PUB OF THE YEAR: Blake's, Enniskillen
Getting into Blakes of the Hollow is easy. Getting out of Enniskillen’s most famous pub is an altogether trickier challenge.
And it’s not just the drink and the atmosphere which are seductive.
For every nook, every cranny is brimming over with history and character, from its front door with its fading beer advertisements to its snugs and hideaways where there used to be a bath for customers to sink into as they sank their pints.
The iconic exterior of the pub, which features on a thousand picture postcards and guides, even has an intriguing story associated with its red and black colour scheme — so designed in the old days to help people who couldn’t read to identify it as a pub at a time when red and white used to be the colour of a barber’s shop.
And once inside the wood-panelled Victorian bar, if you turn left into a tiny snug, you turn back the clock to an era when women were very definitely regarded as second class citizens in pubs — the undoubted losers in the ‘bottle’ of the sexes.
Look closely inside the snug and you’ll see two tiny holes at either side above the serving hatch from the main public bar.
Women used to be shunted in there for a ginger cordial and a biscuit or a port wine and the little holes supported the cord for a green baize curtain which was slid across the hatch to draw a veil over what the menfolk were up to inside the main bar.
“The women couldn’t be gawping at the boys and going home and telling stories about what they saw,” said Joe Blake, whose father William owned the pub.
“The women were in the bar by exception rather than by right. And it wasn’t until the 1960s that they got official recognition with the provision of a ladies’ toilet!”
Joe was one of 10 children and they all grew up ‘above the bar’ which their father bought in 1929 from the estate of Richard Herbert who’d modernised the bar 42 years earlier.
Mr Blake — widely known as the Boss — always rejected his family’s overtures to refurbish the bar to update its appearance.
“Father refused to budge and we know now that he was wise,” said Joe, whose family owned another pub in Enniskillen and Blakes of the Hollow was so named because it was situated in a dip in the town and also to distinguish it from the other Blakes in the Diamond.
Joe’s brother Donal who sadly passed away last month ran Blakes in the Hollow for 42 years.
Donal, described by Joe as the patron saint of practical jokes, was the life and soul of the pub and he retired in 1996 after the bar was bought by another Blake — Pat Blake from Derrylin.
The bar has two of Ireland’s finest writers among its biggest fans.
Colm Toibin described it as a ‘cathedral of a pub’ and the late Leitrim author John McGahern was a regular, even using the bar as a mailing address during a postal strike south of the border.
“He would travel up to collect his letters from the pub and to enjoy a soup and a sandwich,” said Joe, who was Blakes’ secretary and accountant until his retirement.
To those in the business of Guinness, Blakes is renowned as one of Ireland’s finest purveyors of a pint of porter.
They used to bottle their own stout in Blakes. As well as their own gin and sherry and Powers and Jameson whiskies — their Blakes’ Powers White label was particularly revered.
William Blake — no relation to the poet of the same name — used to run the bar’s affairs from the bar, in a little office in a snug upstairs.
Joe, 77, said “He had all his books with him up there. And he would sit in a high chair which he called the bridge of the ship. He would observe proceedings from his vantage point and if the staff needed a hand, he would go behind the bar.
“And he made sure no-one got out of order. Few of the customers ever sat down and that made it easier for the staff to keep an eye on them.
“You could see how a boy was going and if there were problems, you could have a word with him and he would leave.”
Traditional music sessions are now a feature of the pub but William Blake didn’t allow singing in his bar in case party songs got an airing and upset relationships.
“My father looked upon the customers as his friends,” said Joe.” Fair day was a very busy time in the pub and the World War was another hectic time especially when the Americans or the Canadians would come into Enniskillen to go to the cinema and then call in after.
“The only problem was that you could run out of drink very easily” said Joe.
“But there was very little trouble because if the soldiers misbehaved, they didn’t get out of camp again.”
During the war former American President Dwight Eisenhower, who was the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, is said to have got his drink supplies from Blakes.
There is, however, no record of him using one of the pub’s more unusual features — a bath out the back!
Joe Blake said “It was a great thing, altogether with a huge copper shower head on it too. There was a big furnace in the back area which provided the hot water. And the likes of commercial travellers would use the facility for a set price. They could freshen up and enjoy a drink at the same time. It’s all documented in Enniskillen museum.”
A football team — the Enniskillen Corinthians — togged up for games in the pub around that time and cleaned up there afterwards.
One of their star players was Johnny Henderson who was a barman in Blakes for an astonishing 53 years.
“Apparently he only came to work here for a fortnight after his brother got sick and he ended up staying for over half a century. Everybody knew him and if there was even a sign of
hassle, Johnny only had to raise one finger to quieten the place down,” said Joe.
In recent years, while the look of the public bar of Blakes has essentially stayed the same, the rest of the building has changed dramatically and has moved with the times, says barman Paul Blake, a grandson of the original proprietor of the pub. Two restaurants — Café Merlot and Number 6 — have been franchised out and are highly rated by culinary experts.
Paul says: “There’s also a gothic style upstairs which is popular with the younger clientele and we also have a nightclub called Level 7.
“But the public bar has maintained its old style and still attracts a large number of regulars including one man who’s been coming here for 66 years.
“And of course the pictures and cartoons on the wall are another fixture of Blakes. Charlie Lawson, who’s from the town, was responsible for the photograph of the cast of Coronation Street.
“And other regulars include Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy and Rory McIlroy’s parents Gerry and Rosie, who always pop in when they are down this way.
“Even at the height of the Troubles Germans came in their droves to Fermanagh to cruise on the lakes,” said Joe Blake.
Blakes heaven, they might have called it!