Belfast is an exciting place to be these days. Year-round, the city is buzzing with arts and entertainment and barely a month goes by without a music or arts festival. Culturally, Belfast has become a world player, and I believe four years of Culture Night Belfast has been a major factor in developing the rich arts-based identity it now enjoys. This in turn has helped nourish a vibrant evening economy and nightlife.
Just eight miles down the road, little sister Lisburn remains somewhat in its shadow. I grew up in Lisburn, went to school here and after around ten years living in Belfast, I moved back here last year.
For a long time it has been known as a shopper’s town, and has done fairly well as that in the past, but with little obvious social and cultural life to speak of – certainly not for younger people. Growing up here, I never spent my weekends in the town – we couldn’t find much to do.
We jumped on the train to Great Victoria Street and chatted to the skaters outside St Anne’s Cathedral (the area now called Writers’ Square). We drank bowls of hot chocolate late into the evening in Roast on the Lisburn Road, perused the vinyl in Hector’s House, tried on clothes in Liberty Blue, bought joss sticks and jewellery in Fresh Garbage. These characterful independent retailers drew us in to the city centre, where the high street shops then also saw the inside of our wallets.
Bear in mind that was around fifteen years ago – long before we could have dreamt how much further Belfast would grow; before the Cathedral Quarter blossomed into a cultural hotspot, before the Merchant Hotel opened its gleaming doors, before the MTV Europe Music Awards, Titanic Belfast, Game of Thrones – the list goes on.
Fifteen years on, and as I walked through Lisburn’s city centre recently after work, I passed a large group of teenage friends hanging out together in the sunken gardens in front of the Linen Centre. All around them in Market Square, boarded up shops with ‘To Let’ signs looking old and weather beaten. I thought how nice it would be for them to have a drop in centre, a late-night coffee shop, a skate park.
Student Johnny Bow made a film about Lisburn earlier this year, for a college project. It presents a very negative picture of the city, but makes some interesting points.
When the economy was booming, Lisburn was able to chug along happily with a town centre based on high street, chain-store shopping. With the recession maintaining its stranglehold on the high street, it’s beginning to feel like Lisburn needs more than a breath of fresh air; many believe it needs oxygen, stat.
If Lisburn really wants to thrive as a city, I firmly believe that basing its public image – and therefore its economy – on a shrinking high street, a handful of great restaurants, a shopping mall and a small hotel on the outskirts of town is simply not enough.
The important thing is, that is not all Lisburn has to offer, far from it. For some reason, in the past, these have been the only things supported by any kind of marketing or advertising, so it’s all it seems to offer.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who thinks so, and it now finally feels like change is in the air.
When Lisburn does arts, culture, festivals, nightlife and entertainment – it does them really, really well. I do believe it needs to do more of it, and I think that better promotion and publicity is needed across the creative industries in Lisburn.
This is why I think this is the perfect year to hold the inaugural Culture Night Lisburn – a day of free arts activities, beginning in the afternoon and going on into late night, showcasing some of the best of the city has to offer, in venues and locations many won’t expect.
Already this year, I have witnessed momentum building in Lisburn’s arts and culture sector.
With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and also from private investors, the Bridge Street Townscape Heritage Initiative spent £4.5m restoring buildings and shopfronts on the street.
There is still a long way to go before the street returns to its former glory, but it’s a noticeable transformation and a really great start.
The Lisburn Historic Quarter Arts Group (of which I am now a member) ran an art competition in the run-up to the festival, asking amateur artists to submit their paintings of Bridge Street, past and present, with the entrants’ efforts turned into pretty postcards.
On the day, a couple of vacant shops on Bridge Street were transformed into pop up galleries displaying the entries, with the winners and runners up presented with prizes.
For the festival, Castle Gardens welcomed visitors with stilt walkers and circus performers, a funfair, arts and crafts market and food stalls. The sun shone and I remember thinking “It should be like this every week in here!” It would be wonderful to use this space creatively on a regular basis.
Outside Castle Gardens, Art on the Rails was in full swing, with virtually every inch of the park’s ornate railings draped with paintings.
It was actually the tenth anniversary of the weekly art fair, which takes place every Saturday between April and September, from 11am until 3pm. Artists gather in the war memorial area in front of Castle Gardens and hang their work on the railings to sell.
After admiring their work and chatting to a few of the artists, I headed up Castle Street to R-Space, which was holding blacksmith workshops throughout the day. A street artist was busy brightening up the outdoor space, which was already adorned with art left over from the gallery’s hosting of Free Art Friday.
Inside, yarnbomber and all-round high priestess of crafting, Siobhan Barbour of Fingerpricks was hosting a drop-in session, demonstrating crocheting and knitting techniques, alongside gallery co-owner Anthea McWilliams.
I enjoyed a great chat with the ladies, discussing creative ideas and picking their brains about my half-baked idea for a crafting/knitting/sewing group in Lisburn.
It was a lovely, natural, colourful, relaxed hub of activity, with seasoned artists and crafters enjoying the chance to teach and chat with people who had simply spotted something happening and followed their curiosity inside.
That evening, Wookalily and Southern Tenant Folk Union performed free gigs in Castle Gardens, showcasing what a great space it is for musical entertainment. It really felt like a mini music festival as we all sat on the lawns on rugs, chatting, drinking, eating and singing along.
More recently, The Cardan Bar and Grill held their first Made In Lisburn fayre last Saturday 14th September, showcasing local craft and food, alongside cookery and cocktail demonstrations.
I go to a lot of these types of event and was seriously impressed at the quality on show, especially for their first ever outing. I’m delighted that the Cardan team are now looking into making this a regular, seasonal event.
I sadly didn’t have time to make it to the Fashion Souk‘s event in Castle House on the same day, but under the Love Lisburn Nights Out banner, joint promotion of these concurrent events ensured maximum exposure for both.
It’s a great example of organisations and businesses in Lisburn coming together to promote the city itself as a destination.
The tour led by co-owner Anthea McWilliams was fascinating; she spoke of her memories of living in this building some decades ago, and of the shops and businesses which later occupied it, as well as their current plans for regenerating it and opening it up as a place to stay and to work. Anyone who can provide or point them towards funding – I urge you to get in touch.
“The vision for the masterplan is designed to ensure that Lisburn plays a more significant role within the region and develops the range of facilities and attractions that are expected of a regionally significant city.”
“The City Centre lacks many of the features that shoppers, businesses, residents and visitors would expect in a growing and prosperous city.”
The vision laid out in this document is pretty exciting – it paints a picture of an attractive city with arts, culture, business, retail and residential life all thriving. It’s an ambitious document, and now that the public realm works are underway, I hope its vision is soon on the way to becoming realised.
I truly believe that, although Lisburn’s cultural identity is very different from that of Belfast, we can mirror the forward movement, open-mindedness, positivity and creative thinking that Belfast Culture Night has helped encourage in our neighbouring city.
Check out everything that’s happening by going to the Love Lisburn Nights Out Facebook page – not only does this have the Culture Night programme, but after tomorrow, it will continue to promote Lisburn’s evening trade and nightlife – and it is there!
A thriving city doesn’t happen overnight. So support what is there and is happening, rather than complain about what isn’t yet. Go to Culture Night and try out a bar or a venue you’ve never been to. If we don’t water these first few seeds, how can we expect a garden to grow?
I hope to see you all in Lisburn tomorrow.