Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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The Irish Pub, Turtle Bunbury & James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2008)

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THE CROWN LIQUOR SALOON (www.crownbar.com)
Great Victoria Street, Belfast

For every dark and morbid Victorian puritan, there was another Victorian who adored vivaciousness and light. Belfast is a case in point. The City where they built the Titanic was created by citizens of an industrial, rather dour, outlook on life. Its buildings tended to be functional and free of unnecessary décor. There were nonetheless certain commercial premises in Victorian Belfast which championed the cause of unadulterated High Gothic flamboyance. Amongst these was The Crown Liquor Saloon, one of the most fabulous bars in Europe.

Dating to 1826, this landmark establishment originally serviced the six stagecoaches and various jaunting cars passing daily from Belfast to Lisburn. It was renamed The Railway Tavern when the Belfast – Lisburn line opened in 1839. In the 1850s, owner Felix O’Hanlon moved to New York and sold the bar to the Flanagan family. In 1885, Patrick Flanagan returned home after extensive travels in southern Europe with a head full of ideas. A student of architecture, he was greatly impressed by the coffee houses and beer-halls of Paris, Vienna and Prague. In time he would convert his family’s saloon into one of the most extravagantly colourful bars in the British Isles.

The disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland in 1869 paved the way for a massive boom in church building by the Roman Catholic hierarchy across the country. Skilled artisans flooded in from Europe to complete these jobs. Amongst these were a number of Italian craftsmen who Patrick Flanagan duly cajoled into working on the refurbishment of his family bar. These Italians were responsible for the tiling, glasswork and rich ornamental woodwork that turned Patrick’s vision into reality.

This ecclesiastical background explains why, when the sun beams through the decorative windows, this downtown Belfast pub seems more like a baroque church in central Europe. The impression is further enhanced by the ten elaborately carved wooden snugs, lettered A-J, and no means dissimilar to confessional boxes. The snugs – or ‘boxes’ to use the colloquial – feature black upholstered seats, nickel plates for striking matches, and an antique push-bell system, common in Victorian times, to alert staff to one’s needs. Guarding the entrance to each snug is a heraldic lion or gryphons; their wings and talons now carefully repaired.

The Crown combines its delightfully ostentatious décor with a down-to-earth and mellow ambience. The embossed ceiling comprises a splendid combination of primrose yellow arabesques, rich ruby reds and seductive gold rosettes. The floor is a myriad of mosaic tiles; sometimes black and white checkers, other times a terracotta and blue chevron straight from ‘Arabian Nights’. The brocaded walls and wooden columns between are decorated in highly patterned tiles, feathered motifs, dynamic carvings and lustrous mirrors. Painted glass curls in every direction, a vivid medley of amber, crimson and green painted shells, fairies, pineapples, fleurs-de-lis and clowns. These colourful decorative windows fronting the bar were originally intended to shield customers from inquisitive passers-by.

The Crown is one of the last of the great Victorian Gin Palaces that once flourished in the industrial cities of Britain. In 1947, Carol Reed copied the ornate interior for the set of his BAFTA-winning film noir, ‘Odd Man Out’, with James Mason starring as a fatally wounded IRA man taking refuge in one of the snugs. In 1978, Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, virtually insisted the National Trust acquire this ‘many-coloured cavern’, making The Crown the Trust’s only pub. Between 1970 and 1976, twenty eight bombs exploded in the Europa Hotel across the road. Not surprisingly, the collateral damage was considerable even if the bar stools continued to be defiantly occupied by the same neutrally minded drinkers who had always frequented the pub. The Trust carried out a sympathetic restoration three years later, restoring the bar to its full Victorian might.

When the smoking ban was introduced to Northern Ireland’s pubs in 2007, the National Trust sent in a swat team of fifteen specialists to give the bar a thorough clean up. Somehow they managed to keep the pub open throughout while, as far as practicable, they scrubbed and restored every aspect of plastering, woodwork, tiling and glass. This latter restoration has ensured that, against all the odds, Patrick Flanagan’s remarkable creation has survived the Troubles intact.

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CONTENTS

1. The Concept.
2. On the Road.
3. The Chosen Pubs.
4. Conclusions.
5. Personal Qualifications.

6. A History of the Irish Pub
.
7. Acknowledgments.

8. Media Coverage.

9. Bibliography.
10. Places to Stay.

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