Extracted from ‘The Irish Pub’ (Thames & Hudson, 2008)
When the death sentence was passed on Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618, the wily old sailor must have cast a beady eye on Henry Montagu, the Chief Justice presiding at the trial. But if Sir Walter cursed the Montagu name, it did not work. Montagu was soon raised to the peerage as Viscount Mandeville and became ancestor to the Dukes of Manchester, of whom the 13th Duke lives today in California. Amongst the family estates was Tandragee Castle in County Armagh, now the headquarters of Tayto crisps.
During the Victorian age, the Dukes made considerable efforts to improve their land-holdings in Armagh, planting orchards, developing the cotton and linen industry, building railways and canals, establishing schools, even landcscaping a golf course.
Portadown effectively belonged to the Duke. One of its main streets was Mandeville Street and at its corner stood the Mandeville Arms, known today as McConvilles. A hotel appears to have been situated here since at least 1845. At the time, this part of Portadown was a market shambles, comprising stalls for penning cattle and pigs at the fair days held on the third Saturday of every month. Linen merchants also frequented the area.
The hotels’ first proprietor was Ann Edgar, a farmer’s daughter from Ballybreagh. Her mother Mary Bruce was a descendant of the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, and brought the Edgar family a considerable dowry of lands in County Down. In 1834, Ann married Henry Hart, a wealthy distiller who later became a lay preacher with the Wesleyan Methodist church. Ann and Henry Hart lived near Shillington’s General Store at 42, Woodhouse Street, Portadown. Their first child, Sir Robert Hart, was destined to become Inspector General of China’s Imperial Maritime Custom Service and one of the central British diplomats in the Orient during the Boxer Rebellion of 1901.
The name ‘The Mandeville Arms’ is still to be found above an old rococo lantern hanging outside the iron-canopied entrance. Higher still stands a decorative folly, with the year ‘1865’ clearly etched for all to see. In that year, as North America rocked with the assassination of Lincoln, ownership of the hotel transferred to the McConville family. Rose Anne McConville, heiress to the property, married Paddy McAnallen of the pharmaceutical family. Their great-grandson Martin McAnallen sold the pub to Andrew Robinson in 2006.
The present building is said to date to 1900 and incorporates the original wooden snugs, heavily moulded ceiling and etched glass windows. Tradition claims some of the Russian Oak fittings in the bar replicate a design used on the Titanic. The original gas light fittings remain in place, now run on bottled gas. A large mirror promotes ‘McConville’s Navy Rum’, bottled in Portadown and ‘made from the finest sugar cane’. The rum was one of several drinks the McConville’s bottled during the early 20th century, including their own McConville’s whiskey, Kopke’s Invalid Port and some exceedingly strong Australian wine. Andrew has added a useful reserve stock of Old Comber whiskey bottles to this collection, discovered thirty years after the closure of the massive Comber distillery in County Down.
Andrew first saw McConville’s when he was 15 and was instantly seized with a desire to one day own the premises. His father, a farmer, has set the concept in motion when he purchased Robinson’s Bar on West Street in 1993. Ten years later, Andrew fulfilled his childhood dream when he discovered McConville’s was for sale and in danger of being converted into a travel lodge.
McConville’s is a listed pub. It is Andrew’s intention to extend the property by way of a vaulted corridor through to a new bar, incorporating a butchers shop and off-license next door. He also plans to renovate the sixteen bedrooms upstairs which, unloved since the 1960s, retain considerable charm, a thin layer of dust running over a complete set of Dickens and an extremely weighty bible.
Changes have been minimal. One of the bars features is a gas cigarette lighter in the shape of Sir Roger Tichbourne, heir to a vast estate in Hampshire and subject of one of the great impostor stories of the Victorian age. On a shelf above the dimly lit bar, a row of port bottles stand on parade, clad in brown paper bags. Guests either congregate at the bar or in one of the ten intimate leather-seated snugs running through the room. The floor is a particularly wonderful concoction of tiles – cool browns, sky blue, dusty reds – riddled with dusty cracks and fault lines.
Portadown had a rough ride during the latter decades of the 20th century, much due to the Orange Order’s annual parade along the predominantly nationalist Garvaghy Road to their church at Drumcree. The Orange Order have always been influential in the town. A hundred metres from McConville’s stands a statue of Colonel James Saunderson, one of the Order’s deputy grandmasters, his bronze foot resolutely stamped upon the Home Rule bill that ultimately led to the partition of Ulster.
Over two hundred and fifty officers and men from Portadown died during the Great War but it was the violence of the 1980s and 1990s that caused the town its greatest heartache. In January 1981, a 400lb car bomb exploded outside McConville’s, injuring ten people and causing serious damage to shops, offices and flats throughout the area. The building to the left of McConville’s was totally destroyed but remarkably the pub only lost its windows and a good deal of the original antique furniture from the bedrooms upstairs. The surrounding streets were subsequently flattened to make way for a vast shopping complex. Inevitably, the troubles caused property prices in Portadown to tumble.
‘I’m not religious one way or another’, says Andrew. ‘You can come here whatever age and whoever you are. We have no trouble here. Anything goes. Religion makes no odds’.