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Belfast's Frames Bar and snooker hall to close

By Christopher Woodhouse

From pot black to thirsty hacks, a legendary Belfast bar and snooker club is set to call time on over three decades of pots and pints.

Frames will hang up the cues and dust off the baize for the last time today when the snooker hall closes with Frames’ Titanic Pub shutting in the weeks ahead.

The cue sports club and popular bar just off Royal Avenue was founded by Belfast brothers Gerald and Jim Magee in 1983.

“People say it’s the end of an era but it’s the start of a new era, as it’s a listed building which has been going from 1898 and it’ll go another 100 years,” Gerald told Sunday Life.

The bar and club have survived the decline of snooker, the recession and the smoking ban which put many similar establishments to the sword.

The striking Edwardian building in which it’s housed lasted through the Blitz and the Troubles practically unscathed, while others around it were fatally damaged or levelled altogether.

However, the bar was not completely untouched by the sectarian violence as doorman Colm Mahon was shot dead by republican terror gang, the IPLO outside the pub in 1991.

But the brothers say a combination of age and the ever-changing pub scene have convinced them it’s time to pull their last pints. Jim (65) bluntly admitted: “It’s a case of you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Jim was involved in the gaming machine industry before joining his brother and another business partner to open the snooker club when the game was at its height.

“We started off as a snooker club in 1983 at the time of the snooker boom, and it evolved from that,” explained Gerald.

The previous year, Belfast legend Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins had won his second world championship and was dazzling viewers with his daring playing style and lager-lubricated cue action.

Tyrone man Dennis Taylor’s world championship victory in 1985 pushed the popularity of the sport in Northern Ireland to never before seen levels.

“It opened up with 10 snooker tables but the sport grew and we ended up with about 50 tables. I think at one time we were the largest club in the United Kingdom,” said Jim. “People would have been able to come down to Frames and know there was always at least one table free.”

Gerald added: “Back then snooker was so big we would have had every table going every night.”

The huge spread of tables even tempted a group of schoolkids to set up a black market trade in selling balls from Frames, but they were soon caught on.

However, public interest in the game began to drop as the 1980s drew to a close and the brothers had to find other ways to occupy the vast building. Back then the ground floor, now the large bar room, was used as a parking garage, but in 1988 a bar licence was obtained and work commenced.

The tap room was soon a hit with the hundreds of reporters, printers and office staff at the neighbouring Belfast Telegraph offices, with some of the more frequent regulars commemorated on a large mural on the rear wall.

Gerald recalled: “There would have been regular bomb scares back in the 80s, and you would ask guys to evacuate, but they would say to you: ‘Come on, we’ve only two reds left!’ “

Some punters were even harder to remove from their stools, as Jim explained: “We used to have poker machines with a central display of artificial plants. A lot of the time they would stub out their cigarettes in it and one day it went up in flames and one guy sat there and just shouted over: ‘Oi mate, that’s on fire!’

“Even during the Troubles we did fairly good business, but when the financial crisis hit, it did hurt.”

“Journalism has changed as well,” lamented Gerald, “They’re displaced, they’re not bound to offices. We still get a few in but nowhere near what it used to be.”

The eye-catching building with its French-style tower which drives a red brick wedge between the old Belfast Telegraph offices and the Belfast Central Library was built between 1898 and 1907.

Originally known as Library House, it served as a furniture showroom and factory for Robert Watson & Co. which made, among others things, a mattress fit for royalty. “Their claim to fame was that the King and Queen of Denmark slept on one,” said Jim.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development describe the building on its listed buildings register as one of “the largest and best surviving examples of a Victorian/Edwardian commercial furniture saleroom and factory in Ireland”.

The Magee brothers aren’t certain about the building’s fate.

There is speculation the new owners will keep the bar open for a while yet. “What we are concerned with is leaving everything right with the staff because a lot of them are friends,” said Jim.

Whatever happens, the memory of Frames, games lost and won and tales told at the pump will last in the memory of those who supped there for years to come.

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