Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has become a hub for culture in Northern Ireland in recent years. Once considered a dark and dodgy area of town, the Cathedral Quarter has been completely rejuvenated in recent years alongside the inauguration of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival fifteen years ago. One of the best things about the Cathedral Quarter is that there are so many venues in such a small area of land – perfect for boosting tourism and the local economy. Taking a quick dander around the quarter you’re sure to pass several stunning landmarks whether it be theatres, bars and pubs, or music venues. The majority of these buildings started off as whiskey distilleries and such like as the Cathedral Quarter was traditionally the centre of Belfast’s trade and warehousing district and the Quarter retains some of the city’s oldest buildings to this day.
The aforementioned Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is an annual festival of music, comedy, theatre, art and literature that takes place in the first week of May. Launched in the turn of the millennium, the initial festival attracted an audience of approximately 5000 but now, in its fifteenth year, the festival attracts over 60,000 people to over 100 events across a range of venues. Some of the most notable venues are The Black Box, Oh Yeah Music Centre and The MAC theatre.
St. Anne’s Cathedral is, as the name suggests, the epicentre for the quarter. Just behind it is the Metropolitan Arts Centre, or the MAC as it’s known locally. Opening its doors in 2012, the MAC is a theatre incorporating local and international music, drama, dance and visual art all under one roof. The MAC is open to people of all ages and attracts visitors from all over the world – 600,000 to date – despite only being open a relatively short period of time. The MAC is on the periphery St. Anne’s Square, one of many beautiful squares in the Quarter, home to numerous eateries.
How does the Cathedral Quarter boost tourism?
“To no end. A lot of people probably wouldn’t even come in to the Cathedral Quarter because they think it’s still as run-down as it used to be and hasn’t been rejuvenated yet,” says a worker at the MAC. “It’s funny how many local people still don’t even realise that it’s here so anything that brings people to this Quarter is a bonus. All the venues that aren’t used so regularly, people like us who are always open and even the bars boost the economy, it’s great for the area and it’s great to see.”
Straight over the crossroads at the rear right of the Cathedral we have Hill Street, the home of The Black Box. Constructed in and around 1850, the Grade II listed building was converted to its current state as an arts venue in 2006. One of the city’s most popular venues, the Black Box has two rooms – The Black Box and The Green Room – and hosts live music, theatre, literature, comedy, film, visual art, live art, circus, cabaret and all points in between.
Along the cobbled road perpendicular to Hill Street is Gordon Street where you’ll find the Oh Yeah Music Centre, the only centre of its kind. A former whiskey distillery, the Oh Yeah Music Centre opened in 2007 and is the top location in terms of all ages gigs. On the ground floor there is the main stage, local music exhibition and café. The first floor holds offices for numerous businesses involved in the local music industry including the renowned Start Together Studio, the second floor holds rehearsals rooms and a boardroom, and finally the roof and its bush garden is perfect for summer gigs.
A five-minute walk away in Lower Garfield Street is Aether and Echo (formerly The Deer’s Head), a bar opened less than a year ago. Windows dressed in fairy lights, Aether and Echo really stands out in what is a run-down street, graffitied from end to end. Aether has hosted many local bands since it opened its doors just a few months ago and with a music scene like Belfast’s it definitely draws in a crowd.
Speckled all over the Cathedral Quarter are cafés and restaurants including inside the venues already mentioned. Established Coffee has proved extremely popular despite having not been around long, the perfect place to stop off for refreshments on your short tour.
The Cathedral Quarter is attracting crowds from all over Belfast and beyond and this is definitely defeating the idea that it’s the area of Belfast it used to be. The Cathedral Quarter and its festivals are boosting tourism and the local economy and is definitely having a positive impact on Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole. Rebekah Wilson
Photos by Laura Shields