The Sweety Bottle Comes to the Grand Opera House
Playwrights Joe and Gerard Brennan recall the shebeen era in Belfast, when their Falls Road family sweet shop doubled up as a safe haven for affable drinkers
Watchmaker, meat factory worker, fruit and vegetable wholesaler, barman, woodworker, labourer, shutter and joiner, property developer, sunbed owner. Joe Brennan has had a bewildering variety of occupations in a career spent carving out a living for himself in his native Belfast, to which must now be added yet another: playwright.
The play that Brennan has written is a collaborative effort, co-authored with his son, Gerard (below left). Both have previously published e-books, but The Sweety Bottle is their first venture into theatrical territory. Where, I wonder, did the impetus to write it come from?
Gerard traces the origins of the project to innumerable conversations that happened round the family dinner table. 'Hearing all these stories from my dad at Sunday dinner about the shop my granda used to run, and from my uncles and aunties as well, and my granda himself, of course, it always played in the back of my head it would be a great idea to write about.
'And then my dad had said he wanted to work on a play,' he continues, 'and it became a thing that me and dad started doing together, almost like a fun exercise. I was working in Belfast, and dad had his sunbed shop up here on the Falls Road, and we would meet at lunchtimes, as I worked so close.'
The 'shop' that Gerard's grandfather used to run, which gives the Brennan's play its title, was no ordinary retail outlet. The house it occupied, in the Lower Falls area, has long since been demolished and re-developed, but Joe Brennan has vivid memories of how it once looked and felt like.
'It was actually a Housing Executive property,' he remembers. 'We lived three doors up from the shop, in Raglan Street. There was three or four different people in it, from what I could remember, before my father. He took over the shop on the understanding that he was going to carry it on as a sweet shop. But he had bigger plans.'
Joe chuckles, before explaining further. 'The bigger plans were "Let's go get some drink and get a shebeen going here!" So the back of the shop, where the people would have lived that owned it, became a lock-up. Although it wasn't locked up that often, as it was open from early in the morning till late at night.'
Through the doors of Brennan's, as it was originally known, came innumerable Falls Road characters, interested not so much in the jars of confectionery displayed on shelves and in the window, as in the smoke-filled living room that lay beyond them. Its cosiness and camaraderie became a ready point of refuge from the mayhem that was Belfast in the 1970s.
'It was known as Brennan's for about three months before it was christened The Sweety Bottle,' Joe remembers. 'There was never a sign up, but everybody knew it. It was the drinkers that named it. It was called The Sweety Jar at first, and then some wise guy came up with The Sweety Bottle, because you got a bottle of stout or wine or something in it.'
Joe was 16 when The Sweety Bottle opened, and regularly worked shifts in the new family business. The main reason for the popularity of the shebeen during the Troubles era, as opposed to the many pubs and clubs that you could legally drink in, was simple – safety.
'It was safer,' Joe explains. 'You weren't going to get blown up in a sweetie shop because nobody knew you were there, except the people that drank in it. The Sweety Bottle was one of the most famous shebeens, because it was the first, and because it was family-run.'
And although the play the Brennan team has written about The Sweety Bottle is set during what Joe calls 'one of the worst times' of Northern Ireland's sectarian conflict, both writers are adamant that it is not intended as 'a Troubles play', or a commentary on the political situation.
'First and foremost it's a comedy,' says Gerard. 'A bit of entertainment. But we did feel a certain responsibility to show there is a seedier side to visiting illegal drinking dens, there is a darker side.
'The play takes place during the Troubles, and the Troubles are acknowledged because of that. But we also wanted to tell the other stories, about the normal people just getting by in a crazy situation, and doing it with a really wry grin as well.'
Shebeen culture is, say the Brennans, virtually dead in modern-day Belfast, and in a way they lament its passing. 'The humour still remains in the bars,' says Joe, 'but there was more of it in The Sweety Bottle, for a variety of reasons.
'One reason would be that there was no TV, so you had to make your own entertainment. People were competing over who could tell the best joke or the best story, who had the story first. If you stand in a pub now, it's television or people on their phones.'
Not, however, in The Sweety Bottle, where the numerous stories, anecdotes and incidents from the shop's highly colourful history, sifted by the Brennans in their lunchtime writing sessions, are knitted together to give what Gerard describes as 'a strong spine' to the two-act narrative. 'There was actually so many stories, we couldn't fit them all in. So we had to choose the ones that made us both laugh the most.'
Laughter – and lots of it – is one thing that has, the Brennans emphasise, been central to the entire Sweety Bottle project. 'It's so enjoyable,' smiles Joe. 'It just gives you such a buzz to sit there and watch people laugh at what you've written.
'I came out of my shop the other day, and the whole Brassneck company was there – the production company, six actors, the stage manager, the artistic director. And they're all getting into cars to head up to rehearsals. And I'm standing there thinking to myself, "There's our play away up the Falls Road." It's fantastic.'
The Sweety Bottle runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast, until March 30.