Mike Gerrard - 2008-10-13
When you drink in the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast, you are drinking in history.
The Crown Bar, as it's also known, was first built in 1826 as the Railway Tavern, but was transformed in 1888 to become the Crown Liquor Saloon, a grand and ornate Victorian 'gin palace' which still survives today. It's as important a Belfast building as the City Hall or the Grand Opera House, which stands opposite.
The Crown is the most famous of Belfast's many historic bars but is the only one to be owned and protected by the National Trust, the British organisation which looks after over 300 historic houses and gardens, along with other buildings of national importance. It owes its place on the National Trust's register to the amazing renovation that took place in 1888, which involved teams of Italian architects working on its stained glass windows, tiled mosaics, elaborately-carved woodwork and granite bar.
The main bar was built in what is referred to as the 'altar style', unsurprising given the Italian architects were in Ireland to build Catholic churches in Belfast following the recent emancipation of Catholics in Northern Ireland.
The Railway Tavern had been owned by a Michael Flanagan, whose son Patrick was a well-travelled student of architecture. When Patrick returned to Belfast he wanted to brighten up the family pub a little and, when he assumed control of the pub from his father in 1888, he had his chance. He hired the Italian craftsmen in Belfast, getting them to work during evenings and weekends, in order to realise his ambitions and produce a miniature cathedral of a pub.
When you visit the Crown you won't see a traditional pub sign hanging outside, but must instead look down to the ground when you enter the main doorway. Mrs Flanagan, a protestant and loyal supporter of the British Crown, wanted the Railway Tavern to be renamed The Crown. Her Catholic husband, being a vigorous opponent of British rule in Ireland, reluctantly agreed to his wife's request but instead of a sign he built a mosaic on the floor of the entrance, gaining the satisfaction of seeing thousands of feet walking over it every day.
And they walk over it in such numbers still today. The Crown is as popular with local people as it is with curious visitors. It still has its little wooden snugs, private areas off the main bar which were popular in Victorian times when not everyone wanted to be seen drinking in public. The entrance doors are topped with carved wooden griffons and lions, and the snugs still have the bells that drinkers once used for calling the bar staff over.
When the sun shines through the stained glass windows and the place is full of people worshipping at the altar of the bar, there's no finer place in the whole of Belfast to enjoy a pint of Guinness, some Ardglass oysters, an Irish stew or Crown Champ, the pub's version of a traditional Irish dish of mashed potatoes with scallions, sausages and gravy. Just remember to drink a toast to Patrick Flanagan, the man who first created The Crown.
The Crown Bar
46 Great Victoria Street, Belfast, Co. Antrim BT2 7BA
Telephone: 028 9027 9901
Open Mon-Sat 11.30am-11pm, Sun 12.30-10pm