A long, long time ago I was the custodian of the door at Belfast’s oldest family-owned pub somewhere between Shaftesbury Square and The Crescent Arts Centre. A Belfast institution, Lavery’s had been a safe haven for an eclectic ensemble of Belfast boozers throughout the grimmest, most miserable days of the 70s and 80s.
Wee men from the Pass and Sandy Row populated the public bar in the afternoons, trekking between their bar stools and the bookies next door with their ever-hopeful yankees, round-robins and lucky 15s. Pints and half ‘uns were sipped or gulped depending on the horses and jockeys’ performances, but at least they didn’t have to buy ridiculously expensive mixers as the bar supplied free dashes of white and brown lemonade for whisky and brandy.
In the eighties the punks, skins, bikers and psycho-billies adorned the back bar which was once linked to the public bar by a tiny barely-roofed passage that reeked of piss from the bogs. Students too had copped on it was a worthy replacement for the Club Bar when it pulled down its shutters and dismantled its security cages. By the early-nineties Lavery’s was operating the latest closing times available 7 nights per week ( it cost you 50p in after ten for the pleasure) and it was truly becoming a melting pot.
After years of loyal service putting my grant cheque and part time wages into Lavery’s tills while running the door on a nearby late-night arts venue / club / den of iniquity, Lavery’s head doorman Jackie and his deputy ‘Crap Fingers’, (he had weirdly short digits with random knuckles), asked me did I fancy a start on their door? Does a bear shit in the woods? Are Linfield bastards forever? – Of course I friggin’ did, even though I was also in a well-salaried teaching and training post courtesy of the EU Peace I monies filling the coffers of the city.
I started part time, three nights a week. The ceasefires were bedding down gingerly, I had my first mortgage and a young daughter aged three. It was a watershed time of life for me, for Belfast and for Eric Cantona who was banned for nine months for justifiably flying feet first over the Selhurst Park crowd barrier in defence of his mother. Thing was, I was miserable in my full-time job so I walked out of it and in to the full time bosom of life and danger with the Lavery’s. Absolute head case. It was brilliant.
In the next four years I learned more about this city and our people than Jonathan Bardon (as brilliant as he was), Wendy Austen and Constable Hanvey – the first cop ever to arrest me, combined could manage. To stand on the door of Lavery’s watching the queues form each night as the bar physically extended and the crowds flocked relentlessly was an education.
To quickly learn who belonged to which organisation from our confetti of vowels and consonants and who could or maybe would still pull a gun on you was important. I got to know on a face to face, name to name, basis the young men who filled column inches in the weekend tabloids. One took such a shine to me he offered £400 cash for my home address and I don’t think it was to become my pen pal.
There was also the new breed of pharmaceutical distributers; admirable young entrepreneurs exploiting the political and security dispensation to meet market demand from the young for stimulants to enhance their energy and stamina when hitting the town. I loved that the ones from Divis had the best Protestant work ethic.
Students from Armagh and Tyrone, not yet quite civilised, learned the hard way in Freshers Week about Belfast social etiquette at the doors of bars which were yet to see a proliferation of security cameras.
Paramilitary commanders demanded the lifting of bars on some of their less law-abiding members and in the run of the mill of everyday life, drunks threatened you, boked on your boots and telegraphed hay-maker punches three minutes in advance.
In short, I learned to mediate, assess and survive. In the midst of it all, I managed a year long teaching postgrad, performed my initial nuptials, made life-long friendships and developed a skill set that would eventually see me return to education and politics less of a conflict resolution theorist and more a practitioner.
All perfect grounding to become a tour guide.
Photo courtesy of Clive Moore.