I started as a cub reporter in the Belfast News Letter over 50 years ago.
n my first day the editor, a hugely colourful character called Cowan Watson, took me for my first pint.
In ‘The Duke’s’ – The Duke of York. Where else? In those days it was one of the main rendezvous for reporters, when Lower Donegall Street and Royal Avenue were the hub for both local and national newspaper offices.
The famous pub still is.
The back wall of the main bar is lined with framed caricatures of some of the best-known journalists born, bred, buttered and never bettered in the city of Belfast.
James ‘Jimmy’ Kelly of the Irish News and Independent, Bud Bossence of the News Letter, John Wallace of the Belfast Telegraph, WD ‘Billy’ Flackes of the BBC prime among them.
But The Duke’s didn’t only play host to hacks.
It was the fulcrum for both top professionals and ordinary punters alike, a gem of a pub tucked away to this day down the cobblestoned nook and cranny alleyway called Commercial Court.
Senior cops, judges, barristers and businessmen used it as their watering hole. Which is why it was blown up during the Troubles.
In 1973, to be exact. When a 150lbs car bomb exploded outside.
Both the patrons and the then owner Jimmy Keaveney, who ran the pub with his mother Kate – both legends of the Belfast bar trade – were lucky to get out.
But even a bomb then couldn’t stop The Duke’s getting back to business as usual. Within days.
Now, the Covid crisis has hit The Duke’s, and many other bars, like the bombshell that it is.
But I know Willie Jack, a personal and good friend, who has created a fiefdom of venues in Cathedral Quarter – The Duke’s, Harp Bar, Dark Horse bistro, the Friend At Hand whiskey emporium – as a fiery fighter.
The decision to lay off over 100 of his loyal staff, all good people, will have hurt him, put him on the canvas.
But it won’t KO him. He’ll bounce back, packing a big bowl of punch again.
After all, The Duke’s survived the 1973 car bomb.
With the help of his co-professional wife Joanne, Big Willie will survive.
Put simply. Mr Jack, the pub czar of the Cathedral Quarter, isn’t bate yet!