Music

How this plucky music venue is bringing a faded seaside town back from the dead

Every week, The Big Issue’s Venue Watch campaign supports and champions grassroots music venues across the UK. Today, we’re shining the spotlight on The Court House in Bangor. Shortlisted for a prestigious award for its extraordinary impact, the transformative venue still faces an uncertain future.

Northern Irish band Anna’s Number on stage in grassroots music venue The Court House, highlighted by Big Issue Venue Watch

Northern Irish band Anna’s Number playing at The Court House. Photo courtesy of The Court House

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In the Victorian era, the seaside resort of Bangor became one of the most popular destinations for fashionable Irish holidaymakers. By the early 20th century, it housed Ireland’s biggest lido, the Pickie Pool, as well as ballrooms, cinemas, restaurants and hotels.

But as the last century came to a close, the town faced social and economic decline. Walk along Main Street today and you’ll see boarded up shops, widespread dereliction, crime and deprivation, before coming to a seafront that’s been stuck in redevelopment hell for decades.

But if you turn to your right and follow the coast along a few metres, you’ll find a green shoot of hope. Opened just last year – not long after Bangor was given city status – The Court House is Northern Ireland’s newest live music venue. Housed in a listed building that was once a magistrates’ court, the grassroots arts space is on the frontline of a change in Bangor’s fortunes. And not a moment too soon, says co-founder Alison Gordon.

“Bangor forgot it was a seaside town,” she says. “The Pickie Pool was demolished, they put in car parking where the seafront used to be, and everything looked inwards and towards retail. Then, of course, the shops all moved beyond the ring road and people started going to Belfast. The town effectively died.”

Alison Gordon smiling
Alison Gordon, co-founder of The Court House

Alongside her husband – fellow Bangorian Kieran Gilmore – Gordon is striving to bring her hometown back to life. “The Court House is bringing people back to the seafront, reconnecting people with the city,” she says. “People are once again turning towards the sea, towards music and arts and leisure and culture and tourism and hospitality.”

Gordon and Gilmore have been transforming places through arts and culture for more than 25 years. Founded in 1999, the year after the Good Friday Agreement, their arts charity Open House was the first organisation to run an annual festival in Belfast’s now-buzzing Cathedral Quarter. They moved activities to Bangor in 2013, helping regenerate the town centre through the annual Open House Festival and creating a grassroots movement for social change and arts-lead regeneration.

That local support came out in force in the battle to transform a crumbling heritage building into a cultural community asset. It took seven long years of fundraising – including tens of thousands from local people in a huge crowdfunding effort, and investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund – as well as lobbying, planning and extensive refurbishment to pull it off.

In December 2020, Open House took possession of the building through Northern Ireland’s first Community Asset Transfer. The first gigs took place in October 2022. Unbelievably for Northern Ireland’s third biggest city, Bangor didn’t have a dedicated arts venue before The Court House opened its doors.

The venue now offers a springboard for local talent, of which there is no shortage, says Gordon. “There’s always been enormous musical talent in Bangor, we’ve always punched above our weight,” she says. Snow Patrol, Two Door Cinema Club and Foy Vance all hail from the area. “But now there’s a whole new wave of new young artists coming through, which is incredibly exciting. Nurturing that talent, that is the most exciting thing. To see the new era of musicians and give them a home.”

The front of The Court House building in Bangor
The Court House building, now refurbished. Photo courtesy of The Court House

Gordon has been particularly excited by up-and-coming local rock band The Florentinas, who’ve been snapped up by Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody’s management. “They do sold-out shows here but two of the guys work behind the bar here as well. We have various artists who work here to supplement their income because it’s very hard to make a living as a young artist,” she adds.

Just a few weeks before its first anniversary, The Court House has been shortlisted for the prestigious National Lottery Project of the Year award in recognition of its extraordinary impact on the Bangor community. The award is voted for the public and recognises outstanding Lottery-funded projects that make a difference for people and heritage.

Gordon hopes to encourage their supporters to get behind them once more. “We’re thrilled to bits with the nomination,” she says, “and we are working really, really hard to try and win it because it’s never been won by a Northern Ireland project before.”

Yet, despite this recognition and the impression The Court House has already made in its first year, the future is uncertain. The funding landscape in Northern Ireland is “bleak”, Gordon says. The budget allocated to Arts Council NI has been reduced every year for 12 years. As political stalemate continues in the Northern Irish Assembly, Westminster has imposed a “punishment budget, to try and force the politicians back into Stormont”.

“The direct result is organisations like ourselves getting cuts,” Gordon adds. At present, the venue faces a “funding cliff edge” in 2024/25.

“We are going back every year, raising money,” says Gordon. “There’s no long-term sustainability. If we were in England, for example, we would be on three- or four-year Arts Council core funding. How can we do three-year plans or five-year plans when we don’t know where our income is coming from?”

The Court House’s money worries come against a backdrop of “full-blown crisis” in the grassroots music sector, according to Music Venue Trust, the charity representing venues across the UK. In the last 12 months, 125 venues have shut their doors for live music, representing 15.7% of all such spaces in the UK. It’s why The Big Issue launched the Venue Watch campaign to champion these essential cultural spaces.

With the prize money for the National Lottery Award standing at £5,000, a win won’t solve The Court House’s funding worries on its own, but Gordon hopes it would further prove their worth to those with the power over the purse strings. Every vote counts, so adding your voice in support is one concrete way you can get behind this seaside venue with huge ambition.

  • Vote for The Court House here – but be quick, the poll closes on 9 October
  • For more information about The Court House or to book tickets – the best way to support any grassroots music venue – go here
A band onstage on in The Court House
Northern-Irish/Ghanaian singer and songwriter Winnie Ama plays at The Court House. Photo courtesy of The Court House

The Court House: Venue Watch analysis

By Phil Ryan – musician, writer and entrepreneur

Since its creation The Court House has brought a real boost to a fading seaside town, ensuring all the businesses around it received more footfall, becoming a mini economic regenerator in its own right. And at its heart two pioneering and passionate amazing folks, Alison Gordon and her husband Kieran Gilmore. They should be both celebrated and supported.

They demonstrate the very best of nurturing local talent, offering entertainment to a wide range of the community and most importantly putting the heart back into a place that had through no fault of its own sadly declined. These places should not be running around with a begging bowl.

It’s more than high time that politicians of all parties realised what a good music and arts venue does for an area. It promotes and stimulates economic growth. It attracts other businesses to be set up.

Just a quick note from my personal experience here. When I helped set up the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street [where Adele, Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, KT Tunstall all played their first London shows] back in the 90s, I was told by three very close-by restaurants that we had significantly boosted their takings since our arrival. Especially on their slower nights.

In other words, places like The Court House create and maintain jobs in businesses that are nothing to do with them. Taxis. Restaurants. Convenience stores. The list is long. It’s called the ripple effect and it’s difficult to quantify but it’s there.

The Court House does precisely this plus it gives a community entertainment, a place for freedom of expression and fun, and as importantly a beating heart. We can all see the huge rises in costs and operations venues are facing. So, I would urge the NI Arts Council to fund them and, as importantly, the NI government to blooming well get back to work for the sake of its citizens.

The same arguing politicians need to recognise the true value of local cultural assets and stop cutting back the funding they give to the Arts Council. This cause is more than good, it’s essential.

Musician Phil Ryan has toured with The Animals and is co-founder of The Big Issue and The 12 Bar Club.

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