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The Crown Liquor Saloon: a Belfast institution

The Crown Liquor Saloon had a ringside seat for some of the worst violence in Northern Ireland's bloody past. Now it has been restored to its former glory. David McKittrick reports

Monday 03 December 2007 01:00 GMT

It is Belfast's most famous bar and also its most bombed; a renowned gem of Victorian High Gothic extravagance. And, thanks to the dedication of the city's drinkers and a bold restoration project, the Crown Liquor Saloon has finally been returned to its former glory.

Described as "an example of the very richest and most mellow period of pub architecture," the wonder is that the Crown is still standing after more than a century of the city's trademark recurring disorders.

That it not only survives but flourishes is a tribute both to the tenacity of the proprietors and to the resilience and determination of those largely unsung heroes, Belfast's drinking classes.

Through civil commotion and terrorist bombings which regularly reduced its colourful windows to smithereens they drank on, only momentarily halting their consumption of the Crown's Guinness, fine ales and wines and high-class whiskey.

The drinkers never asked for public accolades or praise for their stamina and fortitude in the face of violent adversity: they asked only for another round.

The restoration, which will be officially celebrated tonight is only the latest episode in the Crown's highly eventful existence.

As one of Belfast's top tourist attractions, the Crown is an indispensable stop for many visitors to the city: Brad Pitt has been in, so has Jimmy Nesbitt and a host of other actors appearing at the theatre across the road.

The National Trust acquired the city-centre bar in the 1970s, partly at the urging of Sir John Betjeman, who praised it as "a many-coloured cavern".

A flavour of its character was given by conservationist Charles Brett, who wrote: "The interior is of almost unbelievable richness, with the ground floor's colourful tiles and stained or painted glass.

"The ceiling is a swirling pattern of red and yellow arabesques in high relief; behind the bar a series of arched and pillared recesses house casks with splendid brass pipes and taps.

"The windows are painted with curling designs; the sunlight filtered through them falls on a series of panelled snugs, their doorways surmounted by rows of heraldic lions and gryphons."

In other words, whatever riots may have gone on outside, the interior of the Crown is its own little architectural riot, with lavish colour and myriad embellishments that are almost, but not quite, over the top pleasantly gaudy, it has been called.

The decor has been lovingly restored, repairing the ravages of decades of smoking and drinking; any ailing tiles have been removed, any gaps in the ceiling made good with papier mache, any discolouration put right.

The ceiling, carefully cleaned of decades worth of nicotine and tar, has been burnished to a rich ruby red. The mirrors and glass have regained their lustre, though in the evening the lighting is low, since illumination comes from old-fashioned gas mantles whose glow adds to the atmosphere.

According to John Baird, the trust's conservation manager: "The Crown is a unique, wonderfully preserved masterpiece in bar architecture and one of Belfast's most visited landmarks. We are really excited at restoring it to its former glory."

One of the pub's most striking characteristics lies in its snugs, 10 booths with little doors "guarded by rampant timber lions and gryphons, complete with match-striking plates, bells to summon further refreshments, and mirrors decorated with ancient transfers." The snugs provide upholstered islands of comparative privacy in a busy bar. They also add to the faint but definite sense that the pub, while predominantly about drinking and socialising, also has oddly religious overtones.

While there is nothing overtly holy about the place, many of its fixtures are redolent of those in some of Belfast's many churches. There is something of the cathedral here, with the snugs reminiscent of confessional booths.

In fact the more contemplative pint-sippers may wonder whether it was partly designed as an irreverent parody of the churches around it: Presbyterian headquarters is just down the street, and churches abound all round.

Of course, often those interested in religion and alcohol can overlap: the other night for example a Catholic parish priest was to be found, gin and tonic in hand, examining the restoration work with interest.

But Belfast also has a strong puritanical strain. "I've never been inside," said the Rev David McIlveen of the Rev Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian church, which preaches total abstinence.

"When I think of the Crown Bar I think of something that is architecturally very distinct, one of Belfast's unique buildings. But once you go inside that's where we would have major problems. We are developing into a society that has lost its discipline.

"Alcohol is a reality people drink it though I wish they wouldn't. While it is called the Crown Bar I don't think it has any crowning glory to offer any individual."

The pub's ecclesiastical whiff is actually unsurprising, given its history. It was built in 1826 but its distinctive features were installed in 1885 by the son of the owner. Interested in design,he arrived home from a trip to Europe with a taste for the flamboyant.

Fortunately for him, Belfast had just received an influx of Italian craftsmen, brought over to work on new Catholic churches being built in the city. It is said they moonlighted in the Crown, combining the sacred with the profane.

One of their legacies is the bar's array of intricate carvings: no saints or religious emblems here, but there are fairies, pineapples, lions and shells and other curiosities. The 1885 makeover was ill-timed in that the following year saw a particularly severe bout of rioting the worst violence anywhere in Ireland in the 19th century. It left 30 dead and hundreds injured.

Such uproar must have tested to the limit the determination of the Crown's drinkers, since the premises are ominously close literally a stone's throw to one of Belfast's traditional sectarian battlegrounds. There, where the Protestant Sandy Row meets the Catholic Falls Road, disturbances would break out every few decades. But the drinkers proved as persistent as the rioters, and the Crown kept going.

It survived a several more flare-ups over the years, and in fact itself came to figure in fictional violence. That was when it featured in Carol Reed's 1947 Kakfaesque film noir, Odd Man Out, which starred James Mason as an IRA man, fatally wounded in a robbery, taking refuge in one of its snugs.

From inside it, he can hear customers discussing the robbery. The snug takes on a powerful symbolism, as a hiding place that offers no real sanctuary.

As one critic put it: "Sealed within his wooden box, his inevitable death seems closer than ever, for he is surrounded by, but concealed from, a potentially hostile crowd of drinkers who are all talking about the robbery."

For the film, a mock-up of the bar was reconstructed at a studio in England but, during the Troubles, I had my own encounter in a real Crown snug when I asked to meet a prominent republican gunman, Jimmy Brown. He suggested lunch in the Crown.

He too was on the run, though his pursuers were not the police and army but his former associates, during a feud in which several republicans died. We had lunch: I was nervous since I knew that gunmen were roaming Belfast trying to kill Brown.

But as he took his soup, he was a picture of nonchalance. He did not even glance at the door of the snug to see whether the person opening it would be a waiter or a masked gunman intent on killing him. As he ate, he casually explained who had shot whom in the feud, and why.

"John O'Reilly was personally responsible for the murder of Seamus Ruddy in Paris," he told me. "O'Reilly shot him because he needed to control arms supplies. O'Reilly and another man tortured Ruddy and shot him, and got some of his guns." Such was the stuff of journalism in those days.

Jimmy Brown was himself to be shot dead, hit by five bullets not in that feud but in a later one. The reason he had been so relaxed in the Crown was that it was neutral ground, not at all a paramilitary pub. He reasoned, correctly, that his enemies would not think of looking for him in there.

The Crown's customers include everyone and anyone, with regulars rubbing shoulders with occasional drinkers and visitors from all over the world and Protestants mingling happily with Catholics.

The perception of its cosmopolitan neutrality did it little good throughout the troubles, however, for it had the misfortune to be right across the road from the Europa, which was known as Europe's most bombed hotel.

The Crown's hard luck was that it was in close proximity to the hotel the IRA picked out as a prestige target.

As historian Jonathan Bardon put it: "For the IRA the Europa was a symbol. If they could dislocate it and put it out of action then they would attract worldwide attention and demonstrate that they could make British rule untenable."

The organisation was out to damage the Europa: but each time it did, the Crown got damaged too. The IRA set off bomb after bomb trying to wreck the street: it was no respecter of tradition, utterly indifferent to architectural heritage.

The Crown found itself in the front line of a war zone, regularly suffering collateral damage. The only question for its staff and customers was not if there would be another bomb but when it would detonate.

Those were hard times but, again, the grit and backbone of the Belfast drinker eventually won through. He stayed through, and the spirit of the blitz prevailed. In the 1970s, the area around the Crown was often a scene of devastation, with the rubble of devastated buildings piled high. Now it has been transformed into a modern thoroughfare of tall office blocks. Luxury high-rise apartments are on the way.

It is a far cry from the riots of 1886, the troubles of the late 20th century and waves of recent development, yet the Crown has made it through all the tumult and the terrorism, all the bricks and all the bombs.

One of its snugs features a mythical wooden beast holding a shield inscribed "Audentes Fortuna Juvat" fortune favours the bold. Those who placed it there, over a century ago, could not have known just how much tenacity staff and customers would need, down through the generations.

The inscription might be applied as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to those who have suitably fortified by the Liquor Saloon's stock-in-trade braved all the dangers: the bold drinkers of Belfast who continue to raise their glasses in the ornate splendour of the Crown Bar.

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