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Northern Ireland Opera Commissions an Ambitious New Teen Opera

Northern Ireland Opera has commissioned a new teen/young adult opera which is being created in collaboration with campaign groups led by young people experiencing housing stress across Northern Ireland and will be performed by Northern Ireland Opera and the Ulster Youth Orchestra in 2022 with workshop versions of the piece being performed at the Belfast Children’s Festival in 2022.

Fionnuala Kennedy commented,

‘This new opera is inspired by the difficult situations faced by families in housing stress here and the incredible activism from these young people to speak their truth to power, expose the issues and offer solutions to transform the potential for housing and equal rights here. I will have a front row seat to a number of campaign groups led by young people looking at housing rights and housing provision (or lack thereof) in the north of Ireland. These young people include those living in sheltered accommodation, refugees and those seeking asylum and those in housing stress, not only campaigning for housing rights locally but supporting and working with other housing and human rights activists in Cork, Galway, Edinburgh, London, Cape Town and Johannesburg.  I’m always grateful to get the opportunity to be inspired by and create work for and about young people – this bold new opera celebrates the resilience, activism and power of a generation trying to change our world for the better.’

Fionnuala Kennedy and Neil Martin, writer and composer for NI Opera’s teen and young adult opera commission

Composer Neil Martin said,

‘To be now engaging in the first steps of writing this new opera is exhilarating beyond words – collaborating with new partners in production, outreach and performance, addressing essential subject matter…the potential to challenge both young people and society as whole through this opera is limitless.’

Northern Ireland Opera have been able to commission this new opera with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Resilience and Stability Fund.  The opera is being written and composed by Fionnuala Kennedy and Neil Martin in collaboration with campaigners who are mostly between the ages of 13 and 19. Northern Ireland Opera will perform this opera with the young musicians of the Ulster Youth Orchestra, which is another unique element to this project.  As the piece is being created specifically for the 13-19 year old age group, it is important for this audience to see themselves reflected on stage in all facets of theatre-making.

This is a piece created by and speaking for teens and young adults from Northern Ireland who are of a similar age, but whose different life experiences can, we hope, enhance each other’s understanding and engagement with the creative and performance process, amplifying their message and music to a wide audience.

We are currently working with opera singer and educator Emma Morwood, who is writing and creating outreach programmes linked to this production, both during the creating and the presentation stages of the work.  These programmes will be open to all participants involved with the production, including collaborators, youth orchestra players and Northern Ireland Opera’s outreach partners in Belfast and beyond. We are also working closely with the Welcome Organisation to ensure that our interactions with young people experiencing housing stress are appropriately and sensitively managed.

Paula Klein, General Manager of UYO said,

“The Ulster Youth Orchestra is thrilled to be a partner in Northern Ireland Opera’s new youth opera commission.  Collaborating with writer Fionnuala Kennedy and composer Neil Martin will be a wonderful experience for our young players and we are so excited to be able to offer them this unique opportunity after such a long time in musical hibernation. We’re very much looking forward to being a part of it!”

Cameron Menzies, AD of NIO said

“For a long while now I have noticed the lack of work designed specifically for the teen/young adult age groups in relation to music and storytelling through opera.   Opera companies generally focus a lot of outreach attention on very young and early school age children.  These programs are designed to open up young people’s experiences within the arts and with storytelling through music so I feel we must look at how we develop these programs to also include and engage with the ages of 13 – 19.  Our new commission will deal with this directly, by including these age groups in the creation of an opera that is designed specifically with them in mind.   We are delighted to be working with the unique and powerful talents of Fionnuala Kennedy (Libretto) and Neil Martin (Composer). While this opera will be based very much within the young voices of Northern Ireland, we know that an opera like this will also have a far-reaching global impact”

Jo Wright, ACNI added,

‘This new commission is supported through our Stability and Renewal Programme for Organisations, a vital emergency funding scheme funded by the Department for Communities, to help arts and cultural organisations respond to the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, including helping them to continue producing creative work and plan for recovery.  This funding has enabled Northern Ireland Opera to gather together a wealth of talent to develop a brand new work that gives voice to young people who are facing extremely difficult circumstances.  This important work demonstrates the power of collaboration and in using the arts as a tool to open discussion around challenging subjects and stimulate change for the better.  Congratulations to everyone involved and we look forward to experiencing this new opera in the future.’

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Father And Son Team Behind Massive Culture Night Installation

Monumental Ogham Grove interactive structure will dominate Writer’s Square

Father and son team Gawain Morrison and Dylan McCaughtry will bring an ancient Celtic language to life with a massive construction across Belfast’s Writer’s Square for this weekend’s Culture Night Belfast.

Having worked on music videos, short films and art projects they are now preparing for their most ambitious project to date, with fellow designer Neil Beattie.

Visitors to Writers’ Square will wander around massive tree-like structures, learn about the Druidic Ogham language, and interact via a QR code trail telling the story of this part of Celtic history that goes back to pre-Roman days.

Having worked together on projects since Dylan was 14, it was natural for both to take on the Ogham Grove installation and have a special touch for Gawain.

“It’s lovely because as we both get older, we have other lives going on,” he said. 

“We’ve got things that take up our time and so the time you get to spend together and do things is very important. Getting him to do something like this is creating a memory.”

It helps that both are on the same page creatively.

“We get along and we’re quite similar in our mindset,” explained Dylan. 

“It can be a bit challenging in that I’d be more in the construction side of things and he’s in creative management, so it’s marrying the two things. There were different things we were able to achieve in bringing this vision about.”

The Ogham Grove structure represents a different Culture Night experience, as the weekend has been re-structured due to Covid-19 restrictions.

For Gawain the idea of a city garden was an exciting prospect.

“The brief itself for this years’ Culture Night was very open in terms of where you could go with it, but something to do with the site’s specific structure,” he explained. 

“People will be able to take it in and be part of.

“The fact that it was all themed around the city garden and the trees and some of the other things they’ve got coming down the line from planting a million trees and sustainability, all fitted with what we wanted to do and what we thought we could achieve.”

With such an ambitious project Gawain knew his son had the skills to help bring it to life.

“For the last ten years, Dylan has been working in film and TV and working on major shows like Game of Thrones and Derry Girls,” he said, adding: “He has worked across all manner of departments, from armoury, to set design, to costume, to tents and flags and everything in between.

“He has an incredible breadth of skills across the creation process using different materials and knows how to make temporary structures look and sound for people to be able to engage in, work around and be operating safely.”

With sustainability part of the brief every aspect of the construction is from reclaimed or upcycled materials that will be reused or repurposed afterwards, even the screws.

“A lot of the construction will be made out of pallets for the large alphabet section,” said Dylan.

“The reason behind that is because they are multi-use, they’re structurally sound and once we’re done with them, they can go back into the distribution system.

“The rest of the wood…the majority of it is reclaimed wood, stuff that has been used before and was just going to be thrown out, so we’re giving it that last little use of life before it goes on to its next use.”

There are no parental tensions as Gawain and Dylan have worked on ambitious tasks together before, such as the music video for the multi-instrumental hit artist BeardyMan.
“It’s totally fine working with Dylan,” said Gawain. “We don’t live together so he gets to close the door and walk away from me.”

Dylan is thankful to be working with his dad on Ogham Grove after the months of lockdown and restrictions.

“We got to spend more time together, which we haven’t been able to do in the last few years. It was great to hang out.”

And, as his dad says he also reminds him to take a break from the intensity of the project.

“He’s quite good at telling me to stop,” said Dylan. 

“We don’t stop thinking about what we have to do but it’s nice that he can tell me to switch off.”

The working relationship goes back to when Dylan was still at school.

“I was about fourteen years of age and dad was producing short films,” he said. 

“He would have brought me in to teach me stuff. I was an extra pair of hands. He was always encouraging and forcing me to get stuck in even when sometimes I didn’t want to.”

Gawain explained why they decided to use the Ogham alphabet as the touchstone for the mammoth installation.

“It was one of the first writing systems created by Druids to pass on knowledge,” he said. “It also harmonised with everything.

“It harmonises with trees, your environment, it makes sure that you’re living within your means, you’re living sustainably and it also then was the formation of the poetry, the music, the creative and the arts, all of this woven together is what made for a very healthy, fascinating lifestyle.”

Translating it into a 21st Century installation will involve lighting and music and for Dylan that fits into his recent work.

“My work in the film and TV industry such as recently on Netflix’s School of Good and Evil, means I’ve been able to pick up through set making, building, prop making, construction, using different materials and finding different uses for different materials for the outcome of Ogham Grove.

“Each element signifies a different tree and different types of wood with its own attributes be that through magic, or spirituality or even the aesthetical nature of them.

“These will all be laser etched, you’ll be able to scan the QR code of them, you’ll be able to be involved in this learning process of the Ogham alphabet.”

Prior to the pandemic, Culture Night had been one of Belfast’s largest free events, a cultural celebration that attracted almost 90,000 local, national and international visitors to the Cathedral Quarter and Belfast city centre.

The impact of COVID led Susan Picken, Director of Culture Night and Cathedral Quarter Trust to a major review of the event.

“We had the last big physical event back in 2019, with CN and Culture Day, which was really successful with huge crowds,” Susan explained.

“It got really big and almost overwhelming, but people loved it.

“Then obviously COVID happened and that really made us think a lot about the events and what we were going to be able to do and think about how the event had evolved over time and was it still doing what we wanted it to do for culture in the area.”

Having seen the concept from the initial proposal, through to Neil Beattie’s 3-D models she is confident that Gawain, Dylan and Neil will deliver something to live long in memories

“It’s a mammoth installation with light and sound,” she added. 

“It’s going to be amazing, spectacular. Nothing like what people of Belfast have seen before or what people expect from Culture Night. It’s the one big idea that we’re really excited about.”

This year’s Culture Night Belfast is supported by Belfast City Council, Arts Council for Northern Ireland, Tourism NI, Belfast Harbour Commissioners and Translink.To keep up to date with all the CNB Presents The Ogham Grove updates go to or follow #CNB21 on social media.

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The Arts

Cathedral Quarter Trail To Lead Culture Night Visitors To The Ogham Grove

Over the coming weekend, Cathedral Quarter’s Writers’ Square will be the location for The Ogham Grove, a spectacular installation created by this year’s ambitious creative team for CNB21 Presents: The Ogham Grove.

The brains behind the concept include creative lead Gawain Morrison, artist and prop designer Dylan McCaughtry, designer Neil Beattie, lighting designer Tomás FitzGerald and drum loop producer Damian Mills.

Gawain Morrison said that the concept of The Ogham Grove “draws inspiration from the ancient Celtic Ogham Tree alphabet which dives deep into the era where nature and myths intertwined”. 

This year, as well as experiencing The Ogham Grove itself,  visitors will be able to take part in an accompanying interactive experience that will lead them through the Cathedral Quarter, and also take them on a journey of personal discovery.

According to Gawain the immersive nature inspired trail and competition will mean visitors can take something special away from the experience.

He explained: “For somebody who will be coming to this, the several points of access means it is going to be a very experiential and sensory experience. I hope that as visitors walk around whether it’s in the day or night, that they will take something away from it.”

Across the Cathedral Quarter area, there will be five zones each representing one of the five families of the Ogham alphabet. In order to be eligible to win a prize, participants must find and scan a QR code found on one of the trail’s bespoke wooden plaques and take note of the lines of poetry displayed.

Prizes to be won include vouchers for restaurants, gift tokens to purchase your own pieces of art and tickets to shows coming up in the Cathedral Quarter and will be announced at the end of the Culture Night weekend.

This year’s Ogham Grove installation will be replacing the previous city centre based programme of street based activity and pop-up events. And although the plans for this year are monumental in size, Culture Night Belfast and CQ Trust director Susan Picken says visitors should not expect the same on-street celebration as years gone by.

Prior to the pandemic, Culture Night had been one of Belfast’s largest free events, a cultural celebration that attracted almost 90,000 local, national and international visitors to the Cathedral Quarter and Belfast city centre. The impact of COVID has led to a major review of the event however.

Susan said: “Culture Night 2021 will be much smaller in scale and scope and will take the form of an on-site installation that people can drop into and enjoy over the course of the weekend – this different format will allow us to focus on safety as well as making sure everyone has a great time.”

The 2021 edition of Culture Night will have a completely new format and a new approach designed for a COVID-safe, post-pandemic environment. A major difference this year is the decision to move away from the previous approach to programming.

“One of the biggest changes this year will be that we haven’t run an open programme for submissions as in previous years” said Susan. 

We won’t be asking for proposals for performances or events, instead we are working directly with our Creative Lead team to transform Writer’s Square with our exciting installation, The Ogham Grove, which will be running from Friday September 17 to Sunday September 19. This extended running time will allow more time and space to visit and experience over the weekend.”

This year’s Culture Night Belfast is supported by Belfast City Council, Arts Council for Northern Ireland, Tourism NI, Belfast Harbour Commissioners and Translink.

To keep up to date with all the CNB Presents The Ogham Grove updates go to or follow #CNB21 on social media.

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