Along the East Coast of Ireland lies a sleepy seaside town. Bangor is often forgot about in the context of places to see on the island. Strange, when you consider it’s the third biggest settlement North of the border. Like most seaside towns, it fell into despair when travelling abroad became the cheap and available option – but there are those inspired and passionate about transforming it into a modern seaside town.
Open House is much more than just a festival. Helmed by the husband and wife team of Kieran Gilmore and Alison Gordon, it has grown from a humble traditional Irish music festival into a concept that – on a usual, non- pandemic August – would be inviting over thirty thousand people to attend a diverse curation of events in over forty different venues; spanning live music, DJ sets, tasting sessions, poetry readings and more.
The team also run regular events in Belfast, with the most recent announcement being Welsh electronic music innovator Kelly Lee Owens.
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It may be known more prominently for its festivities, but there is a significant cultural importance to Open House – a bigger picture. With a vision to boost the local economy and impact positive social change, the Open House team are extremely passionate about regenerating the pretty coastal town into a premium destination for culture in Ireland.
“It was actually the first festival to take place in the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast in ’99”, says Kieran. “We moved to Bangor while still running Open House in Belfast, but I quickly realised that we are part of a problem. The town was falling into decline, much the way Belfast had in the 70’s and 80’s. By putting events on in Belfast, we were drawing people away from Bangor, so we decided to try and do something about it. We grew into a community festival, as there was nothing else really happening.”
The concept remains a beacon of hope for the town. Since its move to Bangor, Open House have invited guests such as Carlton Doom, Kaidi Tatham, The Specials and more to perform in transformed spaces littered throughout the hilly streets. More recently, the Open House team took over an old court toom in the town – and in doing so it became the first community asset transfer of its kind North of the border. The idea: transform it into Bangor’s first dedicated music venue.
“Bangor doesn’t have a dedicated live music venue, which is mad”, he says. “We’re going to programme the type of events that we would for our August festival. Although we were never a month long in Belfast, when we moved to Bangor, we felt a month-long festival would actually suit the audiences here. I don’ think we could have sustained that in Belfast.”
“We very quickly identified the need for a venue. It’s taken us five years to now own the Court House. The Court Service, who owned it since 1950 and closed it in 2013, gave us the keys and transferred the deeds. It’s ours forever and is the first community asset transfer to ever take place in Northern Ireland. It’s quite common in the rest of the UK, when a government owned asset that’s no longer in use is transferred to a different owner.”
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It begs the question: why is it the first of its kind to happen in the country? Although not all government owned, the North is teeming with unloved and unused buildings that have seemingly been forgotten. As club and music spaces closed their doors during the pandemic, the time spent dormant could have been used transforming these spaces into safe, suitable venues for creative events – all at a seated social distance, of course.
“I really don’t know the answer”, says Kieran, speaking about the transfer. “There was a willingness on the court services behalf to make it happen. It maybe just didn’t stack up in the past. We have an established track record, we’re a non-profit registered charity with a really strong board. Maybe it was just question of timing. They definitely recognised a need in the town for a venue and for it to be managed by an organisation like ourselves. We hope that – having been the first – we’ve opened the door for other potential transfers.”
So, just how far is Bangor from the Open House vision of a contemporary seaside town? Two developments are planned for the towns seafront with the hope of attracting creatives to live and work. Barcelona, like Glasgow, was a fairly run town city in the 90’s. In 1990, Glasgow was announced as the European capital for culture, and it completely transformed the city.
The same opportunity exists for Bangor. As Kieran puts it, “it just lacks some confidence.”
“I think it’s on the cusp of something really positive”, he says. “There are examples of seaside towns reinventing themselves, for example Margate with the Turner Museum, St Ives… They’ve turned a corner and realised that there is a new way of being a seaside town – art, culture, food, entertainment. Before people came for fish and chips and ice creams, but now they’re more than happy to come for a weekend and therefore they’ll want a few good restaurants, nice cycling paths, places to go for a run, live music.”
“Bangor – with the potential developments on the seafront – could become a real cultural destination. We’ve got the musical history, it’s the home of Snow Patrol, Two Door Cinema Club, Foy Vance and now Hannah Peel. It’s the home of Colin Bateman, one of our most famous writers. It’s a very creative town with a bright future.”
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Open House Festival’s Court Room Sessions are now available to stream via their website and YouTube channel, with performances from Brien, Optmst, Aeons and more.
Words: Andrew Moore
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