A once familiar heavy, thick and dense sea of bodies packed into the cobbled streets of the city’s Commercial Court and the heaving carnival-like atmosphere of the wood-clad walls the inside the Duke of York will stay silent for some time ahead.
A mainstay for the tourist crowds packing into Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and locals alike – buoyed by the bar’s rich history, the plethora of pub and pint memorabilia adorning the walls – Willie Jack’s Duke of York and Harp Bar have been among the few best-known watering holes which have remained silent, even when restrictions were lifted in the weeks after lockdown.
Now, with the loss of up to 100 jobs and no reopening for the foreseeable future, it’s both another kick in the teeth for Northern Ireland’s hospitality sector and its workers, and a horrible indicator of what could still be yet to come for others.
Willie Jack’s Duke of York is arguably Belfast’s most famous spot for a pint, perhaps aside from The Crown in terms of international recognition – witnessing decades of chatter, conversation and culture.
For those that haven’t met the man behind the pumps, Willie Jack is something of a force of nature.
Occasionally drifting into the third person when enthusing about his latest artistic addition to the grand courtyard that sits beside his Dark Horse pub and adjacent to the Duke, he’s largely the reason why the Cathedral Quarter has become the go-to for hospitality in the city centre.
The overall Commercial Court Inns business, which includes many of Willie’s venues, has been one of the most successful here in recent years – posting turnover in excess of £8m, according to the latest accounts ending March 2019.
The Harp, a now hospitality behemoth located at the former Nick’s Warehouse restaurant and paying homage as namesake to the punk venue formerly on Hill Street, joined Willie’s stable back in 2013.
It had grown and expanded to become one of the city’s largest and busiest nightspots – a thriving venue bolstered by live music, and one that seems to attract everyone under the sun from across Northern Ireland who calls Belfast home for a quick weekend away.
The decision to not reopen the Duke and Harp in any form might have left some scratching their heads – although the decision to cut staff now is likely buoyed by the ending of the Government’s furlough system here, later this month.
Others have, though, pivoted, and faced the difficulties in opening with both reduced customer numbers, revenue and in some cases, staffing levels. Beer gardens have been built, tables spread out, kitchens opened to serve food to meet Government requirements, while there have been fewer till receipts due to customer numbers and limited space.
The company was actually initially very proactive – posting videos on social media of the Duke’s typically quirky response to dealing with the pandemic, from customised perspex screens to humorous colloquialisms adorning the outdoor benches to highlight social distancing.
But the issue the Duke of York faces is its strength as a stalwart of the sector here – the essence of a humming, Irish pub, crowded but cosy, locals standing and quaffing pints of Guinness. The idea of social distancing seems like a distance away.
There’s no arguing with the level of investment Willie has put into the Cathedral Quarter area. He opened the New Orpheus, and gallery, above his Harp Bar, his Friend at Hand whiskey shop, and acquired the neighbouring building on Hill Street with plans for further artistic ventures.
Turning the area and his venues into something of a living museum has been at the core of his years in the pub sector here. It simply wouldn’t look or feel the way it is without Willie