Learning the lessons of Féile an Phobail

Féile an Phobail joint chair Danny Morrison introduces Nottingham-based actor and theatre director Gerry Molumby to the history and delights Europe' greatest Irish Community Festival

Danny Morrison (l) and Gerry Molumby (r)

Words and pictures by Gerry Molumby

I HAVE for the past few years been 'ag caint' via the internet with Margaret from Féile Belfast on the potential of maybe bringing some of Triskellion Productions to west Belfast. So on a recent visit to Belfast I got the opportunity to visit Féile an Phobal office on the Falls Road and speak with Danny Morrison.

I was keen to know how this community festival started and has evolved. As an Irish person living in Britain and involved in promoting Irish culture I wanted to hear and observe how some of our festivals in Britain could possibly learn from how they 'fest' in Bel'fast'.

I, my wife Fiona and son Cormac were welcomed to Féile Office by Danny 'sporting' his cowboy hat. Well if Oscar Wilde can don a green carnation Danny is entitled to his distinctive look! We sat in the cramp but busy office on the first floor of Teach Féile and having been offered the 'cup of tea' by Danny's son Kevin who is the youth development worker.

I had met Danny before when he came to Nottingham last year to be part of Deirdre O'Byrne's Changing Ireland literature festival where he sat in on my drama workshop. Danny told me then that he was married in Nottingham's St. Barnabas Cathedral in 1974:

"I was on the run and staying in the Midlands of England, I met a pretty young English girl and my brother-in-law, a British soldier, was best-man at my wedding in Nottingham Cathedral. I have since remarried and when I visited Nottingham last year it was good to walk down the aisle again, " he explained.

Danny Morrison is joint-chair of Féile an Phobail and I suppose known to most people as former director of publicity for Sinn Féin .

But he has a long history of being a republican journalist and a track record of setting the historic context of the 'troubles'. His writings and communication talents have taken him into the realm of becoming a novelist and playwright.

He has done 'time' for the 'cause' and through it all has stayed very close to his roots. As we finished our interview and 'caught 'the bus back into central Belfast, I watched him as he walked home passed the walls of Milltown Cemetery where Bobby Sands and other young republicans lie.

He is known for coining the phrase said at the 1981 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. " Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?" That is another interview for another day.

Danny is one of the pioneers and prime movers in inviting some great speakers to west Belfast. My impression of Danny Morrison is that he is now a man in his mid fifties, who now has a mission of 'let's talk,' learn from each other, and learn from other conflicts, our conflict. But through it all be 'loyalist' to our own particular culture, our songs and let's here each others drums in peace and quiet!

Back to Féile Belfast, so I asked Danny the 'why question'. Why and when was Féile Belfast started? He gave the credit to his fellow Irish republican Sinn Féin president , Gerry Adams who had this vision in the late 1980's to counteract the image and perception of negativity that the people in west Belfast were being portrayed in the media and therefore in people's consciousness. After years of the 'troubles' people in west Belfast were being portrayed often as "savages".

Sinn Féin and the local community wanted to counteract this image and a steering group was set up to create what has become one of Europe's biggest community festivals.

I could not help but think of its similarities with the Notting Hill Carnival, which itself grew out of cultural strife in London; which like Féile Belfast started off and remains in essence a community street festival.

That's where the similarity starts and finishes as Féile Belfast has much more - theatre - music - radio - literature events. So 1988 Féile started and again like many of the early Irish Festivals in Britain the format was a parade, an open-air concert, bouncy castle for the children, but Féile has grown. It starts every year on the first week of August to commemorate the start of internment in Northern Ireland in 1971.

Danny told Fiona that over 200,000 people attend the week long varied festival events. But Danny elaborated to tell us that like many community festivals Féile has issues of fluctuating funding which is often dependant on political circumstances and it is a constant struggle to ensure funding is achieved to keep the festival is vibrant and varied as it has been in past years. Now that the Northern Ireland Assembly is open for business maybe some of these long-term issues can be resolved!

Danny was proud of the 20 year record of Féile with many of the young people who joined as volunteers and 'amateurs' at Féile are now working fulltime in the media by virtue of the experienced gained on Féile FM radio etc.

As an Irish person living in Britain and involved in promoting Irish culture I wanted to hear and observe how some of our festivals in Britain could learn from how they 'fest' in Belfast.

The Irish are known as 'great talkers' and Danny was not short of a few words. One aspect of our interview and particular passion of Danny's contribution to the Festival that did really impress me was the inclusion of numerous debates. This is something that I think is seriously lacking in our festivals here in the UK.

Debates, discussions, literature workshops can be very mentally and spiritually stimulating and bring about 'change of mind' and further conviction. We underestimate the power of the spoken word.

Féile Belfast is certainly unique in adding these great opportunities for community activists and the 'ordinary people' to get involved in debates about the past.

For further information about the festival visit www.feilebelfast.com

For further information about the activities of Gerry Molumby and Triskellion Theatre visit www.triskellion.org.uk

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2008-08-22 18:51:02.
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