9 Ferry St,
BT22 1JY

A little house with a big heart would be the best way to describe Dumigan’s grand little bar in Portaferry, a pub that has been in the Dumigan family for sixty years. There’s a remarkable story attached to it and centred upon a photograph on the wall, which looks to be not much more than a 25 foot rowing boat.

It’s hard to believe that it was in this very modest craft that three generations of Estonians – children, parents, and grandparents – escaped in 1947 from the persecution of the Russians, and made it to the freedom of America. In fact, their story can be read in the book SAILING TO FREEDOM. The amazing 128-day adventure began from a small Swedish port when sixteen men, women, and children set sail on their transatlantic voyage in the leaky old sloop, the ERMA, a boat made for four. Their 8,000-mile sea trip ended in December 1945, when the seven men, five women, and four children landed in Norfolk, Virginia. Among them was the Kunn family: Arvid, his wife, and three children. Now, what has this remarkable true-life adventure got to do with Dumigan’s Bar in Portaferry? Well, The Erma’s passengers called into Portaferry on their journey but were not allowed to land.

Local people, including the Dumigans, overcame the language barrier, understood and sympathised with their plight, and took them out provisions and anything else they needed. The refugees arrived eventually on the other side of the Atlantic, and every year since then the Kunns have been in touch with the 54 Dumigans. Not a year goes by, but an invitation comes to Portaferry for some of the Dumigan family to go out and visit them.

Above the photograph of the refugee boat is a lovely charcoal drawing by local girl Joyce Brown. Its subject is Thomas Hutton, who was a boatsman for Queen’s University, and you can also see a picture of his boat, the Sepia. Mr. Hutton was a regular in the pub all his life, but then it’s that sort of place. Once you’d drunk in it, you’d want to stay there. If there’s no room in the small bar, you can be served in the kitchen with its highly unusual fireplace, through a hatch window, or else in the sitting room which is so much like that of an ordinary private house that you have to keep telling yourself it’s part of a pub.

What’s a chamber pot, or ‘po’ in the vernacular, doing perched up proudly on the shelf behind the bar? It’s the trophy awarded during the annual Portaferry Gala to the best pub float in the parade, and Dumigan’s has won it on more occasions by far than any other bar in the town.

Their float designs are thought up by a “committee” of customers, usually at the last minute, and have included The Channel Tunnel, Egyptian Pyramids and Slaves, and Puck Fair. They’re proud of the award which is keenly contested, and it’s filled with Black Bush when it’s been won. Are you starting to see why I called it a little bar with a big heart?