After almost 18 months, live gigs have started happening again in Northern Ireland.
Following the easing of Covid restrictions by the NI Executive, live events were given the green light at the end of last month, prompting a return to one of the hardest hit sectors.
In the last week alone, this has led to the rapid return of some of the biggest events on Northern Ireland’s music and entertainment festival calendar.
The end of last week saw the return of Féile an Phobail, a community-led festival in West Belfast, while this week saw the start of the Custom House Square gigs in Belfast city centre.
The events themselves were regarded as a success on several fronts. Organisers, health officials and politicians praised the responsible way in which Covid safety protocols were implemented and how public messaging about the vaccine programme was promoted during the events, while most of the general public delighted at video footage of young people dancing once again to live music.
As we look ahead to more live events, we spoke to some of the concert organisers who made their return possible.
Kevin Gamble, director of Féile an Phobail, said he’s delighted to see the festival’s return.
He told us: “It’s been a lot of hard work over the last 12 months. For all of us here, for a long time, there was no immediate light at the end of the tunnel. But when we started to develop our plans for this year’s Féile, we were working early on with key stakeholders in the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and in the City Council.
“Then the Minister for Communities developed the Culture, Arts and Heritage taskforce – and I also co-chaired the Festivals and Outdoor events section – and that proved to be very helpful. It was very clear from the feedback we were getting that there was an appetite for getting live events back as soon as we could, but also an understanding that the only way to do that was by doing it safely.
“Then as we were getting closer to the summer – when the majority of festivals occur – we started to see the rollout of the vaccine. So determination in the industry was key – with crews and organisers and artists – as was the success of the vaccination programme.
“The clear success of the programme, as well as what we were seeing with test live events in England, gave us confidence that outdoor events were safe and that transmission was zero to minimal.”
Kevin said that this festival wouldn’t have been possible without both the input and the help of the local community.
“Féile being the community festival that it is, we talked to the community around us, we listened to them, and we could see clearly that there was an appetite from people to get back to doing what they loved doing – attending live events,” he said.
“For us to be putting on the first big event on the island of Ireland it did give us a bit of nerves. The eyes of Ireland, north and south, were on us for last week’s music event and for the Michael Conlan fight. So we knew if this went well, it’d open the doors to further events. And I think it was a massive success and showed that Belfast was back and could once again be a hub for live events.”
Kevin Gamble giving a free ticket at the Féile an Phobail ticket give away earlier this month
(Image: Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live)
Kevin said that these events were especially important for the fact that they gave young people a much needed bit of entertainment after a hard year and a half.
“The music nights that we host every year, we do that for free for 10,000 young people, and I wanted to give a special mention to them,” he said.
“Young people have borne the brunt of the hardships that lockdown and restrictions have caused, and what we wanted was to put on the best night possible.
“One of the real successes about that night was that young people complied very easily with those measures we had in place, like doing the lateral flow tests or being double jabbed. It set us up really well for the rest of the festival and for the future of live events here.”
Féile received much attention for their ‘Vaccines for tickets’ initiative, which encouraged people to get vaccinated in exchange for a chance to get tickets to the festival.
“I thought that was a great idea,” Kevin said.
“That didn’t just come from us, that was us working hand in hand with young people, with local community, with Department of Health – trying to think outside the box and think, ‘How can we help push the vaccine programme?’
“The question that everyone was asking was, ‘How can we drive up the vaccine intake with young people?’ This was a good answer.
“And I’ll add that the staff have been heroic. We wanted to show the events industry working hand in hand with the vaccination programme. And it worked. Hundreds turned up, and it gave a strong public message – that if you want to get events back, you need to get vaccinated.”
Just days after the first Féile events, Belfast city centre saw the return of the Custom House Square gigs, which regularly attract 10,000s of people.
Joe Dougan, who promotes these gigs as well as the Belsonic gigs due to take place in September, said he didn’t believe it was going to happen, but that he’s happy to have live events back up and running.
“It’s been incredible,” he said.
“We were all very circumspect about Tuesday’s Tom Jones show, as it was the first outdoor show that we’ve promoted in two years nearly. And after a lot of ebb and flow of restrictions, I almost didn’t believe it was going to happen until it did, but it’s just such a relief to be at this point.
(Image: Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live)
“The concerts themselves have been incredible. I noticed that everyone at them has just been in a very good mood – the punters, the band, the acts themselves, even our medical directors or security at the door. People are happy to be back. It’s like Christmas.
“It was emotional for me as well, it really was. I’ve been involved in a lot of events throughout the years, and you do become desensitised to it, but when you’ve been away from it for that long, it felt like you might never be able to do it again. There were plenty of times where I certainly felt like ‘This is never going to happen.'”
Joe said that the success of the return of these events has been down to the staff and crew working at them, as well as the understanding ear they’ve been given from governmental Departments and the understanding from attendees for Covid safety rules.
“I think there’s an understanding from the Department of Health and Department for Communities about how beleaguered these sectors are.,” he said.
“That’s great, it’s helped us immeasurably. We’re at a point where we’ve introduced all these mitigations on our criteria for entrance – such as the negative test, or double vaccination – and there was a lot of people at the first gig who were saying that that made them feel very safe, which is great. It’s not full proof but it’s sort of as good as it gets. Most people who were there last night, that was the biggest gathering they’d been to in years, and it felt like their anxiety had been assuaged by that entrance criteria.
“But everyone put work into this, everyone did, from the public, to the workers, to the healthcare staff, and we wanted to put our best foot forward now that shows are allowed to return.”
For the latest breaking news straight to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter here.