Belfast City Hall knows how to put on a show. Throughout the year it’s beautifully lit up, and at this time of the year even moreseo with a colourful Christmas Market. Many big cities have these nowadays, but the secret of whether it works is in the setting, and the backdrop.
When it comes to pubs, it’s all about the history. Hidden on a backstreet behind the modern Castle Court Shopping Centre, Kelly’s Cellars dates back to 1720 and feels every bit as authentic as its 300 year anniversary approaches. The United Irish Men used the pub as their base to plot a rebellion against English rule in 1798. While music sessions are frequent, there’s nothing tonight. A little disappointing, but the roaring fire gives the place a welcoming feel.
Almost as hard to find is the Sunflower Public House. It only opened in its present guise in 2012, but retains the feel of the bar that stood on Union Street for more than a century. The cage next to the door serves as a reminder that customers were once checked for weapons on entry – though the concerns today – according to the sign – are more mundane.
An open mic is promised, but when I venture upstairs there’s only one other customer, along with the guy running the event. I guess this is what you get for turning up on a wet Monday in November. He’s a good enough singer, but then the other customer also gets up to have a go. He spends an age tuning the house guitar, but it’s sadly not the instrument that’s flat.
And so to something more reliable. The John Hewitt Bar is owned by the Belfast Unempolyed Worker’s Centre, and as a place with socialist roots, it naturally became a hub for artists, poets and musicians. And the Guinness here is particularly good.
The Hewitt is in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter, which in recent years has become party central in Belfast. Again, it’s Monday so the bars are somewhat quieter. But there’s music on at the Duke of York; on my last visit you could barely move in here, so it’s good to be able to get a seat.
As is often the case in Ireland, it’s pretty late when things finally get going. But as I leave, the city’s still relatively busy – and even the buses seem to be getting in the festive spirit.