Limerick publican drinks to his success in Saskatchewan

Source: Lorraine Mallinder, The Irish Times

WILD GEESE : Niall O’Hanlon, pub owner in  Saskatchewan, Canada

NIALL O’HANLON was probably destined to be a publican. The Limerick native may have been born into a family of teetotallers, but he started working in pubs at the tender age of 16, later dropping out of university to dedicate himself to his calling.

Now in his late 30s and living in Canada, O’Hanlon owns one of Saskatchewan’s most popular watering holes.

The move to Canada stemmed from a chance meeting with an unsuspecting backpacker while O’Hanlon was managing a pub in Galway (instead of studying for his degree in accountancy). She had only come to Ireland on a two-day flying visit to apply for a UK visa, but ended up working for O’Hanlon for two years.

The pair are now happily married. “She’s a social worker. She fixes the problems I create,” he quips.

The couple upped sticks for Canada in the late 1990s. O’Hanlon was so sure of what he was doing that he sold his house. “I was the only idiot leaving Ireland when it was booming,” he recalls. “But I knew what I wanted to do.”

Once in Regina, Saskatchewan, he set about trying to open a pub of his own, pinpointing a potential venue owned by a Greek businessman. And the Greek’s response to his proposal: “You’re an immigrant, I’m an immigrant. We’ll work it out.”

Work it out they did, although going by his own description, O’Hanlon’s pub was a bit of a dive in the early days. “We were the ugliest pub in the country,” he says. “If I showed you a picture, you’d never go there. It had magnolia walls, a grey carpet, warped tables and fish-and-chip chairs.”

Essentials in place, O’Hanlon set about recreating the atmosphere of his favourite haunts in Ireland. He also sold draught beer, a relative novelty in the province at that time. Word got out and slowly the venture grew.

O’Hanlon is quick to point out that the eponymous choice of name for the pub was not his. “It’s like, look at the guy with the big ego!” he laughs.

His business partner covertly ordered the signs while he was away on holiday.

Evidently, the move did no harm. Today, O’Hanlon’s is the city’s most popular live music venue, attracting a diverse clientele of suits, beards and hipsters. Its live shows include anything from death metal to traditional Irish jigs – with no cover charge.

Over the years, the pub has undergone a full makeover and a sizeable expansion, with 45 staff now on the payroll. Remarkably, there has been next to no staff turnover during this time.

“We’ve had some university students who are now bartenders for life,” he says. “I’m passing on the corruption.”

Not content with selling beer, O’Hanlon also wants to make it. Having just completed a five-year correspondence course, he is in the process of opening his own brewery. “I did the certificate to be sure I didn’t poison anyone,” he laughs.

Contrary to Ireland, there is little regulation of the industry in Canada, meaning that “technically you could walk off the street and start brewing”.

There are two ales in preparation: Moustache Stout and Kinda Rectangular (the latter inspired by the flat, angular landscape of Saskatchewan).

With his gift of the gab, O’Hanlon makes it all sound like a walk in the park. But he has worked hard to get to where he is, toiling up to 85 hours a week – “I like to call myself the head dishwasher,” he says.

On a more serious note, O’Hanlon believes there are no shortcuts to success. “When you’re coming over, no matter whether you’re employed by someone else or yourself, you have to work. Nobody’s going to hand you anything,” he says.

His accountancy studies, albeit truncated, have served him well. Over the past decade or so, the pub’s expansion has been funded by cash only. “If nothing else, I learned that,” he says.

O’Hanlon claims he got lucky, but a major contributor to his success was creating a niche.

Lately, he has noticed a lot of highly qualified Irish immigrants arriving in town, prompting talk of a new hurling team. They are drawn by the ongoing boom, fuelled by discoveries of resources such as natural gas, petroleum and potash.

“It’s like Ireland in the ’90s, but it’s booming at a higher level,” he says. House prices, including that of the two-bedroom bungalow he bought on arrival, have trebled.

While O’Hanlon has created a little bit of home in his Saskatchewan pub, he still maintains strong links with Ireland. He is currently trying to buy back his old family home so he can eventually return with his wife and two children. “I consider this home,” he says of Saskatchewan. “But I think I’ll always be Irish no matter what.”

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