The Dirty Onion: a bar of many layers in Belfast
The bar may be in one of Belfast’s oldest buildings, but it is certainly not stuck in a time warp
The Dirty Onion: it’s no manufactured theme bar
The Dirty Onion, the latest addition to the city’s regenerating Cathedral Quarter, doesn’t look like your average Belfast watering hole. The striking wooden- frame exterior is reminiscent of one of Budapest’s ruin pubs – semi-derelict spaces brought to life as pop-up bars – but this is no manufactured theme bar.
Authenticity is what the proprietor, Bill Wolsey, who also owns the nearby opulent Merchant Hotel, is aiming for.
It might appear to have arisen out of nowhere, but the skeleton of wooden cross-beams is original and belongs to the 19th-century building that once stood on the site. It emerged when rusty corrugated iron was stripped away.
Inside the Dirty Onion, history stretches back further still. This is one of Belfast’s oldest buildings, a bonded warehouse for spirits from pre-1720.
The bond, known as Stack N – the ghost of the sign can still be seen on the brick wall – was used to store barrels and crates of Jameson whiskey, and there’s a nod to that inheritance in the shape of a giant Jameson Barrel Man sculpture, made for the beer garden.
But while Bill Wolsey and his son Conall, who’s been instrumental in setting the bar up, are proud of the building’s rich past, they recognise that it’s important not to fetishise the image of the traditional pub.
“We didn’t want it to be ‘ye olde twee Irish bar’, as though the breweries had puked up a whole lot of advertising material from the 1970s. Nobody wants to be stuck in a time-warp,” says Wolsey snr.
That’s why they have collaborated with the nearby Belfast Print Workshop to showcase the work of emerging Irish artists, and with An Droichead, one of the city’s cultural centres, which is curating the music programme: a cheerful hotchpotch of bluegrass, harp sessions and bodhrán lessons.
The Wolseys are determined that the Cathedral Quarter learns from the problems Temple Bar encountered. “The pubs don’t allow hen nights, stag nights and karaoke, and we’re doing our damnedest to make sure it stays that way. We don’t want tourists to be given what they imagine is the Irish experience. We’ll let Dublin corner that market.”
Fighting talk: but the queues outside the bar each weekend night show that the Dirty Onion is doing something right.