Duke of York owner to plough £1m into a poetry courtyard with Seamus Heaney 'Wishing Tree'

The Duke of York in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, where Willie Jack is investing to open a new Irish poetry courtyard
The Duke of York in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, where Willie Jack is investing to open a new Irish poetry courtyard

BELFAST bars czar Willie Jack is injecting another £1 million into a creative Irish poetry courtyard to complement his already unique offering of high-end tourism and hospitality must-sees in the city.

And the Commercial Court Inns Ltd director - who has already invested the thick end of £5 million into significant urban regeneration developments in the Hill Street/Cathedral Quarter areas in the last five years - believes it will attract a different type of new and young tourist and present Belfast in a positive light.

The 58-year-old entrepreneur, who owns the Duke of York, Harp Bar, Dark Horse and Friend at Hand whiskey museum as well as the New Orpheus, confirmed his latest venture as he was accorded the lifetime achievement honour at the Belfast Business Awards.

He was cited for his role in regenerating a sizeable chunk of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter and turning it into the most 'Instagrammed' part of the city and the hub of its night life.

Last year Mr Jack ploughed £3.5 million into renovating the old Harp Bar, opening a micro-brewery and providing space for a cookery school fronted by leading chef and restaurateur Niall McKenna, as well as restoring the former Half Bap Lane, linking the existing Hill Street right through to Dunbar Link.

Part of that investment was also opening the Sea Holly gallery, which houses more than £500,000 worth of paintings and writings which includes the works of Michael Longley and Neil Shawcross, and reflects much of Belfast's outstanding cultural history.

"The City Council is exploring a permanent home for the 'Writers of Belfast' collection, but rather than leave it in storage, what better way could there be to showcase these excellent pieces of work than above a pub?" Mr Jack told the Irish News.

"And now we're adding this unique Irish poetry courtyard, where an Irish oak tree will be illuminated via a laser-cut corten steel base featuring the words of Seamus Heaney's 'Wishing Tree'.

"After his mother died in 1984, Heaney wrote a sequence of poems dedicated to her memory. In one of them, he said he thought of her as the Wishing Tree, lifted, root and branch, to heaven.

"His words, and those of others like Louis MacNeice, WB Yeats and Oscar Wilde, will be reflected in our courtyard, where new murals will tell the story of the recent troubles, but in a humorous and non-partisan way.

"I genuinely believe this can become one of the top tourist attractions in Belfast in the coming years and help drive the city's economy, showing this amazing city off in a positive light."

At the Belfast Business Awards Mr Jack, whose combined businesses provide work for more than 120 people (including many from his Glens and Ballymena home patch), was described as "a true Belfast gent" and an inspiration not just to the licensed trade, but to businesses of any type.

An alumni of the London School of Economics, he has been in the catering and hospitality industry since the early 1980s, where he combined his role as joint director of Hamilton & Kirk, one of Northern Ireland’s leading outside catering companies, with that as a leading Belfast publican and antiques dealer.

Alongside his late business partner Bruce Kirk, he has owned the Duke of York for more than 30 years, and today the Commercial Court family has extended to half a dozen thriving establishments.

In a citation at the awards, bar owner and Belfast Chamber member Michael Stewart added: "Willie Jack's huge contribution to the city’s burgeoning economy, alongside excellence in the running of his Belfast pubs, have significantly contributed to the unique offering in our city.

"He's a man who doesn’t do flash, who does love his antiques, and who is as passionate about the Northern Ireland hospitality industry as he is about Belfast.

"Willie demonstrates all that is brilliant about Belfast – hard working, entrepreneurial and a creative genius whose passion for artwork and live music has transformed his slice of the Cathedral Quarter."