Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Ulster Pub of the Year awards: Duke of York

Snow Patrol outside the Duke of York, where a special plaque was unveiled in their honour

It's Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody's favourite bar -- and the Duke Of York gets his vote for the Ulster Pub of the Year crown.

Sunday Life has joined forces with Pubs of Ulster to find Northern Ireland's best boozers and to celebrate all that's great about our wonderful watering holes we'll be running a series of special features on pubs from around the country.

Snow Patrol returned to the Duke of York in Belfast - where their career started - earlier this month as a plaque was unveiled in their honour.

Gary said: "We'll always have fond memories of the Duke of York as this is where it all started.

"And this area round here is so vibrant now, especially with the Oh Yeah Centre. I still come to the Duke, I've drunk in here many's a night and it hasn't changed much from when we first played here back then.

"The pub scene has been right at ground level for Northern Irish bands. Pubs are generally the first experience bands have of playing live.

"The live scene in Northern Ireland is very robust at the moment and there are some great pubs to play in."

Twelve years ago the then little-known indie band played to about 30 fans and friends at the Duke Of York pub in Belfast.

The event was organised by a Belfast music fan called Colin Murray - now a TV and radio star and still a good friend of Snow Patrol.

Drummer Jonny Quinn said: "It's great to be back where it all started. It hasn't changed much at all, except there's more posters on the walls now."

Duke of York owner Willie Jack said he's proud of what he has created at the pub and will continue to support local talent.

He said: "A lot of bands started off in the Duke or drink here. The Answer were in last Wednesday.

"The lead singer Cormac Neeson told me he loves the Duke and he's one of the personalities we have on the mural on the wall across from the Duke.

"Una Healy from The Saturdays, she started in the Duke. Joe Echo is another, he played here for three years.

"We're an outlet for people, we're friendly, we give artists and musicians a chance."

The Duke of York is not just famous for the celebs that have passed through its doors, it has its own fair share of history attached to it.

Willie explained: "I've owned the Duke since the early '80s -- it has plenty of character. It was blown up in 1972 -- terrorists were going to allegedly bomb the High Court and came to a security checkpoint and ran up the alleyway and the bomb went off prematurely and flattened the pub. It wasn't targeted but it had to be rebuilt after an explosion during the Troubles.

"When they rebuilt it they tried to keep it as it looked in the 1950s and I have pictures of the Duke of York from then. They had advertising signs outside like 'Player's Please' and hanging baskets, so I've tried to make it look 1950s, given that it was reconstructed in 1974 out of breeze blocks.

"Gerry Adams famously used to work in it in 1971 as well. There's been a pub there for 200 years. It's not the oldest in Belfast, but we tried to recreate that 1950s look. You've got to make it cultural and nice outside for everyone -- for locals and tourists alike.

"The bric-a-brac inside, the murals, the Belfast phrases on the wall -- it's a conscious decision and for 30 years I've saved up things like mirrors from pubs across the nine counties of Ulster, like the Rotterdam, and I'll continue to do so. Everything we have is true -- it's Belfast, it's got providence. We had great distillers in Belfast and we have to preserve it. Once it's gone it's gone forever, so we have to preserve it."

Willie is constantly striving to make things better and said he would like to see CCTV in the area and said empty commercial properties should be given rent-free to artists to make the Cathedral Quarter an even bigger cultural hub.

And he also gave away the secret to his pub's success.

He added: "People like the craic, we give free food out to people and free music. It's important that people get a good night in a friendly atmosphere.

"Belfast has too many pubs that look the same. We need innovation from pub owners, you need people with character running them, you need personalities back. That's the secret, it's the people working for the Duke that make it. It's bricks and mirrors and cobbles, but it's the people that make it.

"Because we've kept it small we can devote more time to it and perhaps that's a lesson to all the Pubs of Ulster. If they run it well and spend time with the customers it will work, but staff is the key.

"We took the decison not to put in gaming machines, sell alcopops, or allow football shirts or Sky TV. You have a laugh, it's friendly and safe. We often drop people home. It's a different mentality, we don't sell food except for Irish crisps and dulce. The restaurants around us are better at food than we are, we're better at serving draft beer, there's a synergy there.

"We do what we're good at, selling beer. It's not rocket science.

"It's a safe environment where people from all walks of life can come and enjoy a beer - whether you clean the streets or are the Prime Minister, when you walk across that door the Duke is a great leveller."

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