Let’s stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater: in support of Belfast’s legendary Sunflower Bar

As a big fan of the positive, unique things which make Belfast the city it is today, my jaw dropped at news this morning that the Sunflower Bar is reportedly at risk due to redevelopment plans.

The coverage (and in the Sunday Life) reminds me, on a horrifically larger scale, of the debacle behind the removal of the ‘Teenage dreams…’ Undertones graffiti.

At that time, in a city where so much noise is made about culture by those who connect their culture with politics, the silence was deafening among my own social circle from those who prefer to do so. These same friends couldn’t see the importance of a piece of street-art which celebrates a world-famed, non-sectarian and home-grown music scene, much less lend their support despite spending a great deal of time demanding support for their own.

The news about the Sunflower also reminded me of the battle by the very same bar to retain its historic cage entrance and even the fight between AM:PM and officials over their street-front facade.

It also recalls that even the Linenhall Library almost faced closure in 1980, albeit in different circumstances.

A quick look on Twitter shows Tweets from visitors from around the world who visited and enjoyed the Sunflower, not to mention famous artists and even BBC NI who have used the award-winning bar as a live venue.

We have recently debated exactly what we want visitors to see when they come to Belfast.

Aside from the murals (with their apparently protected status, no matter what the content) we have a vibrant city with heart and soul beating beneath the surface of chain-restaurants and big-name shops.

I consider the pubs and venues and walks and markets of Belfast to be my culture. And I believe it is a culture that people from around the world want to see. If we leave local people and tourists with an identikit city centre we will soon discover the importance of what we have lost.

To the developers and city officials: can we stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A generic city will leave us all out of pocket and much more besides.

Yes, this may just be a scare, and I am aware that we have nothing but early news reports. And that I should know better too. This is an admittedly an initial, angry piece of writing, lacking understanding of the local planning system for one thing, as I love Belfast and hate to hear talk of anything that could take the heart from her.

A reported statement from the developers in the Belfast Live piece appears to confirm that the bar is within the development plans and falls short of reassuring that it will remain intact in its current form.

There may be good news and clarification ahead. But the fact that it was even apparently under discussion calls into question our awareness of the lifeblood and uniqueness of Belfast.

If we can protect murals, can we extend the same privilege to other types of culture which make less noise but are quietly filling the coffers and life of the city with money and venues for tourists who want to see a lively, positive, entertaining city with depth and variety.

A final thought: perhaps if the Sunflower added a huge paramilitary mural..

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  • Ernekid

    A couple of weeks ago I met up with a couple of German friends who were doing a tour of Ireland. We ended up going to the Sunflower to escape the rain. We had a lovely time in there. The Germans were startled to see the old security cage over the door, which led me to give a potted history of the Troubles (according to me Da) in which I was aided by the imbibement of several Irish craft beers. It’s a lovely wee bar, with friendly staff and great live music sessions. The idea of getting rid of is madness. If we want to base our tourism Industry on ‘Ceol agus Craic’ it’s vital that we preserve our bars that have real charm and history.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    The Sunflower only opened a couple of years ago and only got the “best pub” award last week. That’s not “legendary” in my book, although the place certainly will be if it is able to keep going the way it is.

    The article on the whole has an air of speculation to it; nobody has said that the bar is due to be demolished. It’s right, of course, that there should be a campaign to ensure that it isn’t.

  • Granni Trixie

    Thanks for taking the initiative CJ – I agree we just can’t let this happen. Putting down a marker is sure to help the owners make their case. At very least it is wrong that they have not apparently been kept in the loop.

  • All very true – ‘legendary’ may be a little strong, I was trying to capture that it has picked up a very strong and loyal following very quickly.

    And absolutely agree re the speculation, I think this one will unfold during the week. But for a bar which has become so prominent in Belfast so quickly to be discussed in this way in the meda without strong clarification is clearly causing concern to some fans of Belfast’s nightlife.

  • Exactly, if it is the latter then ideally clarification should have come before media coverage in the Sunday Life and Belfast Life.

    While I’m cautious about speculation, it was already widely out there before I added my two cents worth on that fact that it was even being talked about publically unchecked.

  • Ulick

    In a town full of historic pubs the Sunflower doesn’t have much pedigree outside of the hipster coterie. However like the old Kitchen bar (a pub which had a genuine heritage) the problem will no doubt resolve itself once a few cheques have been written.

  • I reckon it sits alongside the likes of White’s etc very nicely…may be newer but they run a very good pub and have a great following.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’ve been thinking about that area of Belfast a lot recently (numerous bus journeys taking me past thereabouts).

    Could some one explain to me how knocking down old buildings and replacing them with bland ‘anywhere UK’ style flats is beneficial?

    “Lets go to Belfast to see the new flats!”

    Whilst rickety old buildings in a state of decay aren’t exactly tourist attractions in their own right they do nonetheless contain the seeds of potential regeneration:

    Temple Bar in Dublin was earmarked for ‘regeneration’ but they put the idea on hold and let the artists take over.

    Now look at it.
    Granted, I wouldn’t head there myself BUT it helps bring in the tourists and jobs.

    Then look at the Merchant City in Glasgow, in the ’90’s it was a grip of a place (with buildings literally falling down) now it’s jumping.
    The Old Town of Edinburgh was once a ghastly place.

    Melbourne’s Fitzroy was once a very dodgy place, now it’s very popular with tourists and arty types (and the inevitable following of scensters).

    This doesn’t have to be difficult:

    Give incentives to building owners to do-up the old buildings (such as scrapping the ‘land banking’ rate relief and say they can have 2/3 years rate relief after the restoration of said building).

    Preserve the skyline in parts of the city centre i.e. no stupidly tall buildings, designate a zone for them.
    Encourage the sympathetic development of the numerous car parks in Belfast e.g. North Street.

    Scrutinise planning decisions such as the permission to destroy the Orpheus, a lamentable decision.http://www.futurebelfast.com/orpheus-building.html

    Why can’t they convert the Orpheus into student accommodation? Other universities can preserve and convert their old buildings e.g. Glasgow University, why can’t ours?

    Are we that useless?

    Dublin is only 2 hrs down the road. If we lance our heritage like a boil then Belfast won’t be able to compete with Dublin.

    Here’s something for those who care about Belfast’s descent into mediocrity and Blandness:

    http://www.uahs.org.uk/campaigns/current-campaigns/save-the-orpheus/

    https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-the-orpheus-ballroom-belfast-from-demolition

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’d like a public meeting actually with the politicians an planning officers to have them explain their ‘vision’ for Belfast.

    Perhaps I’m wrong what is needed is more flats, less old buildings, less pubs, less independent businesses , less tourists, less heritage, more car parks, more franchises and more roads.

    If this is the case then I’d like to see these professionals tell me why this is the case as I’m perhaps too blinkered to see this.

    Would anyone else be interested in such a thing?

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    I was opposed to the demolition of the old ‘Kitchen Bar’. What is the consensus now on its replacement?

    {The ‘Sunflower’, as I recall, was a rather traditional folk music venue in Corporation Street.)

  • I’ve only been in the replacement once, it is hard to pass Bittles.

    And that jogs a distant memory re the Sunflower, wonder if it is similar to the Harp Bar in that it uses the name of a no longer existing venue.

  • Disdain

    Ah yes, the “hipster coterie”.

    Who is this exactly? Students? Young professionals? Middle-aged professionals? People who may or may not have jobs, for all I know? All of whom frequent the bar, and it’s many flea markets, live music gigs, film screenings and discussions and other events.

    I don’t see the argument for allowing the Sunflower to remain as being a historic one – I think the earlier campaign about the security cage may have given the pub an overly, and inaccurate, historic image – rather, it’s simply that the Sunflower has been extensively and successfully regenerated ALREADY, so why is it within the red lines of a regeneration zone where in the absence of a popular campaign, it would simply be razed?

  • chrisjones2

    Well is you dont want all those young people educated that’s fine

  • chrisjones2

    How many pubs will now in stall cages to bring the tourists in!!

  • Disdain

    Queen’s manages both. Not saying Jordanstown needs to or should emulate Queen’s, but regeneration needn’t be pointlessly destructive – it just seems like it may well be in this case.

  • Dev32

    Pats bar and the Rotterdam went the same way – where is the vision in the planing office to integrate the old with the new? Preserve these historic buildings and keep some soul in the city!

  • 3000Versts

    The new Kitchen Bar is completely unremarkable, as you might expect from a pub built into a shopping centre.

  • Conor

    The proposals for the area are currently on http://www.futurebelfast.com/belfast-northside.html ,and there’s also the Northside regeneration website http://northsideregeneration.org/

    None of the images show the Sunflower being retained, or much of anything else it seems. So goodbye to what little remains of the area from pre-1941.
    Sadly the precedent currently being set by the Ulster University and the demolition of the Orpheus, seems to be interpreted by other developers as a green light to level whole blocks of the city. With no councillors, politicians or anyone with a high profile prepared to speak out against it. As redevelopment is always mentioned in the same sentence as ” will create jobs”. Redevelopment in the city needs a serious rethink. And preservation and conservation of the cities less known or loved older buildings needs to become a topic that people discuss while the buildings can be saved and not after they’re gone. Express your opinions to:

    belfast.planning@doeni.gov.uk

    Northside Regeneration
    Rushmere House
    46 Cadogan Park
    Belfast
    BT9 6HH
    info@northsideregeneration.org

  • Thomas Barber

    The bar has been there for decades it changed its name only a couple of years ago and its legendary status and the cage is due to the actions of a very brave individual who saved the lives of many by his heroic actions, himself suffering horrendous injuries including losing an arm and a leg in the process.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Sorry Chris, you’ve lost me.

    Glasgow (Buchanan street, merchant city and the Glasgow university area) has demonstrated through facade retention that buildings can be retained on the outside and completely new on the inside.

    I’d prefer to retain the interior if possible but thst’s not always the case.

    What I would like to know is why is there not a case for it here?

    Students get their flats and Belfast retains her heritage and gets a bit of a make over too which would make it more appealing to tourists and have a nicer feel altogether.

    A win-win scenario.

    Would you oppose such a move?

  • Thank you Conor

    On Twitter only one political rep – Alliance councillor Emmett McDonogh-Brown – can be seen to be getting involved (unless I’ve missed someone).

    I’ll bite my tongue until more is known and the issue is raised in the council, however as you can tell from my original post it irritates me that culture is often such a sacred cow in NI…unless it is someone else’s culture.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Doubt many of those drinking there now are aware of this Thomas ..

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I actually prefer Bittles to the Sunflower, but Bittles can attract a bit of a rough crowd the odd time.

    The current Sunflower is nothing to do with the old one on Corporation St.

  • Thanks for this.

    I remember being told off – in all seriousness – by someone in Bittles for not drinking. Still, it has a ton of character and a decent range of whisky/whiskey from memory.

  • SPBWNI were proud to award this bar their Pub Of The Year (POTY) – http://spbwni.co.uk/poty.html. I personally have known Pedro for many a year and our branch fully support his endeavours to make this small street a mecca for the arts, great ales and pub food. City planners have done more to destroy Belfast heritage than terrorists have done. Enough now. Let the people speak!

  • Thomas Barber

    I doubt they do Catcher it was called the Avenue Bar then and the man who saved many but received those horrific injuries was called John Anderson.

  • TruthToPower

    As a Christian, alcohol is a scourge. It provokes lust, infidelity and loss of inhibition and self control. I’d welcome the closure of any pub on these grounds. Those who rely on drink to enjoy themselves are lacking and lack imagination. I don’t feel safe if I go downtown at night. It’s like a city of zombies. Perhaps Islam might be ironically the spiritual saviour of a UK whose Christian leadership has abrogated responsibility of leading but instead following its people. Shepherd lead their flock, not follow it. If you follow the flock you end up in the mouth of the fox, the devil himself

  • ted hagan

    Compared to Dublin, the number of decent traditional of pubs in Belfast is woeful. The demolition of the Kitchen was criminal and the Crown, though much publicised, is really a tourist trail pub with no regular clientele.

  • I’d agree re the Crown. Thankfully we have the likes of White’s and Bittles but we really can’t afford to lose any more decent pubs. Yes, the big new places are impressive in their own way but as for the traditional pubs: when they’re gone, they’re gone.

  • Mike the First

    “Water into wine” ring any bells?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Absolutely Ted

    I’ve been in Dublin a lot recently and the pub selection is incredible.

    At the current rate of going Belfast will be economically, aesthetically and culturally inferior to Dublin by a long shot.

    I take it a bit personally when tourists say negative things about the belfast but whenever someone offers criticism of Belfast e.g. like the game of thrones outfit people spit the dummy out but don’t take on board why people would say such things.

  • Ernekid

    Jaysis you sound like no Craic.

  • Guilty as charged and agreed.

    We’re all proud to some degree of what Belfast has become but when someone linked to something as important to us as the movie industry offers criticism it does mean we need to take a hard look at the city.

    Not bulldozing excellent pubs would be a start.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Zigactly!

  • Séamus

    The Sunflower is a nice wee bar, and it’s stunning to think of the amount of sh*t it has had to put up with in the few years it’s been open. First DRD went after their cage, then the bar got attacked by unionists (along with the Hudson), and now this nonsense.

    There’s already been a bit of a campaign over the development plans in the area; that will probably just grow as more information like this slips out.

  • That’s very true, they run a popular business and deserve every support.

    Things are starting to become a bit clearer. The plans – links provided by Conor below – are proposed at this stage however it remains that the experience for the owner and customers seems to be similar to finding out that there are proposals which have a put a big red circle around your family home.

    A petition is gathering steam, coverage has extended to the Belfast Telegraph and a local Alliance councillor hopes to have some more clarity/ info following a requested meeting with developers.

    As it stands there seems to be great concern among supporters of the bar that, even as a proposed idea, we could lose another piece of valued ‘family silver’ which, as discussed below, Belfast can ill afford to be without.

  • Gaygael

    Hahaha.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Temple Bar in Dublin was earmarked for ‘regeneration’ but they put the idea on hold and let the artists take over.

    Not quite – actually the reverse (but not in the way you think). There is a story behind this and it is germane to the issue with a lot of the proposed development sites in Belfast.

    Temple Bar, in the late 70s/early 80s, was utterly run down and decrepit. Nobody wanted it. At the time, the Irish transport board (CIÉ) was looking to build a new main bus station for the city; the decision was made to build at Temple Bar, and they slowly began acquiring property in the area with the intention of demolishing it all in one go (Dublin Corporation later did this successfully at Wood Quay).

    In the meantime they let a lot of the property out on very short term, low cost leases and this encouraged all these quirky little shops and restaurants to pop up, and the area took on a life of its own. As the snowball got bigger CIÉ found that public (and commercial) opinion was now firmly against building the bus station there, so they ended up selling the property and building it at the current site at Store Street instead. The “regeneration” was in many ways completely organic and market-driven.

    The reason why this is important is because property developers learned a lesson, which is – if you want to build something in the near future but can’t do it just yet, do not whatever you do let any of it out on a short term lease, otherwise when the time comes public opinion will stop you.

    In concert with this, the developers are keeping the pressure on governments not to penalise them with taxes or other penalties for leaving property vacant. This way, large areas – such as the North Street area in Belfast – which would come alive if short/low cost leases were offered – are kept in a shut-down state.

    The only way this will change is if the government simply makes it too expensive to own unoccupied property by applying punitive taxes to unlet commercial premises and buildings. It then will cease to be a viable investment for property developers to buy up old buildings for cheap and leave them to rot for decades before demolishing them to throw up more characterless shoeboxes, which is what the people behind these plans in the area around the Sunflower want to do. All of this is completely and entirely within the power of our devolved administration to do. The fact that they don’t speaks volumes in itself.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Why did unionists attack it for?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Thanks for that, plenty of food for thought.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The first I ever heard of the Rotterdam was from meeting tourists abroad.
    It’s sad to think that one of the more memorable part (apart from the murals) of some tourists’ trips is now gone, thanks to developers.

  • Wouldn’t have been my choice of words, but this is the only link I could find: http://www.belfastdaily.co.uk/2013/08/09/updated-news-republican-parade-re-routed-over-violent-loyalist-protests/

  • Disdain

    The owner only found out he was within the DSD vesting zone when he attended an exhibition event which was demonstrating how the area was going to look.