Bogus Irish pubs, with their plastic shamrocks and green bow ties, have threatened world domination in the past 15 years - but not in Belfast, where you can enjoy the real thing
Down a cobbled lane on the corner of Belfast`s Victoria Square stands The Kitchen Bar. Inside, old men waxed philosophical over whiskeys and stout. Girl students treated each other to real ale and crisps. While real musicians played jigs, reels and sad love songs, I navigated my way through a formidable, sizzling wedge of `Paddy`s Pizza`, made with thick rounds of traditional soda bread. With it came steaming mounds of champ, a uniquely Irish dish of mashed potato with vivid green flecks of spring onion.
No one does Irish pubs like the Irish. And Northern Ireland`s capital has spent the best part of 400 years getting it right, as I discovered on the the legendary Historical Pub Tour of Belfast, which features up to 13 of the United Kingdom`s finest hostelries, all reachable on foot, within the same city.
The tour includes, for example, Bittles Bar, in Victoria Square, which dates back to 1861 and pays spectacular homage to Ireland`s literary heritage. A customer has covered the walls of the green and gold, three-cornered lounge with his own oil paintings of Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, W B Yeats and Oscar Wilde. In delicious flight of fancy, the artist has depicted all six of these Irish men of letters holding court together at Bittles Bar.
Down Pottingers Entry, buried in a warren of alleyways, the Morning Star has been restored to the etched glass and green and gold splendour of Regency times. Inside, a brigade of bartenders bustled through a steamy turmoil of freshly washed glasses. Upstairs, Corinne McAlister, who runs the pub with her husband Seamus, produces food that combines the local with the exotic. A signature dish is `trio of kangaroo, ostrich and crocodile`. Corinne is Australian.
In Winecellar Entry, a mural of 17th-century street urchins, traders and buxom wenches sets the scene for Whites Tavern, the city`s oldest hostelry, with its wall to wall prints and memorabilia. As early as 1630, the pub would have hosted seafarers, tobacco traders and weavers. Now, courting couples canoodled beneath the same black, oak beams. A visiting Scottish pipe band, in full Highland dress, stood wielding whiskeys on the flagstone floors, barbecuing themselves by the roaring furnace of a fireplace.
In the spartan, white-painted brick and black-beamed labyrinth of Kelly`s Cellars in Bank Street, lanky barmen ducked beneath arches no more than five feet high. In a pub that saw its first drinkers in 1720, an overweight collie shuffled among the swell and the buzz of an Irish Saturday afternoon.
My stately pub crawl of one of the great capital cities of northern Europe ended in the grand manner. When Italian craftsmen were drafted in to decorate the banks, churches and other stately buildings of 19th-century Belfast, they also moonlighted to apply the finishing touches to the Crown Liquor Saloon on Great Victoria Street. Their legacy was a shimmering gin palace of gaslights, brass, tiles, marble and mosaic, windows of handpainted glass and a long bar inlaid with glass that demanded to be propped up.
In one of the few pubs in the United Kingdom to be owned by the National Trust, Bill Clinton famously sank a pint in 1995, using one of the 10 snugs that form the seated area. In these oaken enclaves, the convention is to budge up to welcome new arrivals. Barmen can still theoretically be summoned by bell-push, in a tradition that reaches back to the days when Victorian gentlemen needed a discreet corner for drinking and networking.
On one of the TVs perched incongruously overhead, I checked out the football results, letting slip that my team was Plymouth Argyle. "They play in green, don`t they?" said a bloke in a suit, clutching a slug of whiskey. "That`s right," I said, sensing some common ground. "I seen `em play…" came the reply. "That`s great," I said. "…and they`re shite," said the grinning whiskey-drinker.
To stand drinking in the Crown Liquor Saloon, is to know the full meaning of the blunt Belfast banter known as craic. No plasticised, Irish-themed pub could ever replicate it. "During the Troubles, people found it difficult to come in to the city," said the whiskey drinker`s girlfriend. "Now, Belfast is once again a happy and safe place – and the craic is as good as ever."
Where to stay
Malmaison Belfast, 34-38 Victoria Street: luxury boutique hotel occupying former warehouses in the heart of the city. Doubles £140.
FlyBe runs regular flights into Belfast City Airport from all over the UK. Lead-in fares include Birmingham £21.99 and Manchester £22.99.
The two-hour guided Historical Pub Tour of Belfast departs from the Crown Dining Rooms (upstairs in the Crown Liquor Saloon), Great Victoria Street, on Thursdays at 7 pm and Saturdays at 4 pm (May to October). Price £6.