Carl Gordon reports on the 30th Belfast Festival

WHEN the curtain came down on Belfast's 30th festival last month, more

than 400 performances had been crammed into the city's available

theatres and halls. Performers in the 200 events ranged from ballet

dancers to a group making rhythm with broomsticks, matchboxes, and Zippo

lighters -- and they came from as far afield as Mongolia.

And, yes, from Scotland, too. Two performances by the Royal Scottish

Orchestra Chorus were highlights of the three-week event.

Yet the Belfast Festival at Queens -- which claims to have inspired

Glasgow's Mayfest -- seems not all that well known in Scotland. I had

never heard of it when I was invited. Neither had a sample of colleagues

-- none of them, I hasten to add, journalists writing about the arts.

Another thing: in three days at the festival I encountered three

people speaking with Scots accents. One was a blonde lady whom I

initially addressed in Swedish, another was a lecturer who spends a lot

of time in the Ukraine. The third, whom I also thought was Swedish

because at the time I was surrounded by a roomful of breathtakingly

beautiful Nordic ballerinas, turned out to be a violinist from Perth

with the

Ulster Orchestra.

So why is the Belfast Festival such a well-kept secret -- at least as

far as Scotland is concerned?

Ulster's capital is a 40-minute plane flight from Glasgow. And those

who extol the fast cross-channel SeaCat service from Stranraer boast

that it is now possible to go to Belfast for lunch.Next year may see a

change. The organisers have plans to launch a campaign in Glasgow to

increase the awareness of the festival among Scots.

The man who leads the festival is 60-year-old Michael Barnes, a tall,

spare, aesthetic-looking Englishman who was once a history lecturer at

Edinburgh University. He has been festival director for 20 years.

He recalls that the first year he was in charge his total budget was

about #17,000. This year it was around #500,000 with another #200,000

for events held in the Grand Opera House.

He points out: ''The actual number of festivals in the UK is between

700 and 900 -- but we are in the top four in size and scope. Those above

us are the Edinburgh Festival, Glasgow's Mayfest and the Brighton


Michael Barnes first found himself in Belfast in 1961. He had departed

from Edinburgh and was offered a post at Queen's University. ''I took it

and from then on Belfast has been so good to me,'' he reflects.

In 1973 he was asked to become director of the festival which at that

time was in danger of folding. Some years later the Arts Council wanted

the old Grand Opera House refurbished and re-opened. He was given this

additional task and the re-opening took place in 1980.

He is justifiably proud of a magnificent building which can

accommodate 1000 people. ''It was built in 1895 and we are already

thinking about what we are going to do for the centenary year,'' he


The Grand Opera House was designed by Frank Matcham, the man who built

the King's in Glasgow and many other Victoria theatres throughout the

country. ''I think we have more elephants than they have in the

King's,'' laughs the director, a reference to the large number of carved

figures of elephants which are included in the design of the ornate


It had been suggested to me by someone else that the success of the

festival over the years had been helped, ironically, by the troubles in

Northern Ireland.

The director agrees. ''Life can be very grim here,'' he admits, ''but

let me say, in parentheses, that everyone here is fed up that we only

get the bad things reported. In the 1970s people were just not going out

at all, and then there was a kind of feeling that 'we have to live our

lives and we cannot sit behind closed doors all the time'.''

The evidence of this is in the crowded festival venues and the

bustling nightlife of the city.

I asked him what had given him most pleasure this year at the

festival. Without hesitation he said: ''The Royal Swedish Ballet's

performance of Cinderella -- but I would have to link that with the

performance of the Royal Scottish Orchestra Chorus in St Anne's

Cathedral. It was incredible, I think that will be the most moving

memory of the festival for me.''