Cultural Highlights for 2017

An early look at what's ahead in the arts across Northern Ireland over the next 12 months, with critics' picks and key dates for your diary

The first weeks of the New Year can often seem like a bit of an empty void. The heady days of December seem like a distant memory and many are still trying to shake that festive fug and readapt to their regular routines.

And with people all around impulse-booking holidays abroad, you might think there's a dearth of things to look forward to at home. Granted, we are still in that strange, transient limbo, before some of the marquee events of the next 12 months have even been made known to public. Others may still be a faraway flicker in someone's mind.

Thankfully there is already a wealth of reasons to be cheerful that we do know about. We're merely scratching the surface with what's in store, but here we have enough to tide you through to your next arts fix. So bid that pristine, new diary adieu and start filling it with some of our picks for 2017.

Jane Hardy

Out to Lunch, the kid brother/sister festival to the Cathedral Quarter shindig in the spring, may be upon us but despite the name, it's one of the most sussed arts events in Northern Ireland under visionary director Sean Kelly. Expect lunchtime and evening treats at the Black Box, including the wondrous Martha Wainwright, doughty Fairport Convention, the peerless (and so funny) Mark Kermode, owner of best quiff in the business, on the movies.

Belsonic, long a provider of the sexiest and most memorable rock and pop gigs in these parts – from Chic, who played a blinder at Custom House Square headed by Nile Rodgers a couple of years ago, to High Flying Birds who did indeed fly under Mr Gallagher senior – is now moving its tent for some of this year's concerts to the hippest venue of them all, Ormeau Park. Green Day with special guest Rancid, for example, on June 28. So much better than schlepping off to the Boucher Road or wherever and wow, all that glorious musicality. Boulevard of Broken Dreams in BT7, bring it on.


Claire Savage

There are lots of great events to look forward to in Northern Ireland in 2017. As a writer, however, I’m particularly looking forward to the Women Aloud NI events on March 8, which is also International Women’s Day. Women Aloud NI was launched in 2016 by author Jane Talbot with the aim of raising the profile of female writers from the province.

Last year, 130 of these writers took part in 15 events across Northern Ireland, including myself, and I enjoyed reading one of my short stories at Waterstones, Coleraine. Two events also took place outside NI and there was a very successful mass reading at No Alibis bookstore in Belfast. For 2017, more of the same is planned, with a trip to Dublin also hopefully in the pipeline just after March 8, to do a mass reading in the city.

Aside from that, there’s also the Belfast Book Festival to look forward to in June and the John Hewitt International Summer School (JHISS) in July, both of which are great events for writers and book lovers!

Jenny Cathcart

Cathal Hayden and Máirtín O'Connor at Ranfurly Arts Centre, Dungannon - February 18

I first set eyes on Tyrone's own Cathal Hayden in one of the BBC´s pioneering Rhythms of the World TV programmes, a world music series on which I myself was a producer. He was playing fiddle to Arty McGlynn's guitar and it was unforgettably spine-tingling stuff. Incidentally, the director of that film was Derry's own Andrew Eaton, who is currently enjoying fame and fortune as a producer of the prestigious Netflix series, The Crown.

Máirtín O'Connor, who lives in Galway, is Ireland's finest accordionist and the most amenable, affable and charming of musicians. He was part of the original 'Riverdance' band and toured with the troupe for a time. He has made solo records and authored a book about his career.

I brought Hayden and O'Connor together in 2002 when I organised a music workshop entitled 'Senegal to Donegal' on Lusty Beg Island in the Fermanagh lakes. Four Irish and four Senegalese musicians worked together for a week fusing Irish melodies and African rhythms then showcased their collaboration in two acclaimed public concerts, one in Enniskillen and the other in Lisnaskea.

My two favourite Irish musicians have rarely been apart since.

Trevor Hodgett

During the grim years of the '70s when Belfast often seemed to be teetering on the brink of blood-soaked anarchy the Pound Music Club provided an oasis of civilisation. There world-class bands like Spike, Bronco, Light and Sk’boo thrilled the city’s musical hipsters and enabled them to escape the prevailing mayhem and hatred.

Can the magic of the Pound be recreated? Well, not entirely, unless the club’s veterans can be miraculously made young again. But the name was revived successfully for several gigs in various venues in 2016, and a more extensive programme of gigs is promised for this year.

Pound Music Club

Pound legend Kenny McDowell, now in his seventies but still a phenomenal singer, will be a regular performer at the gigs so for the white-haired, beer-bellied, ageing groovers of Belfast, eager to creakily revisit their youth, the return of the Pound will surely be the highlight of 2017.

Claire McKeever

Culture Night's no fixed abode style of events and experiences prove popular year on year. Culture 'Night' is in fact a bit deceptive in that the event includes a programme of events throughout the day and night. The whole affair is an eclectic mix of arts, food and culture in well thought out venues spread across the city. Bearing in mind the programme for 2017 hasn't been launched yet, there's no harm in guessing what innovative acts will be laid out in front of us this year: operatic troupe at City Hall? Light show at the top of Cave Hill?... Your guess is as good as ours!

Who isn't a fan of Seamus Heaney? His beautifully composed poetry, plays and other writings grabbing the attention of readers near and far. Now there is a home for the Nobel Laureate and a space to celebrate and honour his great contribution to the creative sphere. Based in Bellaghy, minutes away from the writer's birthpace, HomePlace is an ode to the writer and into the earlier part of 2017 – this January to March - it will be hosting a special programme dedicated to Heaney. This new programme will include The Homekey, a performance of heartfelt songs from musician Glen Hansard, a workshop with award-winning writer Deirdre Madden and conversations with prestigious journalists Peter Taylor and David McKittrick.

Jane Coyle

Prime Cut continues its tradition of bringing Irish premieres to Belfast with a new production of Red, John Logan’s hard-hitting play about the American abstract painter Mark Rothko. The 2009 London premiere, which subsequently transferred to Broadway, brought together Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant Ken. As master and apprentice, director Emma Jordan has here teamed the electrifying Patrick O’Kane, with the talented young Thomas Finnegan in this co-production with the Lyric. It runs from April 3 to 22 on the Danske Bank stage. Meanwhile, O’Kane is currently playing the role of a very different artist, the celebrated 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio, in The Seven Acts of Mercy for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

From March 2 to 19, Cahoots NI will present one of its finest pieces of work on the main stage of the Lyric before it transfers to the New Victory Theatre on Broadway. Nivelli’s War is based on the true story of a Holocaust survivor. It is written by the distinguished children’s playwright Charles Way and will be directed by Paul Bosco McEneaney, the company’s artistic director. The unlikely friendship between young evacuee Ernst and the mysterious Mr. H unfolds through a winning combination of theatre, magic, illusion and a haunting score by Garth McConaghie. Dan Gordon will reprise the title role of The Great Nivelli, which he played during the play’s premiere at the MAC in 2014.


Nuala McAllister Hart

I am also looking forward to the series of events on International Women's Day to be hosted by Women Aloud NI. Building on last March's successful activities in bookshops and libraries, which involved 130 women writers in 15 venues within Northern Ireland and two venues outside NI, this year Women Aloud NI are planning something bigger and better. And all this from a group of passionate volunteers who receive no public funding whatsoever.

But already over 200 writers have been lined up for a spectacular unveiling of women's writing spread right across the spectrum: fiction, children's books, folk tales, historical writing, non-fiction and a few unusual - and niche - areas. This is writing show-casing at its very best, drawing in audiences, venues, publishers, funders and - of course - the writers themselves.

The firm schedule of events and venues for 8 March will not be released until February, but based on past events by Women Aloud NI, this 'International Women's Day' will be exuberant, exciting and fun for all. Expect readings from established authors like Bernie McGill (a Glass Shore contributor) and Liz Weir, but also some writers new to the stage: Lesley Allen and Jane Talbot. And there's the youngest member of Women Aloud NI too, 18 year old Erin Burnett, author of the fantasy novel, Liza's Avenger. Other than these little snippets, we'll have to wait until the day to see what Women Aloud NI come up with this year.

Sara Gunn-Smith (Film Hub NI)

Last year was a brilliant year for independent cinema throughout NI and this year sets to be just as action-filled, with venues and programmers across the country gearing up for new seasons and events. Here are a few of the highlights:

Starting on January 22, Second Chance Cinema present a mini-season of documentaries in the Pavillion Bar in Belfast. My Best Fiend and the Beaches of Agnès are amongst the featured films.

Coming up next month is WANDA: Feminism and Moving Image (February 9 - 12) which will feature talks and discussions about feminist film practice as well as screenings of new work from feminist filmmakers and classic independent films such as Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's Riddles of The Sphinx and Lizzie Borden's seminal Born In Flames.

Ken Loach’s powerful observation on state welfare I, Daniel Blake is screening in various venues including Portrush Film Theatre, Golden Thread Gallery, the Braid and Culturlann.

Glass Eye Cine will be contributing screenings and talks as part of Imagine! Belfast Festival of Politics and Ideas in late March (venue TBC), and a separate collaborative music documentary/live performance programme with Black Box and Touch Sensitive Records Black Box, March - June.

Queen’s Film Theatre have a busy few months ahead with The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme (February 5 – March 29), Takeover Film Festival (Feb 24 – 26) and some brilliant new releases; Moonlight, Toni Erdmann and 20th Century Women. March brings Elle, Free Fire and Certain Women to the screens, along with a must for all Bowie fans – Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

Outside of Belfast, Fermanagh Film Club are also putting the final touches to their new season with Viva, The Olive Tree and The Innocents all set to feature. Across the way in Co, Down, Newcastle Community Cinema are screening the charming Lars and The Real Girl in their seaside venue on January 27.

We have word on new film clubs setting up in Ballyclare and Lisburn so there will be even more opportunity to enjoy some cinematic treats in those areas.

Keep an eye on our website What’s On Guide (powered by Culture NI) for details of the best independent and specialised film events in your area.

Eibhlin de Barra (Young at Art Director)

The 2017 Belfast Children's Festival programme is my first as Director. It's our biggest and best yet with over 100 events running over six days across the city from March 10 to 15, ranging from theatre, dance, music, visual arts, literature, film and comedy there really is something for everyone.

It's been a real joy to pull all of the events together and while I was able to build on the strong foundations started by my predecessor, Ali Fitzgibbon, I have been able to bring my own flavour to the 2017 festival and include some really exciting work from local and international artists. So expect to see some of the finest shows for young audiences available in Europe, including work not previously seen in NI or Ireland before.

Selecting highlights is like asking a mother to choose between her children, but there are some events that are not to be missed!

We are delighted to be welcoming back to Belfast Aracaladanza (Spain) with their new production Flights (Vuelos) on March 14 and 15 at the MAC. Taking inspiration from the works of Leonardo da Vinci, this spectacular, playful, visual feast really has the wow factor, and is suitable for everyone aged five and over.

Nosferatu from Le Bob Theatre (France) tells the story of Dracula, but not as you know it. This hilariously funny, witty, innovative production charts the adventures of Count Orlock (who looks a bit like a bat but also a garlic clove) and will see you become emotionally attached to a lightbulb! It's for ages eight and over at the MAC from March 10 to 12, and not for scaredy cats!

Also suitable for those of the same age is a festival first - a specially adapted version of the hugely popular Pigeon & Plum's Variety Cabaret Circus, that has been delighting local audiences for over a decade. You can catch this special family edition at the Black Box on March 12, as part of the exposure platform profiling the finest work for young audiences from NI including Cahoots NI, Replay Theatre Company, Ulster Orchestra, NI Opera, Colin Reid and much more across the festival weekend.

And talking of the weekend, don't miss the Big Festival Days Out, running in the Titanic Quarter on Saturday March 11 and the Botanic area on Sunday March 12, jam-packed with free activities for all the family. Start your festival adventure with Translink with on-board activity as we take over some train services that weekend! Check out our website for full details. We can't wait to see you there!

More Dates for Your Diary

  • Independent Venue Week returns for its fourth year from January 23 - 29, with gigs taking place at Voodoo and the Oh Yeah Music Centre, Belfast.
  • In February NI Science Festival returns with 150 events to get brains tingling from 16 - 26, while Output Belfast lines up some of the industry's biggest names for the largest all-Ireland music conference on February 16.
  • March usually means Creativity Month and this year is no different. The month-long celebration of Northern Ireland's creative industries incorporates events such the Imagine Festival of Politics and Ideas (March 20 - 26), Belfast-Nashville Songwriters' Festival (March 1 - 5) and much, much more. If you're running any creative events or activities in March, you can submit to the programme using this form, or by emailing Joe Carlin
  • March also finds us celebrating the centenary of the birth of one of Ireland's best loved singers, Derry-born tenor Josef Locke. To mark the milestone Nuala McAllister Hart is publishing a new and detailed biography - Josef Locke: The People's Tenor - which explores the myths and realities surrounding the man. The book, due for publication on March 1, is packed full of many previously unseen photographs, alongside family letters and other memorabilia, and promises to lift the lid on the 'Locke myth'. An exhibition of Josef Locke photographs, programmes and memorabilia will also run in Derry's Central Library throughout the month, as well as Belfast's Linen Hall Library in May, as part of the celebrations for 'The Locke Centenary'.
  • Also worth noting in March is the publication of Ireland's Beautiful North, by Dominic Kearney. Out on March 27, the book is described as 'an introduction to Ulster, featuring a selection of the sights and places that go to make this province a place of such constant fascination'.
  • April sees the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival come of age with its 18th edition from April 27 running to May 7. Early bird tickets are already on sale for several key names, from The Handsome Family to Richard Herring. There's also the always unforgettable Belfast Film Festival (March 30 - April 8), with its reputation for creating unrivalled cinematic experiences in unique locations, and the sumptuous City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival (April 27 - May 1).
  • Last year, the first readings of Jane Coyle's Beckett-inspired monologue Me Here, Me took place at the inaugural Beckett Paris Festival and Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. On 7 May it will return to Belfast, fully fledged and accompanied by a new companion piece, Before Before, to form a double-header entitled Both Sides. Coyle's play The Suitcase is also is due to be produced in the autumn in Vienna by the English language company Open House Theatre. This new professional production in the Austrian capital will be directed by Scottish actor/director Alan Burgon.
  • Summer will be well and truly on its way with the Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival from May 26 - June 4, inviting audiences to enjoy the unique culture and heritage of the Causeway Coast and Rathlin Island amidst a wealth of nautical treats.
  • Belfast Photo Festival is back for the month of June, showcasing some of the very best in contemporary photographic art from Ireland and beyond with exhibitions and interactive events in venues throughout the city.
  • Already July is shaping up to be awash with colourful happenings, with the Dalriada Festival (July 15 and 16), Sunflowerfest (July 28 - 30), Red Sails Portstewart (July 23 - 29) and Belfast Pride (July 28 - August 6) amongst the standouts.
  • For many, August is defined by two of Northern Ireland's best-loved arts celebrations; August Craft Month and the Open House Festival in Bangor. Each running for the entirety of the month, they're amongst the year's most enduring highlights. Elsewhere, there's already dates confirmed for the multi award-winning Stendhal Festival of Art (August 11 and 12), UB40 returning to Féile an Phobail on August 11, the follow-up to last year's 10th Belfast Mela on August 27 and much more.
  • The end of summer doesn't necessarily mean the end of the festivities, and events like Air Waves Portrush (September 2 and 3) and of course Culture Night (date TBA), when the masses turn out to enjoy a once-a-year free for all of unique sights and sounds, to bridge the gap into autumn.
  • October always brings with it one the last great fixtures of the cultural calendar; the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival. Now hitting its stride again after a revamp in 2015, expect two-to-three weeks of major art commissions, world premieres and productions you might never have the chance to see again.
  • Another staple of October is the City of Derry International Choir Festival, which returns for its fifth edition from the 25 - 29. Once more the city will be brought alive with song as the festival hosts world-renowned guest acts, competitions for over 60 school, national and international choirs, pop-up performances and workshops.
  • November is marked by the milestone 30th anniversary of Derry's Foyle Film Festival. Always a feast for cinema-goers, Northern Ireland's only Oscar-affiliated film festival is sure to be landmark edition this year.