Development director Alison shares her excitement ahead of the Open House Festival in Bangor
August 10, 2023
The development director and co-founder of Open House Festival’s job has evolved considerably over the past decade, she says: “My role has changed completely from when we first founded the festival. When it moved to Bangor, I was very hands-on, doing some programming, running events and so on.
“Now, partly because of The Court House, my role is completely changed and I’m barely involved in the operational side of the organisation. I’d be much more involved in running the charity — because we are a registered charity — on the governance and behind-the-scenes stuff.”
The Open House Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer with a programme of ticketed events at Bangor Castle Walled Garden throughout the month of August, in addition to a series of free events, and various fringe events at the charity’s recently refurbished music venue The Court House on Bangor seafront.
Festival goers can expect an eclectic programme of bespoke events including Folk on a Boat, an island picnic trip, pop-up food initiatives, and local interest talks and tours.
“There will be a two-week run of shows in the beautiful walled garden at Bangor Castle under the cover of a stretch tent, and we’ve got live music, comedy and film,” Alison says.
“Every Sunday throughout August we have open air shows in Ward Park and thousands of people come to those, from age zero to 100.
“We have our big Seaside Revival Vintage Festival down on Bangor seafront on August 12 and it’s everything from vintage car shows to live music, stalls, and a fashion show. So those would be the main elements of the festival and there are some other fringe events.
“This year for the first time, we have festival events in The Court House and there’s a whole series of events, music and theatre and spoken word, which is very exciting for us.”
The focus of the Seaside Revival is on celebrating Bangor’s history as a thriving seaside town — a mission that’s dear to Alison’s heart.
Open House Festival was established in Belfast in 1999 and moved to Bangor in 2013, by husband-and-wife team, Alison and Kieran Gilmore. The couple met at an afterparty in London. They were brought together by a shared love of music, and began putting on gigs together.
“Kieran started doing some work, with what was called then the Northern Ireland Tourist Board,” Alison says.
“Northern Ireland was being marketed through golf and the Mourne Mountains and things like that, but it wasn’t really being marketed for its music and its artistic cultural offer.
“We — mainly Kieran — started to bring traditional musicians, instrument makers and artists over from Northern Ireland and showcase them at various folk festivals around England and Scotland.
“That gave us the idea then whenever Good Friday Agreement came about in 1998, that we wanted to go back to Northern Ireland and be part of a new shared Northern Ireland and a new cultural identity that had our art and our great cultural offer as part of it.
“Kieran and I came from different sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, so we saw real opportunities. We didn’t know the word ‘placemaking’ then, but I suppose it’s what we were about. We had seen it happen in other places where music and arts and culture have helped to change the identity of a place.
“We had seen how powerful festivals and music and art could be, both in terms of people’s identity, but also in terms of generating a tourist-based economy. So, I suppose that’s what drove us to come back to Northern Ireland. And also, it was time to settle down and start a family.”
Kieran and Alison launched their first Open House Festival in the Cathedral Quarter in 1999.
“There were no venues in the Cathedral Quarter, so we put our shows on in the cathedral,” Alison recalls.
“We had some small events in The Duke of York and a pub called The Blackthorn which is now The Spaniard, and the BBC dubbed it the ‘two pubs and a cathedral festival’.
“As the Cathedral Quarter developed and new venues like the John Hewitt opened and The Black Box, we were able to work with lots of different venues. Whenever Custom House Square was turned into an events space, that’s when the festival really grew and we had a 2,000-capacity marquee. By 2010 we were having bands like Mumford and Sons and we had a big daytime event called chillifest.”
Having established a hugely successful festival, Alison and Kieran set their sights on Bangor.
“I am from Bangor, born and grew up here,” Alison says.
“My parents are from Belfast. I would consider myself a Bangorian, although they do say that you are not a true Bangorian unless you have two grandparents buried in Bangor Abbey.
“We moved the festival to Bangor in 2013 because Bangor was basically a failing seaside town which is a common theme for seaside town around the UK and Ireland, and we wanted to try and recreate the success of the Cathedral Quarter in Bangor.
“There are lots of other organisations and individuals who are doing great work here and we’re just one element of it.
“Bangor had lost its seaside identity and it had become effectively a dormitory town for Belfast. But I think there’s increased optimism and confidence about the future. There’s some major infrastructure projects in the pipeline. There are — although we’ve got big empty retail units — lots of thriving small, local independent businesses here in the centre of Bangor.”
Achieving city status was hugely significant for the area, Alison says: “It feels as though it’s turned a corner and getting city status last year for us was a landmark, for us it consolidated the fact that Bangor has turned a corner.
“It’s no longer just a suburb of Belfast. It is regaining its own identity as a seaside city.
“I think it’s very exciting. I think the festival has played a small part in that, but that’s one of the things we’ve always believed is that arts organisations and festivals, they can kind of help win the battle for hearts and minds, they can help with getting people to look at where they live from a different angle.
“Through the festival we have put on events in the most unlikely venues and locations.
“All those things I think just tell people to stop looking at the empty shop units and start thinking about the assets that we have — the heritage buildings, our lovely coastline, our parks, our outdoor spaces, some of our beautiful architecture.
“There are many challenges ahead, but I think it’s the challenges that make it exciting. If everything was rosy — that would be boring, wouldn’t it?”