Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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


Bank Street, Belfast

In the spring of 1798, a 30-year-old Belfast Presbyterian came a-sprinting down a country lane alongside the city’s’ River Farset, dashed through the doors of a nearby tavern and hid himself beneath the counter. For Henry Joy McCracken it was another day on the run. In due course, a detachment of British redcoats arrived, interrogated the tavern keeper, prodded the grain sacks along the wall, cast suspicious eyes on the silent faces that watched them leave. McCracken’s days were increasingly numbered. On 7th June, the United Irishman leader commanded a rebel army in open battle with the King’s Redcoats outside Antrim. His men were defeated and, five weeks later, McCracken was court-martialed and hanged on Belfast’s Cornmarket.

The tavern where McCracken hid was Kelly’s Cellars, the oldest licenced premises in Belfast and also one of its most alluring. The original two-storey pub was built in 1720 by Belfast merchant Hugh Kelly who kept it as a bonded warehouse; rum, gin and whiskey were his mainstays. It stood in a field just off Crooked Lane, one of the quieter roads leading into Belfast, in an age when the population was little more than 6000. The River Farset is now underground but, in Hugh Kelly’s day, small boats frequently traversed it, laden with flour and wheat.

Belfast has always been a centre of radical politics. In the 18th century, its predominantly Presbyterian population sought to overturn the heavy discriminations they faced under the Penal Laws. Kelly’s Cellars became a stonghold for these voices of dissent. It is widely believed that the pub was one of the meeting places for McCracken, Wolfe Tone and the other committee members of the United Irishmen in the run up to the disastrous rebellion of 1798. Over two centuries later, it is easy to imagine such characters plotting revolution here over dark ales and tankards of mead. The pub has changed little since their day.

An unassuming doorway leads into the a long, narrow vaulted emporium, a cavern of uneven white-washed walls, misshapen windows, low arches, splintery whiskey barrels, gleaming copper pots, crooked enamel signs, rough sandy floors and whispering shadows. Hanging from the old beams above are oil lamps, buckets, brassware, watering cans, kettles, bellows and a dusty harp. The tobacco-stained walls combine tongue and groove with the original brickwork and are decorated with memorabilia relating to Belfast’s often difficult past. There are portraits of both McCracken and Tone, sepia-toned images of Dublin during the carnage of the Easter Rising of 1916, stark photographs of distraught women gazing at the wreckage of bombs in more recent troubles.

Hugh Kelly, the last of the family to own the pub, died in 1863. Ten years later, the Belfast drinks magnate Sam Young purchased the premises. One of the pot-boys working in the pub at this time was ‘Wee Joe’ Devlin, a charismatic working class lad who would go on to become the greatest force of nationalism in West Belfast and Grandmaster of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. When Devlin helped Sam Young win a seat as Nationalist MP for West Cavan, Young persuaded his charge that he too should enter politics. Devlin’s portrait once hung above the bar where he served but has since been superseded by Che Guevara.

On Easter Tuesday 1941, 180 Luftwaffe bombers struck Belfast in an assault that lasted five and a half hours. Over 900 people died and 35,000 houses were damaged. The back of Kelly’s bar was converted to rubble. The following year, Young, King & Co. sold the pub to visionary businessman Jimmy Tohill. Few believed the near dilapidated pub stood a chance of surviving. The next thirty years were to be a golden age in the history of the pub. Tohill white-washed the black inner walls, gave the original mahogany wood a thorough revamp. He refused to make any structural alterations. ‘You shouldn’t pull down history’, he said. Instead, he decorated the place with odds and ends he had collected - rare coins, chinaware, copper measures, elephants teeth, sporting prints and such like. The many journalists, ship workers, sportsmen, bankers and politicians who drank there knew it simply as ‘The Cellars’. Photographs of some of these still adorn the walls, such as cross-country champion and sporting journalist Johnny Shanks who used to hold court from one of these hallowed arches, stubbing out cigarette after cigarette. Playbills along the walls recall the age when this was a great thespian hang out; producer Tyrone Guthrie frequently came here looking for props. The novelist Hugh MacCartan also drank in Kelly’s, calling it ‘the only authentic Bohemia I have ever known’. One of the highlights of the Tohill era was a classical mural of Bacchus and satyrs painted on the ceiling upstairs by a then unknown Sydney Smith. For reasons difficult to comprehend today, this work was subsequently smothered in red paint.

Belfast is a city that is rapidly discovering a sense of freedom it never imagined it would have. It is magnificent to see the city centre liberated from barricades and checkpoints, its streetscapes renovated and modernized, its citizens increasingly cheerful and debonair. A number of the city centre’s pubs still have strict rules prohibiting patrons from wearing hoodies, tracksuits, tattoos, even caps. You can only get into some pubs when the landlord unbolts the doors. Kelly’s Cellars is different. Remarkably, the pub was never bombed during over thirty years of considerable political tension. ‘Fáilte Go Teach Ui Cheallaigh’ proclaims the welcome above its white washed entrance.

Lily and Martin Mulholland purchased the pub in 2004. Like every owner before them, they have been careful to leave the name above the door and the interior within just as it was back in McCracken’s day. ‘The only change is that it’s gotten older,’ says Mighty Quin, an 88 year old builder who has been drinking stout in Kelly’s for 66 years. Nearly 300 years after it was founded, Kelly’s manages to find its feet somewhere between everyman drinking pub, political meeting place and historic museum. Folk music is a regular fare at weekends. As the pints and shorts slide across the bar, so the session players gather momentum by a roaring turf fire, a riot of button accordionz, banjos, bodhrans, tin whistles, concertinas, flutes and fiddles. Between the reels, the Irish language is heard throughout the bar, used by staff and customers alike. There is no television but, if you’re hungry by day, you might get lucky with a bowl of Irish stew, champ and sausages or an Ulster fry.



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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