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‘Belfast Book Festival’ reflects thriving city of culture

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From ageing to sexual politics, from fantasy to Celtic mythology, from murder most foul to historical fiction – the recent, week long ‘Belfast Book Festival’ had something for every reader.
Take Kenneth Gregory, fantasy novelist and mythologist, perhaps Ireland’s answer to the R.A. Salvatore/Robert Jordan/ Marion Zimmer Bradley combo. His debut novel ‘The Polaris Whisper,’ the first in a trilogy, was published by Blackstaff Press. He will also speak and teach at Donegal’s ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Words’ writing retreat. Negotiations are now underway for his novel to be turned into a television series with a movie option. His second novel in the series is ‘The Poison of Newgrange.’ The third, a modern-day thriller, has the working title of ‘Brinlack,’ a place beside Bloody Foreland in west Donegal. ‘Shahryár’s Heir: A Prince among Thieves’ is his first fantasy novel in a re-invention of the Arabian Nights’ stories.
“Fantasy is a well-celebrated genre of writing and has been for many generations, even Tolkien used Celtic mythology for his ‘Lord of the Rings’ stories,” said Kenneth. “In my work I fuse historical fact with fiction.” He is realistic about the profession of writing, “Planning a book is like starting on a journey and the writing can be like pulling teeth at times, but ultimately extremely satisfying. I love looking at a white page and not making it a white page.”
Then there was the delightfully funny writing of Emma Heatherington and her book ‘One Night Only’ about four desperate housewives who take off in a car for an outing to the ‘Forgotten County’ of Donegal and the hilarious, and poignant, consequences. Emma, who is also due to speak next week at Ireland’s newest writing retreat, in west Donegal is a multi-talented woman whose work ranges from novels to short stories to scripts and screenplays, including ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and ‘Playing the Field.’ Her personal ‘growing up’ story of having to become ‘Mum’ to her siblings as a young teenager after her own mother’s untimely death is touching. Aside from her literary output, one can’t help but admire Emma greatly. And she’s a natural, engrossing speaker to boot.
Another speaker at the ‘Belfast Book Festival’ was Sophia Hillan, former associate director of Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies and director of the International Summer School in Irish Studies, whose first novel ‘The Friday Tree’ has just been published by Dublin-based Ward River Press. “It is set in the 1950s, a time in Belfast when there was an undercurrent of things happening that led to the awful decades that came afterwards now known as ‘The Troubles,’ she said. During an hour-long interview, Sophia also described how she came upon a scrap of paper that led her to produce a most fascinating non-fiction book entitled ‘May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland,’ also published by Belfast-based Blackstaff Press.
Head honcho of the Crescent Arts Centre and festival director Keith Acheson and his hardworking team, including marketing director Tracy O’Toole and outreach and education director, Ann Feely, as well as community arts development officer Jan Carson (her novel is entitled ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’) and her colleagues at the Ulster Hall, deserve full praise. Among the diverse collection of writers in various genres they brought together were Lynne Segal on ageing and sexual politics (‘Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing,’ ‘Is the Future Female?,’ ‘Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men’ and ‘Straight Sex: The Politics of Desire’); Claire McGowan on murder most foul (‘The Fall,’ ‘The Lost’ and ‘The Dead Ground;’ Joseph O’Connor on matters of the heart and mind (‘Inishowen,’ ‘Ghost Light,’ ‘The Thrill Of It All’ and ’Star of the Sea’); and Carolyn Jess-Cooke, sublime poetry, mental health, the meaning of reality and even guardian angels (‘The Guardian Angel’s Journey’ and ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’). “They are beings, not ephemeral or invisible,” she said. “They take shape and they watch over us.”
The festival also offered publishing and public speaking advice through guests such as the lovely actress and teacher Rosie Phelan; the inimitable Ian Sansom (Mobile Library Series including ‘The Case of the Missing Books’ and ‘Mr. Dixon Disappears;’ and self-publishing guru, Alison Baverstock (“Is There A Book in You’ and ‘Marketing Your Book: an author’s guide.’).
‘Antony-Cleopatra’ expert Rachael Kelly was one of the highlights of the festival. Rachael, a native of Belfast has become the foremost expert on the age-old romance between Roman leader, Mark Antony, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (made famous on-screen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) after completing her doctorate in film studies on it. Rachael has also penned the first novel in a trilogy on the two historical figures entitled ‘Queen of the Nile,’ set in 1st-century-BC Alexandria.
“To my mind, these two figures are immensely intriguing and much maligned, or at least misunderstood,” she said. “They are both powerful individuals whose names are writ in the history books - a couple who shared a deep relationship on so many levels.”
Rachael’s earlier novel, ‘The Edge of Heaven,’ won the Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair Competition 2014, while her short story, Blumelena, was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2012. Her ‘Long Anna River’ won the Orange Northern Woman Short Story Award and was later featured in an anthology called ‘The Barefoot Nuns of Barcelona,’ while ‘The Night Sky In November’ was runner-up in the White Tower Publishing Short Story Competition. Her poem, ‘A Five Yard Odyssey,’ won ‘The Battle of the Bards.’
In terms of diversity of writer and subjects, the week long series of events surpassed many such festivals including both the Salon du Livre Paris and the London Book Fair. Also - beyond just the world of books - the festival reflected the emergence of Belfast from its enforced dormancy as a dynamic and attractive city with many options for would-be visitors, from cozy, atmospheric cafes, terrific restaurants and avant-garde and traditional theatres such as The MAC and the Lyric Theater.

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Located in the heart of Belfast’s bustling Cathedral Quarter, right behind Saint Anne’s Cathedral, the MAC is a welcome addition to Belfast’s thriving theatre scene, bringing a mix of music, theatre, dance and art. A recent trilogy of dramas - Villa & Discurso, Discurso and Tejas Verdes - centred around Chile’s political past, primarily the Pinochet regime and the art of moving on in a post-conflict society. They were both provocative and innovative. The latter, for example, is not performed on a mainstream stage. Instead, actors move among the standing audience or above their heads on overhead walkways. Ultimately, the MAC’s presentations reflect diversity – with events this year that ranged from a cultural programme marking the centenary of the First World War, a trilogy of Samuel Beckett plays, youth theatre, homegrown drama with plays performed by all-female casts, dance workshops and exhibitions of paintings.
The Lyric Theatre is a well-established venue (opened in 1951), with well-known actors Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hinds and Adrian Dunbar employed here during the early stages of their careers. Officially opened, after major renovation, in May 2011 by Brian Friel, the Lyric’s new home on the banks of Belfast’s River Lagan, on the site of the previous theatre, is a landmark 30 million dollars-plus building. It has been providing national and international audiences with a wide range of productions on its two stages. A recent performance of ‘Can’t Forget About You,’ written for the Lyric by former Playwright-in-Residence David Ireland is both amusing and poignant as it tackles many sensitive social issues, including sexuality and religion. The contrast between a musical adaptation of ‘Macbeth,’ by Garth McConaghie and Stuart Harvey, which runs 23 July this year to 26 July and ‘Punk Rock,’ about the stress of young people facing key exams, by Simon Stephens, which runs 10 August 2014 to 06 September, exemplify this immense range of productions.
Other speakers at the Ireland Writing Retreat which begins formally at Teac Jack’s in west Donegal this Sunday, June 28th between An Bun Beag and Bun an Leaca are award-winning author Anthony Quinn and Martin Ridge.
Born in 1971 in Tyrone, Anthony’s short stories have been short-listed twice for a Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award. He was also the runner-up in the Sunday Times New Food Writer competition. 'Disappeared' is the title of his first novel. Published by Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press in 2012, it was was shortlisted for a Strand Literary Award, as judged by book critics from the LA Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and the Guardian. It was also selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the top ten thrillers of 2012. ‘Border Angels’, the sequel, was published by Mysterious Press last year.
‘The Blood-Dimmed Tide’, published by No Exit Press in October, is the first in a series of three historical novels set in Ireland during World War One and the War of Independence. In August, Head of Zeus are launching the UK edition of ‘Disappeared.’
Martin Ridge, from Galway but living in Donegal for many years, is a retired Garda officer. He almost single-handedly took on the might of the Catholic Church when he investigated rumors – that soon became distressing facts – about the horrific rape and sexual abuse of young boys by members of the clergy in northwest Donegal, in and around the towns of Gortahork and Falcarragh. His brilliantly-written book ‘Breaking the Silence’ tells a tragic story of the carnage such abuse created in the lives of the boys, now men, many still living in the area, and the arrogance of the church towards that abuse in refusing to co-operate with investigations or offer appropriate compensation. This particular rural area now has the ignominy of being the worse area for clerical abuse record in all Ireland.

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