The Rotterdam Bar in Belfast’s Sailortown has a long association with popular music, right back to the first days of real pop in the early nineteen-sixties. But obviously the place itself is a lot older than that. Under its layers of colourful paint, the façade looks to be from about 1820, although the angle and slates of the roof look a little older, so there’s possibly an eighteenth-century building there which was fashionably updated when a few decades old.
According to local stories, the building was a holding centre for prisoners on their way to transported exile in Australia before becoming a bar, some time before 1900. In the late 1800s, the small docks and basins in the area had been filled in, leaving the Rotterdam more urban than dockside, but it still attracted a somewhat maritime clientele, as well as the ladies who made their living from passing trade.
Another visitor was “Buck” Alec Robinson, who was a small-time criminal who lived in Sailortown in the first half of the 1900’s. What marked him out from the average hoodlum was that he had a pet lion (or possibly two: sources disagree), which he would take for walks in the streets. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Buck Alec wasn’t just some picaresque and colourful character; he was a terrorist and murderer, personally responsible for at least five sectarian killings, and leader of a gang of psychotic thugs. What’s more, although it has not been conclusively proven, it is likely that some of his murders were secretly commissioned by the “respectable” government of the new Northern Ireland as part of a terror campaign against a perceived Irish Nationalist “threat”.
But it wasn’t all hoods. By the sixties, you had hippies and rockers playing sets in the “compact” front room. Van Morrison, Henry McCullough, all the greats. There was always variety, but the general musical theme depended on the tastes of the management at any particular time. People still remember fondly the biker/metal period evidenced by the many posters now layering the ceiling.
But then, disaster. In the ballooning property boom of the 21st century, the whole area was bought up for “redevelopment”. Everything apart from the Rotterdam (and Pat’s Bar, to which it’s connected) and the Catholic church was demolished and levelled. It made me think of photos of war devastation, like Dresden or Coventry or even Hiroshima. The parishioners fought a long, and eventually successful, battle against the Church authorities to have their church retained in use. People campaigned to keep the Rotterdam open and a series of brave individuals took over the lease and continued trading and hosting gigs.
But support for the Rotterdam was lacking in those with power to do something about it. Planning permission was granted to demolish the historic building and replace it with a lovely block of apartments. The only thing holding that back has been the collapse of the housing market, and that can only be a temporary situation. Sooner or later, the Rotterdam will be no more than a footnote in history.
Yet, in defiance of all expectation, the Rotterdam is still open for business and still hosting live bands. I’ll be playing a gig with Cold Comfort tonight. Come down and see us: it might be your last chance.