Last night we hosted a fantastic reading at the Ulster Hall. As Belfast Poet Laureate, Sinead Morrissey mentioned in her opening introduction, the Ulster Hall is no stranger to literary greats. Charles Dickens read on our stage twice in the late 1860s. Arthur Conan Doyle delivered two subsequent nights of readings in 1925. Brian Friel’s first play was performed publically in the Group Theatre, situated at the front of the building. And, perhaps most intriguingly, James Joyce tried to buy the building in 1909, with a view to turning it into a cinema. (His quest was unsuccessful though the Ulster Hall did strike Joyce sufficiently to merit a mention in Ulysses). Last night four wonderful poets turned out to read as part of the Seamus Heaney conference at Queen’s University. Carol-Ann Duffy was joined on stage by Peter McDonald, Paula Meehan and Don Paterson.
I have to admit I only caught snippets of Carol-Ann Duffy and Don Paterson, (though thankfully didn’t miss his irreverent and hilarious ode to Dundee- unlikely nominee for City of Culture), but it proved to be an incredibly significant evening for me. We’ve long dreamt of seeing the Hall filled with people listening to good literature and, at 867 tickets sold, we came as near as makes no difference to seeing the space sold out last night. Numbers are great but what really struck me was the incredible diversity of the audience: young students and older more established writers, families, teachers, school kids. There was a wonderful convivial atmosphere in the building, far-removed from the stuffy poetry readings I remember attending as a student. We actually struggled to get people to stop chatting and sit down before the reading; one of my favourite problems as an event’s organiser who secretly loves seeing attendees make new friends. It’s incredibly exciting to watch the literary scene in Belfast growing, evolving and developing fresh, new avenues and I’m hoping last night’s reading will prove to some significant people that literature and literary events are worth investing in, and also that Belfast has both the capacity and the desire to host high profile readers from outside of Northern Ireland. That’s twice in the last year, we’ve had an almost full, and enthusiastic house for a writer.
For now, I’m a little knackered. I shook so many hands and met so many people last night I actually became temporarily deranged and introduced myself as one of the poets to the poet himself. I’m going to spend the next few days recovering, reading and writing. I’ve got a lovely signed copy of Don Paterson’s work to enjoy and novelist, Lucy Caldwell’s Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall on Wednesday to look forward to. No arguments, I’ve got the best job in Belfast.