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Inspired by a love of live music, Newfoundland culture, and the art of hospitality, O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub is celebrating 16 years of business this year. But it’s more than just business to proprietors, Brenda O’Reilly and Craig Flynn.
“I grew up in a very traditional home where we always celebrated Irish Newfoundland music,” says founder Brenda O’Reilly, who looks as Irish as her name sounds. As a child growing up in Torbay, her parents’ house parties were a huge thrill. “I used to sneak down after going to bed and always seemed to end up in the middle of the fun!”
The love of music followed Brenda into adulthood and her destiny as the first female bar owner on George Street. No mere Irish bar, it’s this focus on live music that sets O’Reilly’s apart from other similar establishments.
“The stage at O’Reilly’s is what all things are designed around,” Brenda points out. “A lot of Irish pubs are places for friends to gather and talk. O’Reilly’s is that too, but Newfoundlanders NEED it to be about the music.”
It was as a homesick Newfoundlander working in Alberta in the late 1980s that Brenda O’Reilly determined her destiny.
“There was a restaurant in Fort McMurray called O’Reilly’s – once I saw my last name above that door, I thought to myself ‘I want an Irish pub back home called O’Reilly’s’”. Ten years later (and with a lot of help from a certain Craig Flynn) her dream was a reality.
Labrador-born Craig Flynn is a lanky, John Lennon look-alike whose love of music is as strong as Brenda’s. Like Brenda’s, his parents were great party givers and the outgoing Craig tells stories of “bartending” at the age of 10. The two became friends in 1992 while working at a St. John’s restaurant and soon thereafter became partners in life as well as in business. “Craig is a fantastic host,” enthuses Brenda. A series of restaurants and catering jobs followed before the pair opened the original O’Reilly’s on George Street in 1996.
Today, Newfoundland is finally reaping the rewards from offshore oil and has one of the fastest growing economies in Canada. In 1996 things were a little different. Newfoundland was still reeling from the aftershocks of the cod moratorium in 1992 and experiencing aftershocks from the recession of the early 1990s. A lot of the buildings on North America’s oldest street (Water Street) were vacant and boarded up. But there wasn’t an Irish bar yet on George Street and Brenda O’Reilly was ready to make her dream a reality.
O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub opened for business on December 5, 1996. Opening day was not without its hitches as Brenda remembers. “We had a lineup outside waiting to get in but we hadn’t received our liquor license yet so we couldn’t open,” laughs Brenda. “The license finally showed up at 4:30 – we had someone waiting at the liquor store to pick up our order so we were able to let in the first customers at 5!”
The first musicians to take the stage at O’Reilly’s were two of Newfoundland’s most iconic – Dermot O’Reilly and Fergus O’Bryne, members of the influential Newfoundland band Ryan’s Fancy.
Starting with a modest staff of five (including Brenda and Craig, and Craig’s brother Colin), O’Reilly’s expanded gradually over the years, adding bartender (now general manager) Damian Dubourdieu in 1997. “A wonderful guy with a great smile and a 5 or 6 handicap – he’s obsessed with golf,” laughs Brenda. The summer of 1997 was a turning point for the business.
“The summer when Giovanni Cabot’s replica ship, the Matthew, came into port in St. John’s we had our largest night of sales ever – it was crazy. I saw what was possible and what the potential for our brand was.” They ultimately increased the capacity of the bar to 300 by “poking” a hole in the second floor so customers upstairs could participate in the action. When an opportunity to expand further came up (by buying the property next door) the entrepreneurial couple couldn’t pass it up. They kept the same formula and the new and improved O’Reilly’s has been a huge success since opening in 2006.
O’Reilly’s is a place where the unexpectedly constantly happens. Mummers might appear for a dance on a quiet night between Christmas and New Year’s. Or a famous movie star might drop in to jam with the band. Which is what happened on June 6, 2005 when a throng of eager fans descended on O’Reilly’s to see Oscar-winner Russell Crowe perform an impromtu concert with his close friend Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea fame.
You never know who might take the stage at O’Reilly’s! It’s one of Canada’s most iconic pubs and a place where everyone dances, everyone has a good time and the music never ends (if Brenda’s got anything do it with it!).
Stay where you’re to till I comes where you’re at …
Brenda O’Reilly and Craig Flynn are EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2014™ award finalists in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Celtic Fiddlers are on tour, and perform Sat Jun 29 at the George Street Festival! Click here for tickets.
COME FROM AWAY takes you into the heart of the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that put their lives on hold and opened their homes to this world of strangers. Cultures clashed and nerves ran high, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships. Visit comefromaway.com for tickets & info.