Wander in by day and the Front Page Bar will seem like another world entirely from modern Belfast. A static, dusty haze streams in from the afternoon sun outside. Flat-capped punters intermittently duck into the Ladbrokes bookies next door, returning to follow their fortunes bolstered by a pint in hand. A charismatic little dog rebuffs his owner’s appeals for some trick or other, preferring to devote himself to the ribboning of a beer mat. Many would beat a hasty retreat to the sanitised high street or the self-consciously trendy Cathedral Quarter, oblivious to the time capsule they have unearthed.
The Front Page sits on the junction of Donegall Street and Union Street, built in 1872 at the zenith of Belfast’s industrial powers. Its earliest days saw James King, the veterinary’s “Horse Bazaar” and Miss Alderdice’s milliners among its residents, with Dr. Barter’s Turkish Baths next-door until the outbreak of the second world war. Donegall Street became acquainted with a bigotry distinct to the province’s home-grown brand as Jim-Crow segregated troops served the city’s inhabitants during the Belfast Blitz from the warehouses of Marsh’s biscuit factory (vacant, yet still intact today). With Saint Patrick’s Church and Saint Anne’s Cathedral shepherding either end of the street, the nineteenth-century Belfast skyline of Victorian chimneys and church spires prevails.
The street is a mosaic of old and new. The headquarters of The Irish News and The Belfast Telegraph remain from the old newspaper district, the erstwhile home of all major Belfast publications. This history is reflected in the bar’s name, although the still of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and the French original movie promo decorating the upstairs bar hint at the influence of Billy Wilder’s 1974 The Front Page remake. As the business of print media fizzles, the area is galvanised by the insurgency of the city’s Gay Village, heralded by the majestic statue of Lenin projecting from the Kremlin night club adjacent to the bar.
In the early 1970s, the tenure of the Mc Elhatton family began, valiantly manning the bar in severely hostile conditions. A curfew culture meant bars within the city limits were shut by seven o’clock. The former proprietor had bowed out, his nerves shattered by the wolves at the door. The bar’s patrons were among the Shankill Butchers’s victims, preyed upon by the trademark black taxis to be brutally murdered on loyalist turf.
In 1986, John Mc Elhatton Jr. returned from London and the second century of the building’s existence. The site of the Belfast Music Society until the 1960s, music is etched in its genetic code and John was keen to revive these latent traditions. In 1982, it was a gutsy move given the the cultural vacuum that had descended upon the city. He chanced upon the fixtures being junked in the renovation of the Camden Stores Bar in London. The wooden stillions, carved wooden frame and beveled mirrors are features that incorporate the past as he looked to the future.
Today, Frank Mead, professional sax player, and his fiancée Elaine are hashing out the plans for their wedding party. The understated style and substance has worked in the Front Page’s favour, and the Londoners anticipate a raucous night of dancing and music with trademark Irish abandon. The mentioning of past notable performances by Shane MacGowan and Mary Coughlan elicits Frank’s disclosure – “Oh yeah, I played with Mary” – and the union feels complete.
It’s a popular spot to mark the milestones of life and its passing; the remains of Christening party decorations hang from a corner while someone arranges their father’s funeral gathering. This particular event has attracted the attention of a certain Front Page regular. Octogenarian Mr McCann – suited, booted and with hair carefully oiled – is keeping his fastidiously coiffed head down today. He is noticeably wary after ruffling feathers a few days previously with a misplaced quip – “So I can rip up this Mass card then” – observing the man had not yet died. Heralded by John Mc Elhatton as typical of the bar’s enduring clientele, the promise of a pint soon smoothes away the bristles and Mr McCann comes to life. He relishes holding court. A passing salesperson’s attempt to join in the chatter is rebuffed as he recounts his long-nurtured tales of hijinks, “Sure it’d be long before your time”. His chest is puffed and a roguish grin is on his lips. I’m handed a framed testament of his finest hour, retrieved from its pride of place behind the counter. It is a police fine administered to the Lurgan man for public drunkenness at Ballymena train station. Fittingly, a photograph of Mr McCann sipping at a pint sits alongside, a bit like a university diploma.
The barman calls for a bit of hush and gestures towards the TV in the corner of the bar. By some artful manoeuvre Alex Attwood, Minister for Social Development, has momentarily interrupted the racing. He announces a regeneration scheme to revitalise North Belfast, an area neglected by the moneyed classes that flock to the nearby Victoria Square shopping complex. The modest £160,000 involved – funding a public square and the face-lift of an individual derelict site – signals a commitment to restoring the neighbourhood. John Mc Elhatton is encouraged and has the air of a man quietly confident about the future. Where others would dismantle in the name of modernising, he would preserve. In 1990 he salvaged the bricks from a demolished late Georgian building on the other side of the street and they now prop up his books. With the University of Ulster campus just around the corner, he sees the untapped potential in his midst. A willingness to adapt has been pivotal to a bar that appeals to both the sedate seasoned drinker and more spirited punks, in for a bit of a wreck-about by night. Let’s hope that an elusive course can be navigated between the generic high-street and the idiosyncratic charisma that seeps from the Front Page’s walls, a sum of its disparate parts. Not least for the sake of the singular joy in whiling away an afternoon in the company of such venerable Belfast specimens.