If you’re from Belfast I bet you’ve walked past it many times, but never heard of Sugarhouse Entry? If I’m wrong I most humbly apologise, but in any case, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s one of the forgotten parts of old Belfast town.
The area of High Street is of course famous for its Entries, mostly the ones that lead to Ann Street. These once dark, dingy and often dangerous alleyways from the earliest days of Belfast town serviced the nearby Farset River and docks; the haunt of sailors and ladies of the night! Nowadays however, they are a thriving hub for businesses, cafes and bars, with their walls providing a living canvas for the artists of Daisy Chain Inc who have installed some incredible artwork in recent months.
However, on the other side of High Street, directly opposite Pottinger’s Entry and running to Waring Street the now closed off Sugarhouse Entry was one of the most interesting and unique of the old Entries.
It got its name from being the site of a sugar refinery operated by noted merchant George McCartney, one of Belfast’s Sovereigns, appointed by the local landlord the Sovereign was both First Citizen and Chief Magistrate. He was granted the lease in 1678, a time when sugar was a new commodity and seen as a luxury item, a status symbol even. It was primarily used for cooking, sweetening alcohol and making sweets, but as the trend towards imbibing teas and ever so exotic coffees grew, tea sets with fancy sugar bowls and tongs became all the rage for Belfast’s well to do.
The sugar refinery was a symbol of the expansion of trade and commerce in 17th and 18th century Belfast, a town that was already building a reputation for tanning (of the leather variety, not sun beds unlike today) centred in William Waring’s tannery. So successful was that trade they renamed Broad Street as Waring Street. Additionally, delft, made in the Pothouse on Waring Street was the other notable manufacturing success and together with McCartney’s sugar refining operation nearby, the area was bringing huge amounts of much needed cash into the town, something that pleased Belfast landlords, the Chichester family greatly.
The sugar trade was of course inextricably linked to the slave trade and by the end of the 18th century, many of Belfast’s Presbyterian radicals suggested a sugar boycott until slavery was abolished. However, this was complicated by the fact that leading Presbyterian United Irishman William Tennant, one of Belfast’s most successful merchants was up to his neck in sugar. Not literally of course, think of the mess! Thus, the boycott never took off and sugar refining thrived for many years.
By the late 18th century, Belfast was renowned for being the most radical place in Ireland and Sugarhouse Entry was situated slap bang in the middle of it. The entry was most famous for being the site of Peggy Barclay’s “Dr Franklin Tavern”, the regular meeting place of the Society of United Irishmen. Formed in 1791 in the Crown Tavern on the opposite side of High Street, the society that vowed to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter to rid Ireland of the British, initially met in the open.
Many of their key members such as Henry Joy McCracken, William Tennant, Samuel Neilson, Thomas Russell and William Drennan all lived nearby. Leader of the United Irishmen Wolfe Tone was a frequent visitor and it is clear the Belfast radicals very much inspired his thinking. However by the mid 1790s due to increasing hostility from the British authorities, they were forced underground and the society met regularly in the upstairs room of Peggy Barclay’s under the guise of The Muddler’s Club.
However, they were betrayed by the tavern’s barmaid, Belle Martin, a young woman of rare beauty, originally from Portaferry in County Down. She was a paid British informer, in today’s parlance a “tout” and her information led to the arrest of many of the United Irishmen. As a consequence, four of the “united men” were executed at Blaris near Lisburn in May 1797 and Belle’s name has gone down in infamy amongst Ireland’s rebel hearts.
At the start of the 19th century and following the defeat of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, the tavern became known as Nugent’s Den, named after the famed commanding officer of the Scottish and English soldiers that often frequented it. This in part led to it gaining a reputation for raucousness and ribaldry, so much so that in 1817 an order was made that “no lady should be carried in a sedan chair in Sugarhouse Entry after midnight”. Sadly I can’t shed any further light on why this rather bizarre dictat was required….but I’d love to know more!
If you’re in the area late at night, be on the lookout for the ghost of Galloper Thompson, a former manager of the sugarhouse who died in 1800. It is said his headless spectre can be seen riding a ghostly horse from York Street in north Belfast to Rosemary Street, but it’s unlikely anyone sober or sane has actually seen this spooky event.
The site of Peggy Barclay’s later became the Bambridge Hotel which operated for many decades under the McGlade family who owned many licensed premises in the city centre. The Bambridge was also famous as billiard rooms and an oyster house, but sadly along with much of the surrounding area, was destroyed during the Blitz in 1941 and none of the buildings in Sugarhouse Entry were ever rebuilt.
It was finally closed off during the Troubles to protect a nearby government building as part of the ring of steel security cordon established in 1972 and never re-opened.
Just to finish on a sweet note, the scrumptious sounding Sugar Loaf Inn was once situated at the High Street end of Sugarhouse Entry beside the then open Farset River. Given the smelly, dangerous nature of that area at the time and the fact the Farset was a dumping ground for animal and human waste, as well as animal and human corpses (occasionally), I’m guessing the hostelry wasn’t as sweet as it sounds.