Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

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With its stained glass windows and tiles, it is a jewel in our tourism crown

Due to a lapse in its liquor licence, Belfast's most famous watering hole, the Crown Liquor Saloon, has shut its doors, a move which Gary Law hopes is merely temporary

Real gem: inside the Crown bar

Step into the Crown Liquor Saloon and you step back into Victorian Belfast, into a temple of dark wood and murky gas lighting, with its over-the-top stained glass and tile work eager to impress, where the din of chatter is punctuated by orders shouted to aproned barmen, and the doors still swing on the panelled snugs and a discreet side entrance that allowed ladies and the city's gentlefolk to indulge their weakness for alcohol unobserved.

In the uniqueness of its atmosphere and surroundings, the Crown Bar has retained so much of what the city has lost. Unlike this gem of Great Victoria Street, many other Belfast bars of a similar vintage have had their original identity wiped clean. Their past has gone. They've been gutted, renamed, made-over and made-over again in an attempt to keep the customers coming.

Yet virtually alone the Crown remains much as it was 130 years ago. Any makeovers there have sought to restore it to its original grandeur rather than give it a new look. And rather than customers tiring of the same old surroundings, they have grown to love it more. Tourists from around the world flock there, often just to stand and gawp at the surroundings or take pictures and soak up the atmosphere. Celebrities visiting Belfast seek it out as a place to see and be seen; every guide to the city declares it a must-visit.

Which makes it all the more shocking that the place has suddenly and without warning stopped selling drink. Due to a licensing lapse the bar is currently not permitted to dispense alcohol and it is uncertain when it will get its licence back. Tourists must be scratching their heads in bewilderment when they head in search of a pint of the black stuff at Belfast's most famous watering hole, only to discover that the law says no.

Doubtless this is only a temporary blip. The Crown is too much a part of the tourist fabric of Belfast, too much a part of the city's very identity, for its doors to shut permanently, or worse, be turned into some kind of awful pub museum with admission tickets and a gift shop.

Were he around today, the former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman would surely be one of those raising an eyebrow at the closure of the Crown. The wordsmith fell in love with the place on his first visit – calling it a 'many-coloured cavern' and heartily approving of the snugs with their doors and push-button bells "where serious drinkers can hoist their pints in contented privacy" – and it's widely believed he was instrumental in the National Trust purchase that saved the premises in 1979.

Up until then, the bar had had a chequered history. Formerly the site of the Ulster Railway Hotel, built for passengers using the new train service to Lisburn in the mid 18th century, it had been just another Belfast pub until it became the grand obsession of a Banbridge father and son, Michael and Patrick Flanigan, when they took over the hotel in the 1880s.

Patrick was a young architecture enthusiast who had spent time touring Italy and Spain admiring the fabulous buildings of the Mediterranean. Inspired, he returned home with great plans for the family's newly-acquired bar, and by a lucky coincidence, a major building programme by the Catholic Church at that time had attracted skilled craftsmen to Ireland from all over Europe.

The Flanigans engaged the finest Italian craftsmen they could find who had been beautifying the interiors of churches and set them to work on their pub in Great Victoria Street.

After long years of work, the result was finally unveiled in 1885 and almost overnight the Crown became known as Belfast's most magnificent bar. In 1946 it was immortalised in the Carol Reed movie, Odd Man Out, a film now recognised as one of the British director's great works. It tells the story of an IRA gunman, played by James Mason, on the run among the lowlife of Belfast, and a number of scenes featured the Crown.

The bar itself was used for exterior shots, but the inside was meticulously recreated on a sound stage at Denham Studios in England.

Production work done for the film later helped in the reconstruction of the Crown after the National Trust took it on 30 years later. As part of the Odd Man Out crew's efforts to recreate the bar, they had taken an extensive series of photographs of the interior in 1946. These pictures had somehow survived and were used by the Trust to help guide their own craftsmen in restoring the Crown to its former glory.

The trust's acquisition of the bar was a timely and brave move, given that the Troubles were still at their height in 1979. During the worst years of the violence, the Crown had been buffeted by more than 30 bomb blasts that were chiefly aimed at the Europa Hotel across the road. Indeed, many members of the global Press pack who were permanently installed in the Europa to cover events in Northern Ireland often trooped across the road to sample a pint in the Crown.

But the bar itself was in a sad state. The colourful stained glass windows had been blown out many times, garish fluorescent strip lighting had replaced the gas lamps and on most nights the place was practically empty as daily bombings kept people out of the city centre after dark.

Using the Odd Man Out photos, old drawings and moulds from the original 1885 tiles which were discovered by chance at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in Shropshire, the craftsmen employed by the National Trust painstakingly revived the Crown's grandeur. The stained glass was replaced, the ornate plasterwork remoulded, the strip lighting thrown out and the woodwork and tiling restored.

In 1981, almost a century after Michael Flanigan's grand vision was first unveiled to Belfast's drinkers, the doors of the reinvigorated Crown were thrown open in a ceremony led by TV newsreader Angela Rippon.

And among the first to prop up the renovated bar counter was legendary Irish actor Cyril Cusack, one of the stars of Odd Man Out.

Today, this much-loved pub may be temporarily closed, but it has seen plenty of troubles before and always there has been some enthusiast ready to ensure it lives on. Let's raise a glass to the Crown Liquor Saloon, for without it, the city of Belfast would surely be a poorer place.

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