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Reminiscences on Winning a Pub in Ireland: A conversation with Trevor O’Driscoll

The view down William Street in Listowel, County Kerry; photo credit: Sean Carlson

While we greet St. Patrick’s Day in Rhode Island this year with parades cancelled, restaurants and pubs closed, and gatherings discouraged on account of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re looking back to the time a Providence resident won a pub in Ireland. In 1997, Trevor O’Driscoll graduated from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in history. He moved to New York City and, along the way, entered a 50-word Guinness writing contest. The prize: Finucane’s at 12 Upper William Street in Listowel, County Kerry. Motif’s Sean Carlson knows Listowel well, as his mother grew up a few miles away in the village of Moyvane. In an interview, O’Driscoll, now a middle-school teacher and resident of Providence, revisits his detour as an Irish publican.

Sean Carlson (Motif): It’s quite the story, right. You’re 23 years old, and you win not only a pub, but also the adjacent bottle shop (ie, liquor store) and residence overhead. What were you thinking?

Trevor O’Driscoll: It was all a blur. My first thought was I needed to take accounting courses, but in the end I just put all of my furniture out on the street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One month later, I was living in Ireland running the pub with two friends from Brown. One quit his graduate teaching position and the other quit his job on Wall Street. I had been a paralegal at a big law firm before leaving for the Finucane’s, and people who worked with me said I was the most famous person at the firm since a paralegal had been on “Jeopardy.”

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SC: For context, in 2004 writer Duane Swierczynski noted in The Big Book O’ Beer that Listowel had one pub for every eight residents. This stat understates the historic role of Listowel as a bustling market town with people stopping in from the surrounding area, that it has a major literary festival and horse races that bring in significant crowds, and that it’s a frequent pass-through. But yes, it had a lot of pubs. How did this inform your approach to business?

TO: It didn’t really hit me that there were so many pubs until I was actually there. It was a town of about 3,000 residents and had anywhere between 45 and 53 pubs operating at any given time. As far as business went, we were able to ride an initial wave of curiosity and excitement to keep the pub full. Over time we began to run one-pound, then one-Euro, Budweiser nights, threw parties with Fenway-style grilled sausage, pepper and onion sandwiches, and even installed a big screen television for soccer matches. But certainly the sheer number of pubs made it interesting to keep a crowd coming in regularly over the two and a half years I was there.

Trevor O’Driscoll at Finucane’s pub in Listowel, Ireland with his grandparents and his sister; photo courtesy of Trevor O’Driscoll

SC: And for all of the excitement, I’d imagine you had, there’s also a major step to running a business and an isolation in being far from home, especially at that age. Mobile phones were scarcely in existence at the time and Internet connections were hard to come by. How did you manage and any lessons from that experience about being alone and/or staying connected?

TO: We had a constant stream of visitors coming to Listowel from the States. I remember one time a good friend I made while working as a paralegal in Manhattan, John McEnroe, Sr. — yes, the tennis champion’s father — came to see us. I was only a year out of college and had plenty of friends who were eager to drop everything and come to Ireland. Some stayed for days, others for weeks. Friends of friends would seek us out too, and I was able to make trips to England and elsewhere in Europe. I bought a big old desktop computer with terrible email access and stayed in touch back home when epic-length emails were still a thing. Sports were always a great connector too. We were able to get about one NFL game a week and maybe two MLB games a week, broadcast in the middle of the night, of course. Playoffs were always a good time to connect with what was going on at home. I had everyone gambling at the bookie’s down the street on NFL games. We also made a ton of new friends. I joined a rugby team with one of the friends from Brown who was working with me there. The other friend of ours, a former All-American soccer player, joined the local football team. We also, of course, made enemies.

SC: And how about sports? You played Division I baseball while at Brown, but less than a year after watching the Florida Marlins win the World Series, you’re watching Kerry lose the All-Ireland Gaelic football semi-finals that year to Kildare. Were you baffled? Or a quick learner?

TO: I’d studied abroad at UCC in Cork, Ireland, so had a foundation of the culture. In fact, when I was studying there, I helped start a softball team. We played one game against some Dutch guys and lost 19-18 in extra innings. We ended up following GAA matches closely, and even scored tickets to the All-Ireland football championships in Dublin. I remember during that GAA run, early on in my time there, we went with a huge bus trip to one of the playoff matches a few hours away. This was when I realized how important singing was in the Irish culture. The guys on the bus belted out song after song as we drank our way to the match. I’ll never forget when they commanded us three Yanks to sing a song. A song? But we didn’t know any songs. We eventually tried to lead them in “The Star Spangled Banner.”

SC: While Ireland’s literature had long been recognized, there had been a particular stir of interest: poet Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Frank McCourt’s Angelas Ashes won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997. Do you remember what you were reading?

TO: I was definitely reading Frank McCourt and his brother Malachy’s books. I had a lot of down time there so found myself reading a lot of David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest had published only a couple of years earlier. John B. Keane was a local playwright of some renown who had his own pub in town. He had written a play about a woman who owned my pub back when women didn’t do that sort of thing. Reading definitely kept me sane-ish.

SC: You were only a couple of months into your time in Ireland when a car bomb in Omagh, County Tyrone claimed 29 lives and injured more than 200 people. While that was roughly five hours away from your new home in Listowel, how do you remember confronting the pain and impact? (Personal aside, I remember being in my aunt’s kitchen in Limerick when the horrific news came in.)

TO: I remember the profound sadness people felt, and the public moments of silence that everyone took very gravely. A year or so later I drove through Omagh and saw the devastation, still cordoned off with fencing. It was horrific.

SC: Bill Clinton made an official visit to Ireland as the sitting US President in September 1998. His motorcade actually passed through Listowel en route to the beach town of Ballybunion. Irish and American adorned storefronts and crowds gathered to watch. What was that like for you?

TO: The secret service had been through and made sure the town was secure. Rumors abound that they had even welded the manhole covers shut. We had hoped he’d stop in at our bar. In fact, we wrote the White House a letter to extend a formal invitation, but, politically speaking, it was probably wiser for him to pop in to a different locale. There were rumors that were said to have been confirmed that the secret service had vetted three pubs in town and that President Clinton would stop at one. John B. Keane’s bar down the street from mine was on the list, so I packed myself in there and waited, but he chose another pub. Later, my friends were with him when they unveiled a bronze statue of Clinton playing golf in Ballybunion.

SC: You were also there at a remarkable time of change, as Ireland’s economy was thriving and the Irish pound was still the currency but with expectation of the Euro’s arrival. How did your time there challenge or reshape your understanding of Ireland’s place in the world?

TO: Ireland benefitted majorly from the European Union. It was interesting because we were there when the switch from the Irish pound to the Euro was taking place. At first the bank account statement gave us our balance in both pounds and Euros. Then, we had to get a new cash register to handle both currencies. Eventually the switch was made. I remember people hoarding their pounds and the government warning the people they only had a limited window to convert them to Euros. This was the time of the Celtic Tiger, and lots of European Union funding was flowing in for infrastructure and construction in general. My best friend was a scaffolder and when he saw cranes he saw money. He also spoke fluent Arabic from his time in the circus as a guy who set up tents, but then became the trapeze catcher for the trapeze family that did that high-flying act and spoke Arabic. I went on a few jobs in Dublin with him. The negative consequence of this was that the new highways ended up bypassing many of the small towns and pubs that would have otherwise benefitted from folks passing through. The rise of having a TV in the pub, of which I’m guilty, started to change the culture in real ways too.

SC: Overall, you were there for a bit shy of three years. What brought you home? Were you tempted to stay on? And have you been back — or how often do you get back — since?

TO: A good friend’s dad once told me he liked what I said to a reporter when I was asked how long I’d stay. I said, “Let’s start with forever and work backward.” After three years and three different friends who stayed with me and helped with the pub, it was time to get back to the States to figure out what was next for me. I actually lived in a one-room efficiency at the Jersey Shore and tended bar while I put the pub on the market back in Listowel. It was a good way to readjust to life back home, but readjusting came with a surprising culture shock. I’d even adopted a bit of a lilt to my accent, which some people thought I put on, but I was so used to speaking in the rhythms of my adopted hometown and didn’t even know I was doing it. I got back to New York and became a newspaper reporter and editor in Brooklyn up until September 11, 2001. Then, my priorities shifted dramatically and I got into teaching.

SC: You returned to Providence to complete your master’s at Brown, then went on to teach and work in administration for a few different schools in the area. Any lessons from your time in Ireland that you bring to the classroom?

TO: Being the master of ceremonies of a sort in front of a room full of people who’ve been drinking is not entirely different than standing in front of a room full of 11-year-olds. The key is you’ve got to get them to talk to each other or you’ll get exhausted and lose your mind.

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