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The Vacuum Issue 3 spacer Issue 3
A Pint Of Plain - An Interview With Bar Owner Chris Roddy
by Daniel Jewesbury
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It has been argued (Flynn 1943; O'Shaughnessy, deWitt et al. 1922; Ní Giolla Léith & Ramsbotham 1867) that the primary consideration in designing a bar is the ratio between the height of the bar stool and the height of the bar (the "Stag's Head" ratio; the presence or absence of a brass footrail also inflects calculations, determining as it does the angle of the knee). Correct application of this ratio leads to what is known as an "inverse temporal" effect: a primitive form of time travel in which four pints appear to be one and three hours five minutes. This account is not itself necessarily flawed, but it is by no means exhaustive. What is required is a more idealist approach to the question, one that does not position itself in such a definitive and exclusive way in front of the bar. For the concept 'bar' is a dualism; one is either in front of or behind the bar. The privileging of either side of this binary leads to potentially unjustifiable conclusions.
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We need to be able to consider the 'bar' from an abstract, transcendent position. Painter and publican Chris Roddy offers this transcendent perspective, due presumably to the amount of time he has spent on either side of the binary. The ceiling, he maintains, is just as important, even though, or perhaps because, the punter generally doesn't notice it. It is akin to looking at a beautiful woman: one can gaze into her eyes for many hours, but at the moment of intimacy, the kiss, one finds oneself looking away - at the ceiling. Similarly as the drinker raises the perfectly settled pint of stout or glass of whiskey to their lips, they avert their eyes heavenward, without necessarily even being aware of it. A pleasing ceiling will, unconsciously, contribute to a pleasing pint.
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Roddy's family have been publicans in Belfast since the 1880s, when his grandfather opened Roddy's Bar on Townhall Street, off Oxford Street. The bar was directly adjacent to Musgrave Street RUC barracks, and the street where the bar once stood is itself now enclosed in the barracks wall. I met Chris to ask him about his lives on both sides of the bar, and over a few glasses, he told me his story.
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"It was a fascinating place but you couldn't really describe it. The bus from Purdysburn used to stop outside every evening, and we used to look to the mental patients for sanity, compared to the people who were drinking in there. Laughing Boy and all the rest of them. I remember very well the day we closed the door on the bar, in 1981. It's a heavy thing, locking the door on a bar." When the bar closed the owner was Roddy's father, John.
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A Pint Of Plain - An Interview With Bar Owner Chris Roddy
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"It was an old bar, really ancient. There were six bars in it. The public bar, probably the closest thing to it now is the Hatfield. Then upstairs was the public lounge, Miss Mac's Lounge, an old woman ran that, she was a classic publican, real old style, and at the back was this 1960s lounge bar, made of gold fleck on red formica, with a ceiling made of cut glass, and all this late 1950s iconography. It would remind you of, say, the Errigle. And then out the back, another three bars.
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"At that time, in the '70s, when I was growing up there, there was a lot of war going on, it was pretty surreal. You'd be sitting having a pint with your mates, in your da's bar, and the Brits would walk in, full whack, radio control, who are you, where are you from?
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"I was in Dublin the day of Bloody Friday. I remember it very well. It broke my dad, crippled him. The front bar was used like a morgue. There's a painting in the Menagerie by a friend of mine, Ciaran, of this character called Patrick Joseph Silver Aloysius McKee, a notorious hard man who used drink in the bar. When the bus station got blown up he went in, and there was a big roof beam that fell on top of everyone, and he lifted it up on his shoulders. It was on fire, his coat went on fire. He saved people's lives. There were stories about him. He went to New York for a contract killing type thing. Got shot and all, and nursed back to life by Diana Dors.When he came away from New York, they'd given him a present, a clock, and they said don't open it till you leave. He got on the boat and opened it, and looked in the back of it, and the works were gone, and the note said, come back and we'll give you the works.
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"Roddy's went bankrupt in the end because of the curfew. There was a lot of bars went under at the time, I was surprised it lasted that long.
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Roddy, who first worked in a bar at the age of seven, standing on an upturned beer-crate to pour the pints, believes that Belfast bars are unique. "But there's only one really good bar left in Belfast. It used to be a shebeen, it's now turned into a real bar, it's called the Hawthorn, it's a real classic bar, the last of the real bars. A friend from the Antrim Road came back from America, and we went into bar. They were showing Quiet Man in there. I says, Sammy, good bar, he says Ssshhh! The Quiet Man's on!
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"I was quite involved with criminology when Roddy's shut, but we opened a bar then within 6 months of it closing, in Stonehenge. We brought over a 1750cc twin-carb Humber Sceptre, a double-barrelled shotgun and two kegs of Cornwall cider. We went over for the hippy festival and opened a bar called Roddy's, for the crack. There was one customer who took about two days to get to the bar. Every time he reawakened he got up and went to the nearest drug dealer around him and bought gear, and we were watching him, through the double-barrelled shotgun. And when he got to the bar I said to him, here listen, you're fuckin barred! I had the double-barrelled shotgun on him, here, what the fuck do you want? He got a double whiskey and he collapsed. We sold the kegs so we broke even.
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"After that I went back to Belfast and was on the bru, and I took a microwave oven that was out of Roddy's down to Lavery's with a view to selling it, for thirty or forty quid. So a week later I was back in Lavery's to meet the guy I'd sold it to, he said to me, I owe you thirty quid, I said bollix, it's forty! That's how I met my partner, Ernie. He told me about this bar that was for sale, he says we'll go and buy the bar. The Rotterdam. I thought I'd nothing to lose: the night we decided to buy it, somebody burnt it down. But the bar being burnt made no difference at all, in fact I was glad it was burnt. It was fairly destroyed, it had been blown up in 1974 and wrecked, and they found explosives in it in 1980 and the Brits blew it up. The fact that it was burnt was irrelevant. I bought it for about four grand. That was six months after Stonehenge. It was an instant success. We spent about a year working on it, it was fairly hard work, because it was fairly fucked.
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"Whenever I bought the Rotterdam there was a bar beside it called the Magic Bar. It wasn't called the Magic Bar for nothing. She was the publican, and he drank, so she murdered him one night, with the carving knife, and blamed the son. When the peelers came, she said to the son, you say that you mur
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dered him, and I'll get off the hook, otherwise we're all going to jail. So he took the rap. But he was upset about it. That was the week before we opened. He came down to me afterwards, after he'd done five years, and he said you know the crack with me, see my ma - and he was with his ma - she made me take the rap, and I did five years instead of ten.
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"I used to think, this place is going to be hard work, it's going to be full of fuckin ninjas coming down, trying to kill me, but it wasn't. Just the opposite. Two guys who knew me well, Joe McNamee and Hughie McAteer, came in one day, and they says, Chris we need a hundred quid. A hundred quid? Fuck! No, they says, we've a story to tell you. Well, it better be a good story. Oh, Chris, we know you like stories, this is a good story. We were walking down Corporation Street last night, out for a few pints, and Joe says, Hughie says to me come on, I'll fight you, so we had a fight. And after the fight, sure we'll go for a pint. So they
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A Pint Of Plain - An Interview With Bar Owner Chris Roddy
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went for a pint, in a bar called O'Rourke's, which used to be called the White Horse. So they're standing in the bar, and Hughie says, Joe, I'm sorry about this, but I'm going to have to fight you again. They're standing in the bar telling me this. And Joe says to him, look I'll tell you what, what way do you want to have a fight? Hughie says, we'll just have a fight, and that'll be it. Joe says, here, large Powers and a glass of stout for Hughie, he's fuckin rearing up. Hughie says, fuck, I still want to fight you. So Joe says, barman, get me another large Powers, and get Hughie a taxi, he's got drink in him, and he's rearing up to fight. So away he went. Joe stopped there for an hour, having a drink, and after an hour, the taxi comes back with Hughie in it. Hughie comes back in and says, look, sorry, I've got to fight, I'm gonna fight you. Joe says, fair enough. We'll have another pint, and we'll fight. You go out that door, I'll go out this door, and we'll meet in the middle, and we'll fight. They're having a drink, and then out they go, the two doors. And Hughie says, see when you met me in the middle of the street, what did you do? And Joe says, I met you full square on, I was going to deck you. But what did you do? I'm standing there, and the next thing you pull a fuckin blade out from your fucking pants and stick it into me! Jesus Christ! And the blade went into me. And Hughie says, and what was the first thing you did Joe, when I sank the blade into you? You put your hand in your pocket, and you took up a handkerchief, and you wiped my prints off the blade. Fair play to you. You're my mate. And Joe says, aye, so I did, but when you went down, after you put the blade in me, when I decked you, I couldn't even kick you, 'cos you're my mate, and you don't kick a mate. And I says, here, hundred quid. For the story. Now fuck off and spend your hundred quid somewhere else, it's worth every penny! And then Joe took up his T-shirt, and the bandage was all round him.
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"I remember asking the mother of Joseph Donnelly, who was the original owner of the bar, down to have a look, and she owned it whenever it was a 16-roomed hostel, and they showed me where the manacles were in the wall, where they shipped people out to Australia and the colonies, and they kept the manacles behind the bar.
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"I owned the Rotterdam about 16 years. I planned to make it into a really fantastic place, but it went bankrupt. I like it as a bar, I don't really think I'd go back there, I don't think it'd be the same place, it's more of a business now. Whenever I had it, it was a place where weird things happened. It was a different area, SailortownŠ
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"So then we opened the whiskey bar in Essex Street. That was fuckin wild. People sawing holes in the roof, dropping down - what the fuck are you doing here? Fascinatingly abnormal. They burnt it out. They even burnt my pianola.
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"There was a great bar in Joy Street called the Joy. Women weren't allowed in, there was a little cubicle where women could drink. All the shelves were slanted, so all the whiskey bottles were at an angle, before you'd even started you felt you were off keel. Like Benny's, there wasn't a right angle in the place, and you weren't allowed in anyway! Fuckin brilliant!
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"Normally when you get a building, there's an influence comes through, the Menagerie was a hard one, there wasn't that much. When it came through it was strong though. It actually used to be a tram turnaround place. I thought it looked brilliant when they used it in [BBC Northern Ireland's] 'As The Beast Sleeps'. I had a brilliant fight with them. I says to them, that wouldn't happen. It's a UDA drinking hall and your man comes in like that? Bollocks! You've got to come in like this. And so they changed it! And I'm standing there going, oh fuck! It's my bar, why did I say this?
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"There was a bar in Ballina, and the back bar, every Tuesday at half ten, was a chiropody practice. Imagine having a chiropody practice in a barŠ" Musing on this point a while, and pausing, we then drained our glasses and sank back into silence. Chris told me about his new bar, which is to open soon. But we wouldn't want to spoil the surprise.
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Chris Roddy's latest establishment, PJ Kavanagh's, (next to Kelly's Cellars) is rumoured to be opening very soonŠ You can see Roddy's Bar in John T Davis's Shellshock Rock, which Cinilingus are screening at the Empire, 26th March, 8pm.
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