Bingo, Brut and Babycham: last hurrah for Belfast’s Maple Leaf
In its dying days, the east Belfast social club is the place to be on a Saturday night
Hostess with the mostess: Emma Gilles, who acts as host, stylist and projectionist at Sunday Syrup, nipping out to the bar during showings for a tray of drinks for her guests. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
In its 1970s heyday the Maple Leaf in east Belfast was one of the most popular social clubs in the country. People queued down the street to get into its weekend discos. Now it stands stark against the skyline, marking time, awaiting demolition. Inside, the crisps are still set out in bowls on the bar counters, and the coasters are arranged in pristine circles. Stale cigarette smoke lingers in the air, but the bars are empty. By next year the building will be gone.
Yet in the dying days of the old clubhouse something remarkable has happened. A new generation of artists and musicians are making it their own with dance nights, experimental screenings and impromptu gigs. For one last, brief moment the Maple Leaf is once more the place to go on a Saturday night.
Emma Gilles is the woman behind this revival. The self-styled craft queen is one of the most dynamic figures in Belfast’s art scene, and she has form when it comes to bringing old or unexpected spaces back to life.
Formerly resident in a shipyard warehouse in the Titanic Quarter, Gilles has brought her idiosyncratic mixture of craft, clothes and customised furniture to the basement of the Maple Leaf. She’s even getting a sink plumbed in so she can style people’s hair, despite knowing that all will soon be reduced to rubble.
Her latest innovation is Sunday Syrup, a Sunday-afternoon gathering where people can watch old films while getting their hair done. Gilles acts as host, stylist and projectionist, nipping out to the bar during showings for a tray of drinks for her guests.
According to a plaque displayed proudly on the wall, the Ulster Maple Leaf Sports and Social Club was opened by Sir Percy Rugg on June 22nd, 1968, although nobody can remember who Rugg was and why he was asked to do the honours.
The club was originally a meeting spot for emigrants heading to Canada on the first transatlantic flights from Belfast – hence the maple leaf in the name – when you needed to be in a members’ club to get a visa. Passengers paid £1 each to join, but when the law changed, and the era of travel agents began, the members got together and bought the club as an entertainment venue.
Freddie Brady has been the secretary of the Maple Leaf since the mid-1970s. “It was one of the most successful clubs throughout clubland,” he says, looking back over the years. “We had over 1,000 members, and we went on right through the Troubles. Cabaret, showbands, entertainment every Friday and Saturday night. We never had any trouble. It was totally non-sectarian. Everyone was just here to enjoy themselves.”
Together with the club’s chairman, Raymond Connor, Brady has been working on plans for a new clubhouse, much reduced in scale and scope, to move into when the old one goes. Gilles was introduced to Brady by her boyfriend, Rory McCadden, who wandered into the Maple Leaf by accident one day. She realised straight away it would be Brady’s decision whether to let her set up shop in the club.
“I loved Freddie’s manner from the start,” she says. “He reminded me of people I knew when I was growing up, people a lot older than me who would try to understand where I was coming from, and who realised that I might need a wee bit of help. Freddie was willing to think in a modern way: he could have just said no. His attitude has always been, Ah, well, why not give it a go?”
The building was a star turn in the Open House Belfast architecture festival and provided the setting for an immersive video installation by the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams, as part of the Household art festival. It offered a platform for the burlesque performer Teezy Overeazy, and Belfast’s first experimental film club, Glass Eye Cine, and there are plans for a roller disco.
“The line dancers normally used the room on the night we ended up staging the video piece,” says Eoin Dara, one of the curators of Household. “But we talked them into it.”
Brighdin Farren, who brought the Maple Leaf into the Open House festival, was struck by its evocative atmosphere. “It was like stepping back in time. Going through the club, you could visualise what had happened there, the kind of music, the drinks. It was like walking on to a movie set.”
One of the most popular nights out at the Maple Leaf is Auntie’s Social Club, which promises patrons “a journey back in time to 1970s Belfast in one of the last truly great sports clubs left in the city . . . Men doused in Brut, the ladies a wee bit tipsy on Babycham.”
“Sunday lunch sorted on Saturday night”
The programme at Auntie’s also includes bingo and a meat raffle – “Sunday lunch sorted on Saturday night” – as well as a resident band, fronted by Jonny Black, formerly of LaFaro, covering classic songs by the likes of Billy Idol and Neil Diamond. The band line-up also includes Nathan Connolly, the lead guitarist of Snow Patrol. Not that he or anyone else is making a big deal of it: they’re too busy singing along to Sweet Caroline.
The broadcaster and DJ Joe Lindsay, one of the promoters behind Auntie’s, says that he has been fascinated by social clubs since working in one, as a waiter, when he was a teenager. “People used to get up and sing with the band. ‘One singer, one song, ladies and gentlemen . . .’ All that. You’d eat chicken in a basket, or scampi, and everything would be in one room: drinks, food, dancing.
“I don’t want Auntie’s to be ironic or sneering; you have to have a love for something to do it well. Nathan flew straight back from LA after finishing recording with Snow Patrol. He loves it. He’s there every month. Honestly, Mark Ronson should be producing that band. He should hear them do Everyone’s a Winner. It sounds like Prince covering Hot Chocolate.”
Emma Gilles reckons the Maple Leaf has six months’ life left in it before the bulldozers arrive. But already the atmosphere is different. “I definitely see a change in mood within the club members. It has lifted. I get greeted with a smile a little bit more. I wonder what Freddie thinks.”
Join the club: three top Belfast socials
Harland and Wolff Welders Football and Social Club, Dee Street: Formed in 1959, as a meeting place for a shipyard football team, the Welders is one of the best-known institutions in east Belfast. It has become a destination for tourists following the Titanic trail.
Ulster Sports Club, High Street: Like many social clubs, the Ulster Sports is proud of its non-sectarian ethos. Founded by greyhound trainers and book-keepers in 1926, it has a constitution that keeps it in the city centre, to protect its impartiality.
Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, Church Street: This is the Northern Ireland HQ of a global non-sectarian fraternal organisation founded in 1822. The Buffs, who originated in London theatre, aim to raise money for charity and help members in times of need.