Kenneth Branagh encourages children to get writing at Into Film Festival

By | Creative Industries, Film

Director Kenneth Branagh officially opened Northern Ireland’s Into Film Festival at a special screening of his new movie Belfast by encouraging young people to tell their own stories.

“Everyone has a unique, special story that’s just theirs. And it’s important to me that those stories get told, because everyone is different and that’s what makes things interesting,” he said to 200 young people and their teachers at the special screening of his new movie based on his own childhood.

The Into Film Festival runs until the end of the month at schools across Northern Ireland with a series of free screenings and resources such as the Story Builder writing tool available all year round.

Kenneth Branagh, who is Northern Ireland Ambassador for Into Film, was joined by young actors Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie at the first festival event of 2021 held at Movie House Cityside in Belfast. They spoke to young people from Hazelwood Integrated College, Belfast High School, Ashfield Girls School and South West Regional College.

Into Film, an education charity, is encouraging young people to follow Kenneth Branagh’s advice and tell their stories using a new resource Story Builder, a writing tool developed by the team in Northern Ireland.

Story Builder captures pupils’ imaginations and allows them space to create and build their own stories as if developing a film. This is a free resource, which allows pupils to work alone or collaboratively to develop characters, build their story arc, decide on settings and design their very own movie posters.

“Northern Ireland people are renowned for amazing story-telling and Kenneth Branagh encouraged the students to express themselves. Every person has a story to tell and our team developed Story Builder to help young people find their voice and get their stories out into the world. Story Builder is now being used in schools across Northern Ireland and teachers have found it a real asset in the classroom,” explained Into Film Project Delivery Officer Naomh Cullen.

With direct links to cross-curricular skills and literacy goals, Story Builder is educational, fun and has opportunities for both teachers and pupils to receive awards and prizes.

“Kenneth Branagh used his own experiences as a young boy to write Belfast. We want to encourage young people across Northern Ireland to be our next great story teller and Story Builder gives them a place to start,” said Naomh Cullen added.

The Into Film Festival is hosted by Into Film, a film education charity supported by the BFI through National Lottery funding and made possible with support from Cinema First and the UK film industry. The National Lottery raises £36 million each week for good causes across the UK.

Into Film offers a free virtual visit to every school to get them started with Story Builder.  For more information email or go to

Blow-dry the cobwebs away at Theatre at The Mill’s new hairy Christmas cracker

By | Comedy, Creative Industries, Theatre

Caroline Curran renews her festive partnership with Theatre at The Mill with Jingle All the Hairspray – a riotous, razor sharp tale of fun and friendship set in Scary Bears Hair and Beauty Salon.

After ten years of starring in the Mossley Mill theatre’s Christmas spectacular, this is Caroline’s first solely written show, stuffed full of madcap comedy, twists and turns and original songs.

This Christmas ‘hairytale’ has loads of topical references to Brexit, the NI Protocol, Covid-19 and lateral flow tests, Love Island, East Enders, and the QVC Shopping Channel. The show is full of adults-only laughs, drama and a few tears in a glitzy, glamour-filled setting.

Having set previous shows in a hospital ward, a pub, and a credit union, Jingle All the Hairspray tackles the hairdressing salon where Northern Ireland’s women get the chance to bare their souls, gossip and occasionally tear strips out of each other.

Caroline said: “Having decided to set the show in a Hairdressing and Beauty Salon, I spent the last few months visiting places and watching the customers.  I have a lot of friends who are hairdressers or owners of beauty salons and they all tell their own stories. Christmas is their busiest time of the year and it is not just the curling tongs that can get heated!”

The show has nine original, highly entertaining new songs belted out by the cast including Jolene O’Hara, lead vocalist in Lush! Classical and a member of the Songbirds Duo with sister Philippa. The cast also features Mary Moulds and Patrick Buchanan.

Claire Connor plays the central role of Scary Bears owner, Ali, who is desperately trying to get her place ready before a visit from the inspector of the HAIRS Guide. Ali has inherited the salon from her late mum and wants to fulfil her dream of getting a five-star review before she decides on her future. But her no-good husband Dave is encouraging her to sell up so he can sail around the world on his boat.

A cast of colourful characters bring the hilarious script to life but amid the comedy there are tears with poignant scenes in tribute to Caroline’s best friend, co-writer and long-time collaborator, Julie Maxwell who tragically died in August 2019.

Caroline explained: “I added a scene where one of the customers describes the turmoil of losing their best friend. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster writing my first show alone. It features the type of wacky and weird comedy that I wrote with Julie, but it was difficult because I would usually have someone there to sound out what was funny and what wasn’t.”

Bringing some order to the Christmas Chaos is Minnie the Inspector from the HAIRS Guide. It is clear to Minnie that Ali loves her business and her customers, but will she award her the HAIRS Guide’s illustrious five stars? And will Ali sell Scary Bears and waltz off with Dave on his boat?

“I want the audience at Theatre at the Mill to enjoy an edge-of-the-seat, fun-filled ride. This is a feelgood, all-in Christmas makeover,” Caroline added.

Jingle All the Hairspray: A Christmas Hairytale will be on stage from December 7-31. For details on how to book tickets go to:

AI Homecare expanding to meet increased demand for domiciliary support

By | Business, General, Health

A Northern Ireland domiciliary care business has recently taken on 21 new staff with plans to employ another 40 as soon as possible to meet growing demand within the sector.

AI Homecare Group has opened a new administration office at Innovation Factory in order to provide care workers to people in Belfast, particularly in the North and West of the city.

Gemma McWilliams, Support Manager with AI Homecare explained: “There are approximately 5,000 hours of Domiciliary care needing to be filled currently in the Belfast area. We plan to continually recruit over the coming months in order to help fill those packages of care and ensure that people get the high-quality service they require to remain at home.”

The company, which is contracted by the Belfast and South Eastern Trusts, works exclusively with the National Health Service recruiting and training home care workers for a range of services, including personal care, preparation of meals, domestic and household duties, support with medication and respite care.

AI Homecare chose to take an office within the Innovation Factory on the Springfield Road for its convenient location, the support they receive from the centre’s team and the facilities they say are ideal for interviewing and training new employees.

“Every person is entitled to support in their home and a care package will be determined by the trust. But it’s imperative that we employ the right people with not only the skills and ability but a warm, professional way of interacting with service users,” she explained.

Finding new staff has been difficult in the current employment market and while the company provides excellent terms and conditions, they are continually discussing how they can attract new people with the various health trusts.

“This is such an important job and without great carers, many service users stay in hospital much longer as they are unable to come home without support. Services such as ours are vital to the NHS particularly in these challenging times to help alleviate current pressures, on an already overwhelmed health service. Even in these difficult times we continue to deliver the best standard of care to our service users and much needed support to our amazing team of care staff,” she said.

Innovation Factory Centre Director Majella Barkley said: “AI Homecare provides a very important service, helping people to remain in their homes by giving them the best possible care. There is a huge demand for domiciliary care for vulnerable people in West and North Belfast and we are delighted that the company chose Innovation Factory as its base to reach out to the community.”

To find out more about AI Homecare go to

Stormont Executive must provide more support for isolated rural women

By | News, Newsroom, Women's Issues

Northern Ireland’s rural women have met at Stormont to demand more support from the Executive to tackle social isolation and improve access to support services.

Louise Coyle, Director of Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network (NIRWN) said that Government funding for services for women in rural areas was desperately low and this needed to change.

She said: “Rural women make up a fifth of the Northern Ireland population, yet they receive just 1.3% of government funding distributed to women in this region.  NIRWN does receive some core funding from government and have always been grateful for that support but that investment is 13% of what it was in 2006.   We deserve better than this.”

NIRWN, which is celebrating its 15th birthday, has launched a new four-year Strategic Plan that looks at how the participation of women in rural areas can be improved and supported.

The event was taking place ahead of the United Nations International Day of Rural Women on October 15.  The UN states that achieving gender equality and empowerment for women is not only the right thing to do but critical in the fight against extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

Attending the event were members of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus, who took part in a Q&A event looking at the challenges for women in rural areas. They discussed poverty, isolation, the lack of broadband coverage and the challenges to the rural environment caused by climate change, as well as the effect of the pandemic on the lives of women in rural areas.

Ms Coyle said the recent challenges of Covid-19 had shone a light on the challenges faced by women in rural areas.

“Rural isolation is a daily reality for many, and I think each of us got a taste of what feeling socially isolated is like during the pandemic. Lack of access to services is a very common feature of rural life and lockdown illustrated that Broadband is now an essential utility and not an optional luxury; we knew this in rural areas and as much as there are active moves to address this barrier, too many are still being left behind.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic presented many challenges to people in rural areas it also helped to strengthen the power of community and collective action. During lockdown NIRWN launched a number of new initiatives including a ‘Rural Reach’ tablet loan scheme for women with access to technological devices and a private ‘Fed Up To Fabulous’ Facebook for people to chat and offer peer support.

Among those who accessed these services was NIRWN member Maura Colgan from Mid Ulster who said: “We cannot underestimate the impact Covid 19 has had on our wellbeing and community but there are hopes of better days to come.  We all have had to adapt to a new way of connecting and engaging. NIRWN delivered lots of courses and support to help us through a very difficult and challenging period for which I am very grateful.

“There is a growing need in our community for additional mental health and wellbeing support.  We need a safe place that offers welcome to everyone, provides fun and support.  Women have so many gifts and skills to make a difference to our own family lives and then that will have ripple effect throughout our communities.”

For more information about the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network visit: