Pint Pleasures: Five Pubs in Northern Ireland / The Northern Irish Bar

CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> Five Northern Ireland Pubs

Previous Pint Pleasures -March 9, 2006

guinness eileen

The Botanic Inn, 23-27 Malone Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland

guinness eileen

The Kitchen Bar, 1 Victoria Square, Belfast, Northern Ireland

guinness eileen

The Eglantine Inn, 32 Malone Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland

guinness eileen

McGrath's Bar, 4 Rathfriland Street, Banbridge, County Down, Northern Ireland

guinness eileen

The Queens Arms, 7 Bridge Street, Coleraine, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland

Recently Andrew and I spent a week in Northern Ireland, which is quite a challenging experience for a cask ale drinker. It's not impossible to find cask ale pubs in Northern Ireland; the CAMRA Northern Ireland website lists 22 pubs. But this total accounts for all 6 counties, with 6 of the pubs in Belfast, 7 in County Down and 5 in County Antrim, leaving 2 in County Londonderry, 1 in County Fermanagh, and none in County Tyrone. And of these 22 pubs, 8 are part of the JD Wetherspoons/Lloyds No 1 pub chain.

So even though Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, it's easiest if a cask ale drinker treats it as a foreign country. After all, when I visit France I'm quite happy drinking vin rouge or glasses of cold Kanterbraü in Germany I'm happy with weissbier; and in Los Angeles, since most of the microbrews tend to be bland and carbonated, I can easily be tempted to have a margarita instead.

In Belfast, our first stop, we did visit two of the cask ale pubs. We were lucky enough to book a B&B very close to the Botanic Inn. Founded in 1867 this large pub, just down the road from the gorgeous Queen's University and not far from the Botanic Gardens, consists of a front bar popular with locals as well as a huge back room featuring a very long bar and walls lined with glass cases full of Gaelic football memorabilia. There is also a Record Club upstairs which features live bands and DJs, and the pub offers reasonable food and a Sunday carvery and lots of big screen TVs.

Because the Front Bar was too crowded we sat in the Back Bar, which seemed very dark with spots of extreme light. Our pints of Belfast Bitter (4.5% ABV, Whitewater Brewery, Kilkeel, Newry, County Down) were fairly ordinary and somewhat reminiscent of some other beer, or perhaps of something else. I couldn't quite put my finger on it; but after our 6:00am breakfast and early ferry from Scotland after a somewhat celebratory night, I think I was feeling a bit too sleepy and uncreative to find the words which were tickling at the back of my mind. So all I can really say about Belfast Bitter is it's a bit on the uncreative side, but it's perfectly drinkable. And I was content because it was my first taste of cask ale in Ireland.

After finishing our pints we decided to check out the Kitchen Bar. We were attracted by the following CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2002 description of this 19th century pub: "It has a long narrow bar in the old tradition....Horse-racing pictures feature behind the public bar, while photos of the stars from the old Empire Music Hall decorate the parlour....see this old treasure before it goes." Just to make sure it was still there Andrew phoned the pub. "Oh, you're still there!" "We sure are!" "Still cask ales?" "We sure do."

So we hailed a taxi outside the Botanic Inn and headed over to the Kitchen Bar, riding past the gorgeous old buildings of central Belfast and around a massive pit of redevelopment to where the pub is perched on the edge. Aside from being a popular hangout for entertainers, the Kitchen Bar was once a boarding house for young ladies who worked in a nearby department store. Sadly this old treasure has indeed gone -- in July 2004 to be exact -- when it was demolished to make room for a 21st century "shopping village". The Kitchen Bar now resides in an old converted warehouse with very little pub feel, very hi-tech and modern, giving the impression of a watering hole for young iPod-toting executives. It's oh-so modern and we were oh-so disappointed to have missed out on the original building. The exposed beams and brick arches are perhaps a reminder of what the pub once looked like, although the big windows detract a bit from the effect. The clientele seem to be city-centre business types, definitely not students.

There were two cask ales on. Since we'd already tried the Belfast Bitter we went for the Glen Ale (4.3% ABV, Whitewater Brewery, Kilkeel, Newry, County Down). This is a more interesting pint than the Belfast Bitter, with a distinct malt taste to the fine bitter finish.

Later in the week we stopped for a late lunch and a pint at the Eglantine Inn, known locally as the Eg. This large roomy venue seems popular with students and features live music and DJs upstairs and down. The barman was very friendly and served us the best pint of Bass on CO2 we had in Northern Ireland. After we ordered our lunch we learned that Andrew's relatives were expecting us for dinner at 6:00. My vegieburger with cheese and salad and Andrew's jacket potato with beans, bacon, and cheese were both very tasty and ample; but seeing as how it was already 3:00 and we would be expected to dine again in 3 hours we were forced to leave most of our lunches. Ah, well, such is life in the family lane...

Driving out of Belfast through County Down we stopped for the night in the town of Banbridge, famous for good fishing on the River Bann as well as being the homeland of the Brönte family. Here we found McGrath's, a typical Northern Irish bar hidden away off the main busy shopping street. Since this pub didn't have any cask ale we drank gin and tonics, so I probably shouldn't be mentioning it in a beer column. But please humour me, because we could just as easily have been drinking pints of Bass or Guiness. I wanted to mention McGraths because it's typical of many of the small backstreet bars in Northern Ireland, with a natural warmth, friendliness, and refuge from the high-priced trendiness of the more popular watering holes. The pool table at McGraths is worth mentioning as well. It's probably the most perfect table we've ever played on, and even the pool cues were of decent quality.

We ran into the same sort of bar in Coleraine. Located further north on the River Bann near the Atlantic coast, Coleraine is the site of Mountsandel Fort, the earliest known settlement in Ireland dating from 7000 BC. We decided to stop in the centre of Coleraine for lunch. We parked the car and started to walk, searching for a pub where we could get a quick sandwich and a pint. The first sign of a pub we found was a row of 6 tiny low-profile bars hidden away on a backstreet, and obviously none of them served food. We continued into the busy, modern pedestrian precinct filled with high street shops and a handful of espresso cafes, one or two offering trendy and expensive sandwich creations, with the only option for our quick and simple lunch being one takeaway sandwich shop. As we stormed back and forth through the precinct the minutes were ticking by, the end of the traditional lunchtime quickly approaching, and we were appalled to see all these people walking around, seemingly happy and content, with no desire or need to eat anything all day. How do they survive?

As the starvation sapped our minds while the lack of catering increased our frustration, I suggested we stop and have a pint, and then get some sandwiches at the takeaway to eat elsewhere. By this time we had just spotted a tiny pub just off the pedestrian area called the Queens Arms. This is another welcoming little port in the storm consisting of a small front bar and a tiny area in the back, and a group of regulars were ensconced in residence. As we were sipping our pints of Bass on CO2, I noticed the sign above the bar says "QUEENS ARMS / JOE'S BAR". I wondered if the friendly landlord chatting with the lady at the bar was Joe. It was a nice friendly touch, although a bit American. To be honest, I don't think I've ever met a Joe who owned a bar or pub.

The Queens Arms seems to be the closest pub to Coleraine's pedestrian precinct -- in fact it may be the only pub in the pedestrian precinct. No wonder the regulars seemed so jolly and happy in there. They probably feel quite lucky that it exists.

In conclusion, if you visit Northern Ireland for the pubs, don't expect to find cask ale as readily available as in England, Wales, or even Scotland. And forget about the big, flashy, trendy pubs -- go for the little backstreet bars instead.