Folk on a Boat

Rachel Coulter and Stephen Macartney of Farriers serenade a boat-load of gig goers for Open House Bangor

'There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.' So says Ratty to Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s much loved children’s book The Wind In The Willows, and while it might not always be a great idea to take advice from talking anthropomorphised rodents, I’m firmly on Ratty’s side.

Open House Festival director Kieran Gilmore seems to think so too, scheduling an evening entitled Folk on a Boat as part of Open House Bangor, the increasingly eclectic music festival that keeps Gilmore busy when the Open House Festival in Belfast has been and gone for another year.

Promised tales of the sea and shanties courtesy of Rachel Coulter and Stephen Macartney, two members of good-time roots band Farriers, a group of 26 sets off from Bangor Marina aboard a vessel captained by ‘handsome boatsman’ Brian Meharg.

A local institution in his own right, Meharg charters daily fishing trips throughout the summer and works closely with commercial vessels. Few others know the waters better than him, and he banters with passengers with the charming assuredness of a real seadog.

Folk on a Boat


Luckily the rain showers and squalls that were prevalent throughout the afternoon have settled down by the time we motor away, and the journey past Carnalea and Crawfordsburn is accompanied by sunbeams defiantly penetrating the clouds.

As impressive as the skyscape is though, the real treat here is the incredible coastline. In Northern Ireland we are blessed with some of the most stunning coasts in Europe, a fact that Meharg is quick to point out as passengers share sandwiches and clink glasses.

Cutting the motor at Grey’s Point – home to one of the best preserved early 20th century forts anywhere in the British Isles – Macartney and Coulter tune up and break it to us early that there might not be many shanties in the truest traditional sense, although when they launch into their tender ode to Bangor’s seafront, 'Coastlines', I don’t think a single person aboard minds.

Smiles are plastered across the faces of everyone present as the duo work their way through a concise set peppered with asides and anecdotes from Macartney. The well-worn trifecta of the sea, stories and song works as well now as it did hundreds of years ago.

Plenty of wine fortifies the diverse audience with the warmth needed to handle the Belfast Lough breeze, and Meharg fishes for mackerel to feed a friendly seal, who must have enjoyed the tunes, too. Out at sea on a Friday night is the perfect place to forget the stresses of the working week and woes float away across the lough as readily as Coulter and Macartney’s vocals during their quieter numbers.

A few Scottish shanties do show up in the set, along with a humorously appropriate song about falling in love ‘like a tidal wave’. However the highlight is undoubtedly rowdy closing number 'So Long As I Can Stay'. A few glasses get spilled as the audience stomps the deck, but worse things have happened at sea...

As we gently motor back to the jetty, it occurs to me that Folk On A Boat is not just an intimate and innovative gig, but a perfect example of how to marry Northern Ireland’s rich musical and marine heritage. Here's hoping that Gilmore and co maintain their blue sky thinking when it comes to programming the next Open House Bangor festival.

Open House Bangor continues in various venues across Bangor until August 31.

Folk on a Boat