An Irish Tale
By Maurice Neill
It stood on the floor at the end of the elbow-polished counter in the public bar when Bertie Allingham bought the place from the brewery in 1951 – it was a time of rapid modernisation and consolidation in anticipation of a post-war beer boom. The brewery directors were happy to include the statuette as part of the fixtures and fittings and cheerfully parted company with the building, the business and the Blackamoor for the princely sum of £3,567 and three guineas – a figure considered an earthly fortune at a time when a pint of stout was a hard-earned one shilling and three pence.
The bank manager raised a hefty eyebrow when a bold young Bertie sought just such an earthly fortune as a loan to make him a proud and independent businessman. He was forcefully told how many pints of stout would have to be sold before it was paid back but after much deliberation, calculation and consultation with head office in Dublin, the hefty eyebrow agreed to extend a commercial mortgage at a high interest rate taking Bertie’s family farm as security – it was a time of rapid modernisation and consolidation in anticipation of a post-war banking boom.
The sale of Allingham’s Bar in Lower Battenberg Street 48 years later, as an atrocity-weary Belfast entered a post-Troubles ‘peace process’, allowed an equally weary, but still proudly independent businessman, and devoted wife Maureen to return to the family home in Donegal. They planned to live out the remainder of their lives on a modest pension and in debt-free comfort in the shadow of The Blue Stack mountains.
It was small reward for a lifetime of long hours toiled in smoke-filled rooms, dealing with unsympathetic bank managers, inflexible health inspectors, awkward customers and brazen brewery agents. The relentless tedium punctuated by the birth of seven children, frequent financial crises, regular bomb scares. While there were occasional swearing competitions among the eclectic bunch of worldly-wise men and women who frequented the place not a single blow was ever struck in anger. Those who held court upon the bum-worn high stools included dock labourers, postal workers, lorry drivers, newspaper printers, civil servants, uncivil servants, legal types and the odd merchant seaman enjoying shore leave and ‘Nelson’s Blood’ – known to all experienced dockland barmen as Lamb’s Navy Rum.
The building, the business and the Blackamoor were bought for £339,000 by a smart-talking young property developer who made his money selling second-hand cars in East Belfast with the endorsement of loyalist paramilitaries. He reckoned he could make £1.5 million from the site by building apartments for yuppies – it was a time of rapid modernisation and consolidation in anticipation of a post-Troubles property boom.
Tommy Sinclair confessed he would not know what a yuppie was if he found it in his stout. Dickie Harris said it was anyone who had a regular job that didn’t involve getting your hands dirty or carrying a gun. To the relief of the regulars the smart-talking young property developer promised to keep the bar open until the time was right for his penthouse development. He kept-on the long-suffering and hopelessly stuttering barman Brendan Milligan as ‘‘ba-ba-ba bar manager’ but put two pence on a pint and refused to install a new TV for the horsey men when the old one finally gave up the ghost with a spectacular pop in the final furlongs of the 4.30 at Lingfield.
Nobody gave much thought to the Blackamoor and expected it would end up in a skip along with the other bric-a-brac of a bygone age when the time came for the last pint to be pulled and the wrecking ball to swing. Brendan said he would like to keep it as a souvenir but his wife wouldn’t have it in the house in case it had ‘woo-woo-woo woodworm.’
It was four feet tall and made of a dark wood, Brazilian teak according to Sean O’Hagan who claimed to have read Great Trees of the World as a schoolboy, and could be polished to a high gloss. It was solid and heavy but one man could carry it the length of the bar before having to set it down again and take a breath. The loin cloth, which shielded the negro boy’s modesty, was once gold-painted but only a few flakes of gilt still remained in the deeper creases of the finely sculpted wood. One gold earring remained in place but the top half of the golden staff, which the figure held in his left hand, had snapped off when a ‘tired and emotional’ customer fell from a bar stool in 1963 and used it to break his fall. The Blackamoor’s right arm held a small metal plate aloft which was often pressed into service as an ash tray. His lips were pursed but there was just enough space in which to wedge an Embassy Regal – a sight which gave newcomers great amusement. A brass striking plate was screwed to the top of his head which smokers used to light-up the Swan Vestas kept behind the bar. The box said ‘safety matches’ but they had burned holes in many pairs of good trousers.
It was thought to be one of a pair of figures dating from a time when such ornaments were fashionable and found in many of Belfast’s elegant Victorian drawing rooms. The Blackamoor was the old pub’s mascot, a conversation piece and a useful item of kitsch. It was a silent witness to the tears and the laughter of Bertie and Maureen Allingham and the triumphs and tragedies of a legion of decent working class people who passed through their doors in search of sanctuary, company or simply something cold and wet to remove the dust of daily toil from the throat.
It was there the night Patsy ‘Kango’ Gillespie’s accumulator came in. The builder’s labourer placed sixpence on the outsiders in five races and collected £2,000 from Barney Eastwood when, against staggering odds, all five nags romped home. And it was there the night ‘Dapper’ Danny McGrogan’s ‘secret’ came out. The vodka and tonic-drinking solicitor announced to the assembled company that he was ‘a proud gay man’ only to find this fact was no surprise to his regular drinking companions. One quipped: “It’s alright with me wee man – so long as Bertie doesn’t make it compulsory.”
And again, the night Alfie Crumlin’s future came up. The first Mrs Crumlin gave him nine children before demanding her husband undergo a vasectomy. When she passed away – the end-of-the bar gang said from exhaustion – he remarried and had the operation reversed. It left him in pain for weeks and unable to peform his duty as a newly-wed. He was half-way through a pint of Bass when the situation took a change for the better. The Bass was left unfinished and he went home to father the first of two more children.
Many other memorable nights included the night when pensioner Jack ‘Dinger’ Bell beat a man 30 years his junior in a press-ups contest on the bar room floor. The night Charlie Fitzpatrick feigned a heart attack to avoid paying an outstanding bar bill. The night a well-dressed gentleman left his wife at the door to enquire of Bertie: “Do you serve women in this bar.” Gales of laughter followed when he was told: “I’m afraid not. You have to bring your own.” And the night a large, drunken Peeler shot himself in the thigh while attempting a sudden sit-down in Bertie’s cramped lavatory. As the ambulanceman shouldered him out he asked if it was the first time a ‘shit had been fired in anger’ in the place. Another night was the occasion ‘Dirty’ Nellie Davenport was barred for flashing her ample credentials at Jackie Alderdice – a bus driver whose chief failing was an inability to keep his opinions about women to himself.
It was there the day The Canberra was launched; the day Robert McGladdery was hanged for the murder of Pearl Gamble; the day the IRA bombed the Abercorn Bar; the day loyalists shot up the Avenue Bar; the day Bobby Sands died on hunger strike, and the day Ian Paisley roared ‘never, never, never’ at City Hall. All memorable occasions that gave rise to much discussion and mighty thirsts.
It was lunch-time on a Saturday, one cold day that spring, when Big Archie Burns popped-in for a cure and asked: ‘Hey Brendy – where’s the Blackamoor?’
The folded beer mat which helped keep the figure from wobbling on the uneven floor was still in place but there was no trace of the pub’s neglected mascot. On the Friday the punters had been given bad news. Battenberg Court penthouse complex – ‘luxury living in the heart of the city’ – was scheduled to start in November and demolition of the bar was merely months away. They drank like condemned patriots. Nellie Davenport was in tears and Dickie Harris sought support for a sit-in protest. As a consequence, Archie’s was not the only hangover in need of the cure.
“Ja-ja-ja Jesus – I’ve no idea,” said the bar manager. “I’d swear it was here last night when I la-la-la locked up.” He looked around with a puzzled expression – as if he would find the familiar figure hiding like a playful child behind one of the tables or aluminium beer kegs.
“Maybe some joker’s put it in The Jacks again,” said Archie.
But there was no sign of it in The Gents or in the cramped cubicle next door which passed as The Ladies and where the drunken Peeler had nearly shot his knackers off. The small storeroom at the back was thoroughly searched but only led to further head-scratching. By 5.00pm the hangovers were thoroughly cured and the speculation had begun in earnest.
Suggestions ranged from the comic to the ridiculous. “He’s a tout and been disappeared by the RA,” said Kango. “The Revenue seized him for Bertie’s years of cooking the books,” said Dinger.
They settled on the logical possibility that one of Friday’s regulars had taken him to save the ‘wee black boy’ from the skip. One by one the previous night’s drinkers were accused, questioned and denied guilt. ‘Shifty’ Willy Logan would have been the chief suspect but was visiting his daughter in Glasgow and had to be eliminated from enquiries. They contemplated calling the Peelers, but knew they had not been taken seriously at Musgrave Street barracks since the shit-fired-in-anger incident. They discussed placing a Missing Persons poster in the window but no one had ever taken a photograph of the Blackamoor. By closing time a fresh set of hangovers was acquired and the mystery was forgotten.
The following week the little bar was more like a mortuary than the happy-go-lucky meeting place of old; not just because the gas had run out in the Super Ser – the only form of heating in the place. Trade dropped-off and the few punters who did come sat around with faces as long as Lurgan spades. The smart-talking young property developer told Brendan he should let the stock run down with a view to closing the place. Even the mice seemed to know the end was nigh. Archie Burns said he and had been seen them fleeing the building. No one even had the heart to organise a farewell party. The horsey men said they might move to The Shillelagh. They didn’t like the barman but at least it was close to a decent bookies shop. The end-of-the-bar gang said they would take their custom to the The Capstan because the beer was cheaper and mixers were free. Tommy Sinclair and Dickie Harris said they had been offered free stout to take their business to the The Steps. Danny Grogan said he would be forced to drink with second-rate barristers. Shifty Logan said he might move back to Glasgow permanently where there were still a few decent pubs to be found in Maryhill. Alfie Crumlin said he would spend more time with his families. Charlie Fitzpatrick settled his bar bill and gave Brendan a £5 tip. Nellie Davenport said she had never been given a tip in her life. Charlie said: “My tips for you Nellie dear are simple. Never drink anything that is green and never put a bet on anything that can talk.” Kango and Dinger said they might give up the drink but nobody believed them.
A postcard arrived from Dublin on the Wednesday and was addressed to The Regulars, Allingham’s Bar, 17 Lower Battenberg Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland. On the front was The GPO building, scene of the last stand during the Easter Rising in 1916, and on the back, in bold handwriting, was a message:
“The stout’s great down here but it’s a desperate price and they don’t half speak a funny language. Just taking a few days leave. Hope to see you all again soon. Remember – no drinking half ‘uns during daylight – love Wee Darkie.”
A week later a letter arrived and inside was a Polaroid snapshot of the Blackamoor sitting on the pavement beside Tower Bridge in London. A note read: “Just popped over to London for a few days to see the sights. They speak a funny language here too, but the stout’s a bit cheaper – best wishes Wee Darkie.”
Three days later another small package arrived containing more Polaroid snaps of Wee Darkie outside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris – this time draped in a striped T-shirt and wearing a beret, with a string of onions round his neck. A post card carried the simple sentiment: ‘Ooh la la.’
The mystery caused great amusement among the punters in the condemned bar. Try as they might they could not figure out who was behind the prank. The pictures were not fakes and the post marks indicated the letters had been sent from overseas. As the final days of the bar drew near, more snapshots arrived thick and fast. Wee Darkie was pictured in St Peter’s Square in Rome, at the Parthenon in Athens, near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, with the Manneken Pis in Brussels, the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen and finally at Edinburgh Castle where he sported a kilt and a bottle of Famous Grouse whisky.
The punters roared with laughter and the post was eagerly awaited each day for news of Wee Darkies’ travels. The bar had never been so busy and the story made it into The Irish News after a tip off to reporters from one of the printers. The bar had never been as busy. Just a week before the demolition team was due to arrive, the regulars agreed to meet for a farewell drink. By now the bar was closed but Brendan said he would open specially for the occasion at 4.00pm on the Friday. The gloom was lifted by the great mystery and the expectation of more news from Wee Darkie. It was almost 5.00pm when a red Royal Mail van pulled up at the door and two postmen struggled in with a large heavy package wrapped in brown paper and string. One handed a clipboard to Brendy and said: “Sign here please mate.”
The brown paper was removed and The Blackamoor was revealed, restored and repainted. A little suitcase was taped to its feet and a letter was attached to the tray. It read: “Had a lovely time but glad to be back home.”
There were howls of laughter, pints and halfun’s until the small hours.
If you are a keen traveller and find yourself in Belfast’s newly developed dockland with a healthy thirst to slake and a good ear for a story, the tourist guides all suggest you stop for a pint of stout in one of the city’s trendy and bustling new waterholes. Among the luxury penthouses in Battenberg Court – ‘luxury living in the heart of the city’ – is to be found a friendly little place with an interesting history which attracts an eclectic bunch of eccentrics and yuppies – all of them happy to relate and embellish the mystery behind the naming of the popular bar. Restored, repainted and polished to a high gloss, a ‘wee black boy’ has pride of place above the busy till. Over the door are the words: The Wandering Blackamoor.