Beer writer Simon Jenkins enjoys a last drink in a Leeds pub whose final closure has marked the end of a tradition stretching back to Victorian times.
EARLY afternoon at The Harp. Beneath flags from Donegal and Kerry, Leitrim and Clare, the regulars gathered to watch Ireland’s opening game at 2016.
Yet a week or so later, when Robbie Brady’s late goal propelled the Republic into the knockout stage, there was no-one here to watch it. This, the very last genuine Irish pub in Leeds, has closed.
There were once many, the Pointers and Maguires, the White Stag and the Roscoe, each a little piece of home for those drawn across the Irish sea, bars where a special culture of the Guinness and the craic and the ex-pat camaraderie thrived. They would come for the racing and the football, for the Irish music and to share stories of home. For an Irishman new to town, these would be the places they would find friendship, work, accommodation.
For 26 years, the Harp was run by the Roarty family. Brothers Martin and Noel and Noel’s wife Carmel came to Leeds from County Donegal to run the Woodpecker pub in York Road. These were premises which had taken a direct hit from the Luftwaffe and had risen to fight another day. But the Woodpecker was unable to hold back the bulldozers which created Quarry House junction in 1990.
The Roartys soon found a new home, though a pub called the Duke William in Cromwell Street was unlikely to draw the Catholic diaspora. The street name remained, but changing the inn-sign to The Harp presented a friendlier face to their prospective customers.
It was a ready-made constituency. Leeds has been home to a large Irish community since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It grew rapidly during the grim years of the famine, concentrated in an area east of the city centre known as The Bank, roughly centred on modern-day Richmond Hill. They shared the slums with immigrants arriving from the opposite direction, Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. Each came for a better future – but life was hard and living conditions grindingly poor. Then, as now, the pub was a refuge from the world outside. But now the last of them is closing. A final party left loyal regulars with sore heads for a couple of days and memories to last a lifetime.
Ray Brace had been coming here since its Duke William days: “We’ve seen all the pubs go, one by one, either knocked down or shut down. This is our last bastion.”
While pub culture is undergoing a renaissance in the city centre and the suburbs, the inner city is being left behind. To some degree the giant pub companies are to blame, with poorly-performing premises flattened for some more lucrative purpose. And to some degree the customers have drifted away, a demographic deterred by the smoking ban or lured by cheap supermarket booze. Quite simply, landlords in pubs like this have found it harder and harder to survive.
And when Noel died in 2012, it put more onus on Martin and Carmel to fill his shoes. They postponed their retirement for a year as they tried to sell the Harp as a going concern, before selling to a businessman with other plans. “If I’d won the lottery I would have bought it,” said Seamus, another regular. “When you had people coming over from Ireland, this is the place you would take them to.” The Harp fielded sports teams, hosted local committee meetings and was a home for the Celtic Supporters Club.
“Everyone knew everyone else. That’s the kind of place it was,” said Ray. “Here you just left your money on the bar, and the staff would take the cost of your drinks out of it.” Andy Gibney’s parents came here from County Dublin in 1971. He joined them for a fortnight to help them move – and never left. When the anti-smoking regulations came in, Andy studied them in detail before building the shelter at the back, which was essentially a well-ventilated conservatory – big windows, comfortable sofas and overhead heating. “It met the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it,” he admits.
He paid tribute to Martin as a barman: “He has a memory to die for, he knows what everybody drinks and he’ll have their pints pulled before they come to the bar. “There was a funeral party one time, and about 60 people all came at once. So Martin served them first, then went round collecting their money. He knew exactly what they’d ordered and how much they owed.”
The closure is sad too for the family which made it their home. Trisha Roarty, the daughter of Noel and Carmel, said: “There were five of us, all girls. We could always hear everything going on downstairs and we wanted to be old enough to work in the pub.”
One by one, their time came: “We started off collecting glasses before going behind the bar. It was our rite of passage. It’s only now that we’re realising what we meant to people.”
“This is going to be a big piece out of people’s lives,” said Steve, a another regular. “The older generation felt safe here. We need to have places for them to go.” As Andy said: “There’s nowhere for us now.”