Lyric in March.
  • June sees the legendary Neil Young perform in Northern Ireland for the first time, as part of his highly acclaimed Rebel Content tour. Re-energised by backing band Promise of the Real, expect over 50 years of hits and never before played tracks packed into a three-hour extravaganza at the SSE Arena.

Neil yOUNG

  • This year also includes the centenaries of some of the most pivotal points in Irish history. The Creative Centenaries project plans to commemorate events such as the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme with a major cultural programme to include an exhibition touring Derry~Londonderry, Belfast and Dublin, as well as highlighting the work across Northern Ireland raising awareness of 1916.
  • Expected to open in summer is the first Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy. Bringing together an interactive exhibition, a 160-seater performance space and over 2,000 books from the late Nobel Laureate's personal library, the £4m development will be a creative haven for the arts.
  • Currently inciting Dornan delirium around Belfast as filming on its third and final season rolls on is The Fall. Gillian Anderson and 50 Shades star Jamie reprise their roles as Superintendent and captured killer as the BBC2 crime drama returns to screens later this year.