Recreating the 18th Century coffee house tradition…

Northern Ireland people are often accused of spending too much of the present in the past.

But a recent experiment was deliberately designed to go back in time – with the aim of helping the future.

The Enlightenment Festival in Belfast recreated the 18th Century coffee house tradition, where all sorts of radical chat was the order of the day.

Folk came to drink coffee, and spilt the beans – on everything from mental health to housing, climate action and gender, faith and film.

And now Slugger O’Toole has obtained a report on the so-called Coffee House Conversations which reflected a trenchant criticism that the political structures here are failing the population.

And one linking theme bubbled to the surface – education.

Strong if predictable messages emerged from the six-to-a-table conversations held at city centre venues during January – that women no longer feel safe and that mental health can no longer be “arms-lengthed” to the edges of society.

“Contributors were adamant that the NI political structure is failing the people,” said the summary report. We “can no longer pretend poverty is something afflicting problem people”. “The right to decent housing and acceptable living standards are no longer a respected human right.” “How can we have equality when the system is so badly broken ?”

Some went even further, arguing “The entity of Northern Ireland doesn’t work.”

The mental health conversation acknowledged that the current system acts like a sticking plaster holding back a tidal wave of need. “Let’s not pretend mental health is about a few broken people at the edge of society.

“But the knowledge is there. People know what to do. They’ve identified what’s broken, squirrelled away the knowledge, identifying early action and long term support as key to mental health, community development, housing and poverty intervention.”

The contributors were not the usual suspects, the same spokespersons and commentators the media calls on every time there is programme space to fill.

The participants here were ordinary people.

During the Age of Enlightenment, London coffee houses were locations of ill repute, encouraging the intermingling of the classes to debate the issues of the day.

It was during this era that the Linen Hall Library as we know it today in Belfast was created as the Society for the Promotion of Knowledge.

Announcing the experiment, Director Julie Andrews said she wanted to take the library back a number of centuries. “It’s in coffee houses where many great discussions and ideas took seed and we want to explore how that would look and feel like today,” she added.

“In society, young people are usually the adopters and change-makers and that is as true today as it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. For example, it was students, Belfast Presbyterians influenced by the enlightenment movement while they were studying in Scotland who brought the themes and ideas back to Belfast,” she went on.

And their modern-day counterparts proved just as full of passion and insight.

The report concludes: “Our greatest concern raised time and time again was the education system. Religious bias in school governance was cited as leading to gender inequality, race inequality and classist attitudes.
“Contributors maintained the education system itself merely serves the top 20 pc of pupils bound for university and where children have more complex needs, support is often inaccessible or non-existent.”

And the conversations uncovered a correlation between education and the mental health crisis.

“Whenever people mentioned political structures, public institutions and councils, despair at the disconnectedness to citizens needs was uppermost,” the report goes on.

“And worse, contributors spoke of being actively blocked by councils and government departments in carrying out works to improve the lot of local people.”

But the final final overarching theme that emerges from the report is – wait for it – Love defined as “kindness, the capacity to listen intently, to connect meaningfully, to recognise; to really see, to include, to empathise, to respect – removing the practice of shaming, undermining, humiliation and demonisation.

“In the future, it was hoped that Love expressed in this way will be the attribute underpinning a pupil-focussed education system, women’s rights, support for new citizens, approaches to mental health, justice, housing, human rights, practice of faith, attitudes to gender equality, children, and ultimately governance by our leaders and institutions; the capacity for governing bodies to connect meaningfully and authentically, the marker of their success. “Today, living with the reality of where we are, taking responsibility for our own behaviours, addressing what makes us vulnerable as a society may well signal an even greater Age of Enlightenment than that of the 18th Century.”

The Linen Hall Enlightenment Festival takes place later this month. The events are:

Wide Sargasso Sea: Conversation
The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, is a postcolonial feminist prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. A novel that explores the legacy of slavery, slave trade and abolition and it is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Join us for a conversation with the broadcaster, journalist, and filmmaker Bidisha and the historian Jonathan Wright (Maynooth University) facilitated by Carlo Gebler. The speakers will explore the context of the novel in contemporary culture, the unheard voices today, and the facts and myths about Belfast’s role in the anti-slavery movement during the Enlightenment.

Date: Fri 22 April 2022 | Time: 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm

Wide Sargasso Sea’, a performed reading
Amidst a garden of Caribbean flowers, the mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene (MBE) will perform American spirituals and European songs inspired by the Wide Sargasso Sea, while actors will be reading excerpts from the novel.

Date: Fri 22 April 2022 | Time: 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm

‘The mixed legacy of the Enlightenment’, with Siri Hustvedt
Join us for an online conversation with the best-selling American novelist, Siri Hustvedt. Siri will discuss the mixed legacy of the Enlightenment period and she will explore the philosophy of biology and feminism, mind and body dualism, and the relationship between individualism and the contemporary neo-liberal reality.

Date: Wed 27 April 2022 | Time: 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm

‘Democracy under threat?’, with Ben Rhodes
The author, and former advisor and speechwriter to President Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes is meeting Carlo Gebler for an online conversation about democracy, nationalism, and authoritarianism today. For his new book, ‘After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made’, Rhodes visited dozens of countries and worked with politicians, activists, and dissidents. What lessons did he learn?

Date: Thu 28 April 2022 | Time: 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm

‘Artificial Intelligence: How do we live and love today?’, with Jeanette Winterson
Join the renowned best-selling author Jeanette Winterson in a conversation about her latest book 12 Bytes. After years of research drawing on years of research into artificial intelligence, Winterson asks challenging questions about humanity, art, religion, politics, and the way we live and love today.

Date: Fri 29 April 2022 | Time: 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm

Burns & Mozart – A Pre-Concert Conversation
Kirsteen McCue is a Professor of Scottish Literature and Song Culture, and Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies (University of Glasgow). Patrick Mackie is a poet, visiting fellow at Harvard and author of ‘Mozart in Motion: His Work and his Work in Pieces.’ The two experts will explore the work and the very different lives the two artistic geniuses led during the Enlightenment period.

Date: Tue 26 April 2022 | Time: 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm

Burns and Mozart – A Strange Concord Recital
This specially devised concert features the internationally acclaimed Scottish artists, Janis Kelly (soprano) and Iain Burnside (piano). The duo will perform arias and songs by Mozart and poems by Robert Burns.

Date: Sat 30 April 2022 | Time: 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm

Future Youth: A New Social Contract
The theory behind the Enlightenment’s Social Contract detailed the relationship between government and the people. Two teenagers from Northern Ireland and two from Scotland discuss their social contract with regard to government, authority, and education. Do social contracts need to be re-examined and what value do they place on education in the context of their future lives?

Date: Sat 30 April 2022 | Time: 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm

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