Malachi O'Doherty: My Kelly's Cellars

With its listed status under threat, the author and journalist makes the case for protecting one of Belfast's oldest pubs, traditionally a haven for radicals, artists and tourists, for future generations

I used to live in Kelly’s Cellars. Well, I didn’t actually sleep overnight in the place, but I may indeed have napped in one of the cubicles from time to time.

That was long ago when the pub’s revolutionary history and general air of dilapidation made it a home from home for journalists, assorted lefties, arty types and members of the Official IRA, or Stickies as we called them.

An industrious shoplifter named Billy would check your collar size before going out and stealing a shirt for you. Reporters liked the place because they could meet IRA men and IRA men liked it because they could meet reporters.

The bar was a place of intense political discussion in which people hammered out theories about a federal Ireland, a new Ireland, a socialist Ireland, a libertarian Ireland. Sometime Provos would come in and they and the Stickies would scowl at each other.

Kelly's, which was built in 1720, would start to fill around five o’clock with people coming out of work for their first pint before going home for tea. There was nothing to eat in the bar itself except Tayto crisps and KP nuts. No one expected to have a meal there. It probably wouldn’t have been safe anyway.

Many of those who used the bar as a stepping stone to home would come back on a Saturday afternoon and spend hours there, arguing and laughing, often more at ease than they would be in their own living rooms. There was no music then, recorded or live, just chatter and the television, with everything coming to a hush when the news came on and people could see if they would be able to get home.

I was a reporter on the Sunday News more than 40 years ago when I was asked to write a piece on the threat to dickey up the old place by getting rid of some of its brasses in a bid to attract a better class of clientele. The squat and worn look of the bar suited people who didn’t think that going out was about dressing up or drinking wine. Nobody drank wine in those days.

Kelly's has been garnished since with embellishments of its character: the old bicycle hanging on the wall outside, the Irish language signage, celtic symbols and a tribute inside to the United Irishmen, who met and connived there in the late 1700s.

Back in the 1970s, ‘Gaelige agus Failte’ would have struck most of us as a warning to stay away. It would have suggested a trite and pious Christian Brother-informed culture rather than something radical or cool, as it perhaps does today.

A life of studious drinking was thought to be a viable escape route from that sort of thing. Back then craic was crack. Overt, self conscious Irishness was either for tourists or for people who took themselves too seriously. Irish speakers were likely to be diligent Catholics and teetotaling pioneers. The Fainne and the pin went together. If you don’t know what that means, be glad of it.

All of this traditionalism seems a bit contrived, an effort to remake the bar in its own image, overstating the point that it is already native and historic. You get that anyway from the crumpled floor and the old fireplace.

I suspect some of the customers back then complained when they cleaned up the toilets, which I presume they have done since.

A decent historian 100 years hence will be able to look at photographs of the bar as it is now and place it to the very decade because culture has changed and Kelly’s has changed with it and will again.

But the merit in the evolving face of Kelly’s Cellars, or any other old building, is that it follows the cultural shifts of its environment. Those shifts can’t be held fast in place by preservation orders. In another 40 years, its facade will be a different kind of statement, perhaps in Arabic or Chinese.

It is the building that doesn’t change. It is the building that should be left alone.

The proposed delisting of Kelly's Cellars and 16 other historic buildings in Belfast by the Department of the Environment has been unanimously opposed by Belfast City Council's Shadow Planning Committee. A final decision on the listed status of those buildings will be made by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in the weeks ahead. Image courtesy of Lorenzo Moscia.