The Opening of Kelly’s Cellars
Kelly’s Cellars is said to have opened its doors on Thursday 14th March 1720, making it one of the oldest public houses in Belfast. It is also one of the best known.
It was established by Mr Hugh Kelly as a bonded warehouse selling rum, gin and whiskey.
An article in the Belfast Telegraph by Colin J Robb (7th March 1958) suggests the pub was originally known as Kelly’s Vaults. Most drinking places at this time were known as ‘vaults’ due to their dry, vaulted chambers with cavity walls which were ideal conditions for storing wine and spirits. Alternatively, Cathal O’Byrne in his book As I Roved Out (1946) refers to the pub as Kelly’s Stores.
From ‘Back of the River’ to Bank Street
Back of the River
Kelly’s Cellars is a 2-storey, white-washed building situated on Bank Street, off the main thoroughfare of Royal Avenue (which was previously known Hercules Street) with Bank Street leading to Chapel Lane.
The street itself has an interesting history. Originally it was a pathway through fields known as the Back of the River, as it ran alongside the river Farset. The river then passed through Castle Place and along High Street.
“Bank Lane was called at one time the Back of the River, on account of the river running down one side of it, through Mr Napier’s brewery and under the Bank Buildings, into Castle Place”Thomas Gaffikin Belfast 50 Years Ago 1875
On a 1757 map it is recorded as Cunningham’s Row, as Waddell Cunningham’s house was situated at its entrance. The area was not the most salubrious due largely to its proximity to nearby businesses such as Sam Johnson’s Tannery and Glueworks and James Magill’s brewery. In addition, Hercules Street was renowned for its numerous fleshers or butchers. In the days before refrigeration, these premises must have added their own substantial odours to the ‘atmosphere’.
“…it [is] a cause for wonder how Waddell Cunningham, Gentleman, could be content to reside, as reside he did in his neat little private house, within smelling distance of the operations of the aforesaid manufacturers. But private and retired gentlemen, who had, perhaps, made their money in some equally odoriferous trade, were not too squeamish in the old days. Pungent smells were wholesome, they would tell you”.Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
Only in the early nineteenth century when the Provincial Bank was constructed in Hercules Place did the street become known as Bank Lane. Around 1865 it was ‘promoted’ to Bank Street.
It was originally a narrow alley, but in 1874 the street was widened by 10ft to accommodate the building of St Mary’s Hall and in 1890 a National School (on the site of the old Cunningham house).
In 1822 Bank Lane is recorded as having 34 houses occupied by 93 males and 102 females.
By 1839 Bank Lane was home to professionals and skilled artisans, such as
- No 1 John Hartley – public notary
- No 3 John Quinn – surgeon
- No 30 Joseph Patterson – cabinetmaker
- No 9 John McKee – dentist
- No 2 John Gillis, Esq
There were also three boarding houses, two tailors and two publicans, excluding Kelly & Co.
However, by 1852 the street’s occupants tended to have more manual professions – whitesmith (a metalworker), shoemaker, cooper, basketmaker and glazier.
By 1901 there were just 13 private residences in Bank Street housing 89 folk. There were a variety of occupations but the majority were labourers, butchers or second-hand clothes dealers.
Most labourers at the time were hired by the day and had to queue up every morning in the hope of getting a day’s work. No job meant no pay. No money meant no food on the table. Many of these very small homes housed one family on the ground floor and another on the upper level.
A decade later, the population of Bank Street had shrunk to 62 souls. Again, there is evidence of 2 families sharing the one accommodation. For example, at No 15 on the ground floor lived Samuel and Mary Ann Matthews and their little daughter Paulina. The McCarthy family (a husband, wife and 3 sons) resided on the upper level. This was a ‘two up two down’ house, meaning four rooms in total.
Kelly’s Cellars was a part of this community. Not just in providing refreshment and entertainment. As the houses were small and usually filled to capacity, the back room of the pub was used for wakes. Irish wakes are well-attended affairs and Kelly’s cellars provided a more roomy venue for the deceased of Bank Street.
The pub is reputed to be one of the regular haunts of the United Irishmen when they were planning their rebellion. It is said that on one occasion when the dreaded Red Coats suddenly entered the inn in the search of conspirators, Henry Joy McCracken was forced to hide behind the bar counter.
“If local legend is to be believed, the United Irishmen when plotting divided their time between these cellars and a secret room in the roof-space of the 2nd Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street; true or not. This nicely symbolises the alliance upon which their plots were founded”C E B Brett Buildings of Belfast 1967
Inside Kelly’s Cellars
Stepping inside Kelly’s Cellars really is like stepping into the past. A well-worn phrase, but in this case, totally accurate.
The pub is small and dark with uneven floors and dark wood furniture. Every surface, including the ceiling, is ornamented with photos, paintings, kettles, saddles, drinking memorabilia, even chamber-pots from by-gone days!
Lurking unobtrusively in shadowy corners you can come across old mangles, pots and pans and items which defy modern explanation but your great-granny could tell you its use! This is not an affectation, but a representation of centuries worth of daily life.
One (of many) unusual features in Kelly’s Cellars is a low stone archway behind the bar. This means that staff have to stoop to pass from one end of the counter to the other. The reason for this goes back many years.
The “elbow-worn” counter was originally much lower than today as the floor on the staff side of the bar was much lower than that on the customer side. The counter was built at a level to allow bar staff, working on the lower floor, to place drinks on the bar without difficulty. This meant that the bar was unusually low for the patrons of the public house.
“….the downstairs rooms with knee-height bar, low archways, and blackened snugs”C E B Brett Buildings of Belfast 1967
However, following a cave-in, when the ground of the bar collapsed, the new staff bar floor was raised to match the level of the public bar with the counter raised. One consequence of this is that the arch behind the bar is now much lower than previously (at a height of 5ft) due to the raising of the floor.
Upstairs at the ‘thatched’ bar with its large white-washed chimney-breast, black iron kitchenalia and open fire the sense of history continues. In the 1950’s this room was the first cocktail bar in Belfast.
You could spend hours looking at the photographs, which chart not only the time-line of the pub, but of the city itself. Look out for some famous faces too!
Kelly’s Cellars has had various owners and undergone several renovations over the centuries. One unusual object found on the premises was a tombstone. This uninscribed sandstone headstone has been in the pub at least from the 1880’s, but to whom it belonged or why it was left in the inn is a mystery.
“One can imagine a customer arriving – in a horse-drawn carriage of course – unloading the stone and saying ‘Would you mind keeping this for me? I’ll call back for it later”Ulsterman’s Diary 2nd June 1961
Kelly’s Cellars ‘Finds’
Also supposedly stored (at least at one time) in the attic of Kelly’s Cellars were the workings and painted canvases of an old diorama. This type of three-dimensional model of a scene with moving parts was a very popular form of public entertainment. A Belfast physician Thomas Corry had great international success in the 1860’s and 70’s with his two large dioramas ‘Ireland: its scenery, music and antiquities’ and ‘Ireland in shade and sunshine’.
“And, by the way, in the loft above the shop there lay for years, amid the cobwebs and the dust (and for all we know they may lie there yet) the great wooden rollers, with their ropes and blocks and tackling, and reams and reams of painted canvas that once was the famous ‘Diorama’ – the first moving pictures – of that distinguished physician and showman, Dr Corry, of Chichester Street, Belfast”Cathal O’Byrne As I Roved Out 1946
Other ‘treasures’ reputed to be held in Kelly’s Cellars include an elephant’s tooth and the iron key to the old Smithfield Gaol.
Patrons of Kelly’s Cellars
The bar has always been a popular venue with businessmen, writers and journalists. Some of its patrons included the poet Louis MacNeice, actors J G Devlin and Albert Sharp and authors Richard Hayward and Jack Loudan. In the past women were not allowed to enter – even up to the 1960’s unaccompanied women were not permitted entry to Kelly’s Cellars. Times have changed with the bar now popular with all.
Public Support for Kelly’s Cellars
In 2015, for some inexplicable reason, the Department of the Environment proposed ‘delisting’ Kelly’s Cellars despite its age and historic connections. This would remove its listed (protected) status allowing the premises to be altered, rebuilt or even demolished to make way for new shops, offices etc. (Kelly’s Cellars prime city centre location would be of huge interest to many developers).
However the resulting outcry extended far beyond the city of Belfast. Indeed, it was an American, Megan Finlay, from Massachusetts who started an online petition to save Kelly’s Cellars. With thousands of signatures from all over the globe, the Department reversed its decision.
Kelly’s Cellars Today
Today, Kelly’s Cellars retains its lime-washed edifice with black trim and boardings. It has two large front windows divided into many panes. The tiny upper windows really evoke a sense of by-gone days. The pub is surrounded on two sides by towering commercial and industrial buildings. The side view gives a glimpse of St Mary’s on Chapel Lane, Belfast’s first Catholic Church.
Kelly’s Cellars continues in the long tradition of the Irish pub by providing live music 6 evenings a week. Though not a restaurant, Irish stew is served on the basis of ‘when its gone, its gone’.
The staff are friendly and welcoming and take pride in working in this beautiful and historic public house. To catch a glimpse of ‘old Belfast’ with its alleys and entries and an authentic old pub, a visit to Kelly’s Cellars is a must.
Kelly’s Cellars, 30-32 Bank Street, Belfast BT1 1HL
Tel: 028 90246058
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