As soon as I was old enough to recognize such things, I realized that people of Irish descent were considered to be somewhat different than other people.
In elementary school, during the annual recognition of Saint Patrick’s Day, it seemed that everyone wanted to be Irish. Posters of green shamrocks and little, leaping leprechauns were taped on our classroom walls and were used to decorate the cafeteria.
My friends thought it was really cool that I was of Irish descent. On St. Patrick’s Day, they would muster up their best imitation of an Irish brogue. Phrases like, “Erin go Bragh” and “Faith and Begorrah” were slurred about without any thought of what they meant.
Many people would put an O’ in front of their last name and pretend to be Irish for the day. It was fun.
It didn’t stop in high school. In 1968, when I started college, there were two strengths of beer. Regular beer had an alcohol content of about 6%. It was illegal to buy regular beer unless you were over 21 years old, but as soon as you turned 18 you could buy beer with an alcohol content of 3.2%.
At that time, Oxford, Ohio, the home of Miami University, was reputed to have the highest output of 3.2 beer of any other city in the world. On St. Patrick’s Day, every drop of it was dyed green.
Bars opened early on Saint Paddy’s Day so they could start selling their green beer before classes started. It was a good day to be Irish at a bar in Oxford. People seemed to enjoy buying a beer for a guy named Riley. I encouraged it.
I attended Mrs. Duncan’s English composition class that March 17, but I don’t recall a thing she said that morning. She did ask me something, but I have no idea what I answered. She did laugh.
I always thought it would be great fun to visit a real Irish pub. The word pub is short for “public house.” A pub is different than a bar. In most of the bars I have been in, you need to shout to be heard over the music.
I had heard that pubs were different. Pubs were designed for talking and visiting with friends. A soccer match might be playing on a TV, but people in a pub would to be there primarily to enjoy each other’s company.
Debbie and I were looking forward to finding a genuine Irish pub when we traveled to Ireland with a group of staff and students from Wilmington College in the spring of 2014. Our first stop on the Emerald Isle was Dublin. Our tour bus picked us up at the airport and took us to the Belvedere Hotel near Parnell Square.
It was not the fanciest hotel in the city, but the location was great. As soon as we dropped off our luggage we went for a walk. We wanted to stretch our legs after the long flight, but in reality, we were most interested in finding and experiencing our first Irish pub.
We were just going to walk around the block, but after turning two corners, we found it — or it found us.
There it sat, directly across the street. A patron was standing on the sidewalk just outside the pub’s door. He took his cigarette out of his mouth and shouted at us, “Ya’ look like you’re tourist in need of a pint. Come on over!”
The large sign above the door heralded the pub’s name: “O’Reilly’s Pub.” We had no choice.
We found a comfortable booth and settled in. From behind the bar, the bartender shouted, “What’ll it be?” I ordered a Guinness and Debbie asked for an Irish coffee.
It always takes at least five minutes to get a Guinness at an Irish pub. It’s much more than just pulling on a tap. It is a process of drawing some Guinness, letting the brew rest for a few minutes, and then completing the process by drawing the shape of a shamrock on the head of the Guinness. It is a time-consuming and wonderful process.
As we waited, he came over to say it would be a while for Debbie’s Irish coffee because they were out of Irish cream.
“But, not to worry,” he said. “I’ve sent for it.” Come to find out, one of their regular customers had volunteered to dash to nearby store to buy it. Now, that’s customer service.
As our drinks arrived, so did some friends from the tour. Our dear friend, Wilma McBrayer, and a few others stopped in. It was a joy. Immediately, we were treated like we were regulars, laughing, chatting and getting to know each other.
Wilma let it slip that I was the Mayor of Wilmington. Then the teasing really started. It was pure good-natured laughter and fun as they joked with “The Mayor.”
We visited many other pubs while we traveled throughout Ireland, but none provided as much joy as O’Reilly’s Pub.
Several days later, as we left the pub to head back home, we felt like we were leaving friends and family. I would have loved to hear an Irish blessing as we departed. We didn’t hear it, but we feel it.
“May the road rise to greet you. May the sun be always at your back and may ya’ be in heaven a full hour afore the devil knows you’re dead.”
Erin go bragh. Ireland forever.
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.