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An Irish Publican Cashes in on a Yankee Republican

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Three strangers strolled into John O’Farrell’s pub in Ballyporeen, Ireland last November and announced that they had uncovered a marketable resource in the ould sod of the County Tipperary village—Ronald Reagan’s roots. The strangers, who were researchers from Debrett’s Peerage, the sober British gazetteer of blueblood genealogy, had traced the President’s lineage to his great-grandfather Michael O’Regan, who was baptized in Ballyporeen in 1829. Michael eventually emigrated to England, and then to Illinois, during the potato famine. But the news inspired O’Farrell. Before you could say “Billy Beer,” he dubbed his adjoining (and previously nameless) cocktail lounge “The Ronald Reagan.” Then he advertised its new identity with a 16-foot fluorescent sign that glows like a peat fire in the tiny hamlet of 300. This week O’Farrell is celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with fresh enthusiasm—and looking forward to making his pub a presidential tourist attraction to rival Plains, Ga.

O’Farrell, 42, has worked his own brand of blarney to out-hype Ballyporeen’s five other barkeeps. First he garnished his pub with an American flag and a display tracing the Reagan connection. Then he organized an Inauguration Day parade down the heart of the village and, of course, right past his pub. In his enthusiasm to boost Ballyporeen, O’Farrell fell victim to an apparent hoax. He announced that Dwight Franklin, a White House aide, had phoned his pub to lay the groundwork for a presidential visit later this year. The subsequent discovery that no such person works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t dampen O’Farrell’s ardor. As Father Eanna Condon, the curate of Ballyporeen, sagely observes, “He’s a businessman keen to make a penny out of this. More power to him. Most of the others couldn’t care less.”

O’Farrell’s own Ballyporeen roots go at least as deep as Reagan’s. He comes from a 200-year-long line of local tavernkeepers. But before becoming a publican he tried his hand at teaching and laboring. “It seemed,” he said, “that I knew all along where I’d be.” Since he took over the family establishment in 1965, he has brought the pub into the 20th century. “Comfort was nonexistent in the old days,” he remembers, “and women never seen.” But O’Farrell modernized the place, adding seats (there are now 250) and dancing space and inviting the ladies. “This is going to be fantastic,” O’Farrell burbles of the Reagan brouhaha. So far, Ballyporeen has not been overwhelmed by the furor. O’Farrell’s wife, Mary, who says she once met Reagan on a trip to visit her brother in California, is philosophical about whatever develops. “We’re kind of stuck with it,” she shrugs, “so we’ll cope the best we can.”