Féile Returns to West Belfast

Neil Hannon, Mary McAleese, Mark Steel and more at Ireland's largest community arts festival. Click Play Audio for a podcast with festival director Sean Paul O'Hare

WIN TICKETS to Stereo MCs and the London Community Gospel Choir at the 2009 Feile an Phobail

Féile an Phobail is a genuine Belfast success story. Initially established in 1988 to celebrate the positive side of west Belfast at the height of the conflict, it has grown into the largest community arts festival in Ireland.

Now in its 21st year Féile is the highlight of the city's summer festival calendar, and this year isn't set to disappoint. The festival's 100 page-strong programme boasts over 250 events taking place over ten days between July 31 and August 9, culminating in Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon taking centre stage for the grand finale.

Antrim football manager Liam Bradley and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams were among the crowd at last week's launch at the Falls Road Library as a stellar line-up including president Mary McAleese, Stereo MCs, Mark Steel and much more was unveiled.

Director of Féile an Phobail Sean Paul O’Hare was overflowing with enthusiasm for the festival which lies ahead. 'The line-up this year is second to none. We’ve programmed a rocking festival over ten days, which has something for everyone to be part of. We’re proud to be showcasing such talent and creativity,' he said.

Highlights include the London Community Gospel Choir at Clonard Monastery, Alexei Sayle and Pauline McLynn in the Scribes at the Rock literary event, and the sure-to-be-popular drive-in movie screenings of Ghost, The Omen and Trainspotting.

Roisin McDonough, chief executive of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented: 'This year’s programme once again features a fantastic line up of local and international names. With a broad range of events, from talks, to panel debates, music, drama, dance and comedy, there really is something for everyone – a perfect calendar of events for Féile an Phobail's 21st anniversary celebrations.'

The drama presence at this year's festival is particularly strong, with six of Belfast's top companies taking part. Among them are Kabosh, whose play Two Roads West is set in a black taxi driving along both the Falls and the Shankill roads.

'It's almost like an alternative tourist route,' said Paula McFetridge, director of Two Roads West, which debuted successfully at this year's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. 'You see all the murals on both roads and you hear two people talking about their sense of who they are. How has the city changed? How do they feel about their city?'

West Belfast is the heart of the festival’s stomping ground, but Féile 09 will also see four nights of top quality music in the city centre. Included in the line-up for the festival marquee in Bank Square are UK ska legends The Beat and anarcho-crusties Chumbawamba, who headline a 'Love Music Hate Racism' evening.

Each year more than 200,000 festival goers flock to west Belfast for the Féile. For O'Hare it's a great chance to see a quite unique part of the city.

'The festival is all about other people who haven't been to west Belfast before – from the city or beyond – coming to see a band or coming to see an exhibition and getting to see west Belfast at the same time,' he said.

But what is the secret of Féile's continuing success? According to O'Hare, it is bringing arts that can be afforded by all to the community: 'It's that heady mix of arts and community that gives us our strength.'

Féile has never let go of this ideal, and all tickets are priced at £10 or less, with many events free of charge. In today’s environment this ideal is again as relevant as it ever was, with Féile 09 offering a world class festival at prices that only shake the piggy bank. 

Download the full festival programme and book tickets from the Feile an Phobail website, and check out CultureNorthernIreland during the festival for reviews of events. 

Enter this month's competition for a chance to win tickets to Stereo MCs and the London Community Gospel Choir at the 2009 Feile an Phobail.

Peter Geoghegan