Bringing music to people with live streaming ― Sailortown Regeneration’s digital story
Sailortown Regeneration is a people-led redevelopment organisation based in the Belfast Docks. In this case study Dr Ellie Pridgeon explains how Sailtortown successfully delivered a remote and popular St Patrick’s Day Live event in March 2021, despite Covid-19. The event was streamed around the world and provided Sailortown with the opportunity to develop its inhouse digital communication capacity. Sailortown have been mentored by Ellie as part of The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab.
Amanda St John performing at St Patrick’s Day Live event, St Joseph’s Church, Belfast.
Image courtesy of Sailortown Regeneration ©. Photo by Joe Carberry.
What is Sailortown Regeneration?
Sailortown Regeneration is a people-led redevelopment organisation based in the Belfast Docks. The organisation, which owns St Joseph's Church and the Parochial House, successfully delivered a remote and popular St Patrick’s Day Live event in March 2021, despite Covid-19. The music and arts programme, which was streamed around the world, also provided Sailortown with the opportunity to develop its inhouse digital communication capacity.
At one time more than 5,000 people lived in Belfast’s first waterfront village area – the terraced houses and cobblestoned streets known as Sailortown. Men worked on the docks and at sea, and women at home and in the city’s mills. However, the more recent history of Sailortown is rather more chequered. The construction of a motorway in the late 1960s saw the Sailortown community dispersed to new houses around the city, initially with the promise of returning home. This never happened, and their homes, communities and livelihoods were slowly demolished. Just four original Sailortown houses survive today.
In 2001, the decision to close and deconsecrate St Joseph’s Church saw the people of Sailortown uniting once again. Forming the Cultural and Historical Committee allowed them to effectively campaign, also to protest with a three-day lock-in. Six years later, the community were finally handed the key to St Joseph’s Church and Parochial House, with a 150-year lease on the building. By then, St Joseph’s Church was almost derelict, and Sailortown have been sourcing emergency repair funding for fixing roof holes and removing pigeons ever since. The environment of St Joseph’s Church is now suitable for limited use. Sailortown is working to employ experts to advise on building use, restoration, and conservation. The ultimate aim is for the space to become an activity and communal meeting hub for local people, with the running costs raised by staging events. St Joseph’s Church will become a flagship project for the waterside area of Belfast.
Run by just two staff members, Sailortown Regeneration keeps alive the memory of the docks for people at home and around the world by collecting photographs and oral history. They also have researchers, including historians and academics, who use the collection regularly. Sailortown is looking to arrange reunions for ex-seamen and their families to share stories and memories, research their family trees, and celebrate their lives at sea. Sailortown has also reintroduced traditions such as the May Procession to honour people who worked at sea and on the docks. For the new community of children living in Sailortown, a weekly club and the opportunity to work with local artists has allowed them to create a horror film and Halloween Maze in the church.
Remote delivery of programmes during Covid-19
St Patrick’s Day Live event, St Joseph’s Church, Belfast. Image courtesy of Sailortown Regeneration ©. Photo by Joe Carberry.
Covid-19 and lockdown provided Sailortown Regeneration with the opportunity to deliver events through new digital and remote channels, and to collaborate with local partners. The popular St Patrick’s Day Live event, broadcast live from St Joseph’s Church, was funded by Intercomm Ireland Ltd through their Community Relations building programme. The day-long programme was hosted by U105 presenter and DJ Johnny Hero. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the event was streamed live online and on various social media platforms, including the Sailortown Regeneration Facebook page. St Patrick’s Day Live was filmed by NVTV – a local television company – and can be viewed here: https://www.nvtv.co.uk/shows/sailortown-sessions-episode-1/
The event celebrated the cultural, social and historical heritage of Belfast’s Sailortown area, and the transformation of St Joseph’s Church into a community hub. It also offered the opportunity to showcase artistic talent in Belfast, as music, dancing and storytelling took place across two stages. Featured bands included Dál Riada Folk and The Lee Hedley Band, singer songwriters Amanda St John, Anthony Toner, and Ludwig O’Neill, musician and songwriter Hugh Jordan, and dancer and musician Edel Ní Churraoin performing with the Sean Nos Dancers. Many of the performers have a connection with Sailortown and its community going back several decades. The St Patrick’s Day Live event also included a screening of the NVTV film about the history of Sailortown, which retold the fight to win back St Joseph’s Church.
To produce St Patrick’s Day Live, Sailortown worked with locally based Belfast Blue’s Festival and Excalibur Press to manage the event and the media, to monitor engagement figures, and to design a brand-new organisational logo. A local café and bar provided catering and loaned equipment. The event was planned with a short run-in time of just two to three weeks.
Despite the event’s obvious achievements, there were, predictably, certain hitches. The new toilets were still being completed the night before, and a lack of broadband at St Joseph’s Church meant that purchasing a TP-Link remote router and using pay-as-you-go data was unavoidable. Astonishingly, just five minutes of airtime was lost during the entire day.
New Sailortown Regeneration logo designed Oranga Creative. Image courtesy of Sailortown Regeneration ©
Digital communications development
Sailortown used new digital channels to ensure that new and different audiences engaged with heritage. They enhanced their social media and online presence. The St Patrick’s Day Live event saw audiences from all over the world, including the USA, Canada, Italy, and Australia. The Facebook Livestream had 5,200 views, 2,555 engagements, and 1,217 likes, comments, and shares. The feedback from remote audiences and participants was outstanding. Furthermore, Sailortown are currently working with an archivist to collate and organise their heritage collection for use as material for future digital (and other) projects.
The commitment and vision of the small Sailortown Regeneration team in putting together and managing the St Patrick’s Day Live digital event, and bringing music to people around the world, is remarkable.
Sailortown Regeneration is a success story in terms of delivering remote programmes and developing digital communications inhouse. The organisation is fortunate that it owns a fabulous venue – St Joseph’s Church – and has close connections with Belfast musicians and artists. Likewise, Sailortown’s partnership with Intercomm Ireland Ltd allowed them to hire professionals to manage both the live event and the public relations. Event technical issues were unavoidable – these are familiar to all heritage organisations managing remote delivery during lockdown. The commitment and vision of the small Sailortown Regeneration team in putting together and managing the St Patrick’s Day Live digital event, and bringing music to people around the world, is remarkable.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.