I will never forgive them for what they took from me: the men with the guns and the sinister shades, and the women with bombs in prams where there should have been babies. It wasn’t just me of course. It was hundreds of thousands of people who lived in and around Belfast from the 60s until very recently. We were robbed of our own city. For years, our town centre was closed at night, with shuttered bars and restaurants and cinemas dark inside a ring of steel. It has taken time for people to trust that times are different now, and to learn both new ways of doing business and enjoying ourselves down town.
Last sunny evening, Spud took me on a pub crawl of some of the downtown bars that are now enjoying a tourist renaissance and keeping the locals out late at night. Many of these establishments have been around since the 1800s but I had not been in any one of them before. When I lived in Belfast in the 70s these bars were open only in daytime, and stank of bleach and boke and beer. In the 80s they were dark, depressing places in alleys reeking of piss. Old men in cheap clothes stared at screens showing the horse racing, or nursed a pint as they sat hunched by the bar.
I had heard of the Duke of York of course, for Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams had famously worked there as a barman before going on to hit the big time in paramilitary manoeuvres. Journalists from the Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph used to drink there when I worked in Belfast in the ’80s, but my city centre used to stop at the junction of Donegall Place, Royal Avenue and High Street. The Northern part of the city, now branded the Cathedral quarter, was not part of my social circuit.
Last night we sat on pillar box red benches on street cobbles and admired the hanging baskets. There was still a journalist or two at the bar. The glasses shone, the paint was fresh and I had an excellent glass of sauvignon blanc.
Our next stop was the John Hewitt, named for a late 20th century Belfast poet. They don’t serve food in the evening so we moved on without having a drink. “We’ll go to the Cloth Ear” said Hughes. ” And get you a plate of champ”.
The Cloth Ear (as in ” why don’t you listen–do you have cloth ears?”) is a new bar, owned by the swanky Merchant Hotel next door. Like every other establishment in Belfast, it appears to follow the gospel according to Gordon Ramsey. There is a focus on locally sourced food, and traditional recipes. I had sausages and champ (mashed potato with scallions/spring onions) and onion gravy. They had a special (thanks Gordon)–two main courses and a bottle of wine for £23.50. Argentine Red. Delicious.
Next we stopped in to the Spaniard, a tiny and really old bar with maybe half a dozen small tables covered in flowered oil cloth. The bar is famous for rum. For those of you counting, we didn’t have a drink but just looked in. “They’re opening a restaurant upstairs” said Hughes “There’s talk of a Michelin star”.
Beginning to make our way home, we took a cut through Pottinger’s Entry to get to Ann Street. In my school days in the 1970s, this was a dark, dank and dismal place. Somehow now they have found more light. It is no longer an alley where school girls would be afraid to walk. The Morning Star bar has been there for centuries, next door to the bookies. This is a real horse racing bar. Outside, with the hanging baskets and award winning menus, they have thoughtfully placed a flat screen tv, so you can keep up with your investments while dining or drinking al fresco. Inside the pub, the oval mahogany bar is smear free, as are the mirrors that open up the space. The bar staff wear bow ties, white shirts and black trousers. It’s a shame we were stuffed because the food has won all-Ireland awards two years in a row, and they had a special on Chablis. Spud went to the loo and reported that the floor was littered with beaten dockets ( a betting slip for a horse that failed to win). Not everything changes.
Crossing Chichester Street we made the Garrick our final stop. This bar has stood for at least 150 years and I must have passed it every day on my way home from school but I’d never noticed it before. On the first Wednesday of every month they have a singing circle upstairs. People just turn up and sing unaccompanied. There were funny songs, sad songs, build the railway songs and a song I’d never heard before about a man who bartered too hard for a wife. Two Indian men, students in Belfast, channeled the Everly Brothers and sang “Take a Message to Mary”. I sang myself.
When I was 16 I hitchhiked all over the South of Ireland and came home with stories heard in bars, and sung in sessions like last night’s at the Garrick. I loved it but it was impossible for me to imagine then that times like that could be enjoyed in my home town. Ireland was truly another country then. Where I came from, people talked only to others they knew, and were too tight lipped to sing.
The place has loosened up, brightened up and is looking up. Pity it took so long.