Presbyterian church transformed into creative hub to unite interface communities in north Belfast

The former Presbyterian church provides an inspiring backdrop in the Duncairn Centre
The former Presbyterian church provides an inspiring backdrop in the Duncairn Centre
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GRAEME COUSINS visits the Duncairn Centre in north Belfast where music and the arts are helping unite communities

A former Presbyterian Church in north Belfast is helping to bring together communities at an interface area through the gift of music.

The Duncairn Centre for Arts and Culture on the Antrim Road

The Duncairn Centre for Arts and Culture on the Antrim Road

All eyes will be on the Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts when Snow Patrol play one of their most intimate gigs there on Saturday evening.

The Antrim Road complex has been around since 2014, yet remains something of a hidden gem.

That’s something that arts and events manager Ray Giffen wants to change: “Where we’re located made it no mean challenge to set up a shared space.

“We don’t kid ourselves – north Belfast has a bad press. It’s one of the areas that people have the lowest opinion of and the lowest expectations for.

Duncairn Centre's arts and events manager Ray Giffen

Duncairn Centre's arts and events manager Ray Giffen

“That’s the fuel in our tank, to change that and show how quality arts-led programming can impact that. It also lets the funders out there see the benefits of arts and creativity in changing society.”

The arts centre is located in a predominantly nationalist area of the Antrim Road in the former Duncairn Presbyterian Church, which provides an inspiring backdrop for those within the building.

This weekend will mark the second visit of RTE’s Other Voices to the centre. One of the highlights will be an acoustic performance to less than 200 competition winners from multi award-winning Northern Ireland band Snow Patrol on Saturday evening.

The Duncairn Centre is run by the 174 Trust – a Christian community development group set up in 1983. Presbyterian minister Rev Bill Shaw OBE has been the trust’s director since 1998.

Ray said: “We knew we had a good starting point in that Bill and the 174 Trust were highly respected here.

“This is a long game. I’d say in the first year there would have been 12% coming from the PUL community, the rest would have been locals (from the nationalist community).

“Just last year, it was up to around about 32-34% from the PUL community. That was through programming, running specific events and targeting groups. Once we get people in to see what we’ve got they’re impressed.

“We carried out impact studies and one of the most interesting statistics we got was that 78% of people we surveyed from outside of the area who had attended just one event said that before the Duncairn Centre they would never have come to north Belfast.

“This is why we’re here, to give people a reason to come to north Belfast, to create a shared space, to bring communities together.

“This is a part of the city that has been starved artistically and creatively. We needed to go all in with this. I’m extremely proud of the work we’re doing here. We’re punching well above our weight.”

He added: “Our organisation – the 174 Trust – is very much rooted in peace and reconciliation.

“Both Bill and I are passionate about arts, and community building using arts and creativity as a vehicle to bring people together.

“I think he and I are a good starting point. We come from completely different backgrounds.”

Bill is a Presbyterian minister who was awarded an OBE for services to the community in north Belfast, while Ray comes from the nationalist community and from a family of musicians and music lovers.

Ray said: “We get on extremely well. What lies at the heart of that relationship is that we love people and we want to give people a chance to shine.

“We don’t ask people where they come from or what their political views are.

“We are Belfast right to the very marrow of our bones. We love the city, the people, warts and all.”

With the help of funding the Duncairn Centre has grown into a hub of music, arts and creativity hosting regular concerts, discussions and workshops led by artists in residence.

Ray said: “A lot of what we do is about music. Music is the one thing that is relevant to everyone in every walk of life. It’s got the power to bring people together.

“I look at the creative community as a moral compass because they think differently, creatively, imaginatively, about how to overcome problems. Artists don’t really do barriers to collaboration, they celebrate difference.

“We encourage discourse, but the one thing that is required is respect. Respect has to be earned through people’s actions and how they deal with each other.”

Of the centre’s ethos Ray said: “We’re more than just an arts centre. It’s easy just to set a programme of classes. What makes us different is the thought, the follow up, the support, the empathy that underlies all of that. We’re conscious of mindfulness, community building, encouraging creativity and educating people. Then there’s purely and simply the enjoyment element – giving people a break.”