Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boom Boom Boom Boom - Belfast Before The Fall


Johnny Rogan's excellent 2005 No Surrender overview of Van Morrison's deep connectivity with his Northern Irish roots includes recollections of Belfast's thriving rhythm and blues scene of the mid-Sixties. One woman recalled seeing Morrison's Them at the city's Maritime Hotel in College Square North and how: "I knew those days were special and everybody there knew those days were special. There was such an aura about that time in Belfast - and it was never to be repeated. Ever".

Some posts ago in an article about Irish hard rock group Thin Lizzy I mentioned the huge raft of Northern Irish entertainment venues which closed over the course of the Troubles and indeed two of the "Ballrooms of Romance" have been in the news recently. The yet intact Orpheus ballroom in York Street is facing final demolition and there are efforts afoot to restore the Floral Hall near Belfast Zoo. The 1932-vintage Orpheus was situated on the top floor of the Co-Operative department store while details of the latter's history since 1936 can be found on the ever wonderful Lord Belmont catalogue of Irish architecture. Lulu, The Small Faces and Pink Floyd all played at The Floral Hall and the then 
barbed-wire enclosed building was used as a counting centre during the Northern Ireland Border Poll of  1973 - a year when 250 people died in Troubles-related deaths across the British Isles. It closed as an entertainment venue in 1972 and currently is used for storing feed for the city's zoo animals.

The details of the tragic loss of that once thriving Belfast - dance venues, restaurants, cafes, pubs, cinemas and theatres alike - are fascinating to recall yet terribly melancholy to reflect upon.  This encapsulated for myself with regard to the North Street area of Belfast city centre near the long-destroyed Smithfield market. Two other excellent examples of art deco design in the city alongside the ballrooms mentioned above can be found here - namely the derelict Bank of Ireland site and the Sinclair Building opposite. Older readers of the blog will of course recall The Elephant Bar in the street with its famous five-feet high grey wooden elephant outside the entrance. The pub survived many bomb blasts of the Troubles but closed in the Eighties. I have seen many pictures of North Street from the Fifties and Sixties that are so redolent of a bustling North American city of the period - today it is a derelict, haunted and depressing thoroughfare albeit awaiting radical redevelopment by way of university expansion.


An extraordinarily large raft of entertainment venues existed in Sixties Belfast up to the period when serious civil disorder commenced in mid-1969 - comparable to any major port city of its size and enough indeed to warrant its own listings newspaper City Week. An excellent showband feature on the Culture Northern Ireland website notes that - besides The Orpheus and The Maritime Hotel - the main venues in the city centre for live music at the time included The Plaza in Chichester Street which was regarded as the city's best, The Fiesta in Hamilton Street, Romano's in Queen Street, Maxim's in Fountain Street, The Tudor Hall and The Elizabethan in Royal Avenue, The Orchid in King Street, The Astor in College Court, The Boom Boom Rooms (The Starlite) in Arthur Square and The Gala in Victoria Street. 

As noted in the earlier post there were also many busy venues outside the city beside the Floral Hall in Newtownabbey - namely The Embassy in Derry, The Strand in Portstewart, The Arcadia  and Kellys in Portrush, The Savoy in Portadown, The Flamingo in Ballymena, The Locarno in Portaferry, The Star in Omagh, The Top Hat in Lisburn, The Pallidrome in Strabane and Caproni's in Bangor. Of all the details of that lost time and place surely the greatest of all relates to the latter Palais de Danse which bore the legend Through These Doors Have Passed The Most Beautiful Women In The World.

Some of the other Belfast dancehalls that are fondly recalled on internet forums included Betty Staff's in Anne Street, Cecil Clarke's in Upper Donegall Street and Sammy Houston's Jazz Club on Victoria Street. One of the most oft-used pieces of archive television footage of a city centre bombing in the early Seventies was captured near the dancehall in Donegall Street. Anne Street meanwhile was very close to the site of the 1972 Abercorn restaurant atrocity and Victoria Street is the location of Europe and possibly the world's most bombed hotel - The Europa. 

All of these venues held lunchtime and weekday dance sessions and - incredulously enough to consider at a time when Britain is now populated in the main by functioning alcoholics - were dry. The Plaza also set Saturday afternoons aside for children. Terri Hooley's Hooleygan biography recalls  how at Betty Staff's ballroom the owner would separate overly amorous couples with a blast of hairspray though didn't seem to mind the use of cannabis. A public commentator on one forum recalled the night he politely asked a lady for a dance at The Fiesta and was met with the reply "Yes you can have it - I don't want it". In another thread about what people missed from days gone by in Belfast a poster stated:

To those who feel better away from Belfast, good riddance, we have the best people in the world here with a small minority of so-called sectarian bigots on all sides. Forget those imbeciles and concentrate on what we had and have. People of my age in their Seventies met girlfriends and our wives in the great dance halls in Belfast, we could leave girls home to any part of the city and get home safely. The girls from Gallaher's taught me to jive in The Plaza on Monday afternoons. Another thing about old Belfast, it was the working class people who kept the country going. 

The vast majority of these venues did not survive the initial surge of the Troubles and by the time I was growing up in the Seventies the city centre by night had a heavy presence of soldiers and policemen, was cordoned off with a ring of security fences, looked and felt as dead as a ghost town and frequently radiated menace. I used to sense this a lot when driving through Waring Street at nighttime in the family car - now at the heart of the thriving Cathedral Quarter and used for many location shots in the acclaimed crime drama The Fall. Indeed the walk home my father took in the late Fifties after leaving my mother off from their city centre dance would not have been replicated even by Batman 15 years later.

Van Morrison held to the fact that there was a radical creative gulf between the Them of the Maritime stage and the group's two subsequent recorded albums. That said and acknowledged, have a listen to the powerful and driving I Can Only Give You Everything from 1966 on the group's second LP - as written by Derry's Phil Coulter and covered by both The Troggs and The Liverpool Five. Remember that old Belfast and the people who walked those streets in peace - I desperately wish I could have been one of them. 




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