How a Jersey town saved its Irish heart

Kilkenny House after Irene.

Hurricane Irene was approaching the northeast last August, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie famously told his fellow citizens to “get the hell off the beach.”

It was pretty sound advice. But the governor said nothing about getting the hell off South Avenue in Cranford, many miles from the nearest beach.

Turns out he should have.

The storm hit on Saturday, Aug. 27. Within a matter of hours, South Avenue and other parts of Cranford were taking on water as drainage systems failed and a modest river nearby overflowed its banks.

Barry O’Donovan, owner of a pub in Cranford named Kilkenny House, jumped into a friend’s Hummer two days later to inspect the damage to his business. Nothing could have prepared him for what he found.

“The basement is about 10 feet deep, and it was filled with water,” O’Donovan recently recalled.

“The water in the main dining areas was two and a half feet high. Everything was ruined: electricity, furniture, supplies, everything.”

Kilkenny House, named for the county where O’Donovan was born 52 years ago, was more than O’Donovan’s place of business. It represented his life’s work, and his commitment to his adopted home of Cranford, a charming town in Union County where he and his wife, Peg, are raising their two sons, Kevin and Tim.

On that Monday in August, as he surveyed the destruction in his pub, O’Donovan came to one conclusion: “I’m done.”

He was wrong.

“I gave myself a day for self-pity, for grieving,” O’Donovan said one recent morning in the pre-lunch calm of the pub’s dining room. “After I got over the self-pity, I realized I had to re-open,” he said.

“I don’t know anything else except this.”

By “this,” O’Donovan meant the hospitality business. He has been working in pubs since coming to New York in the summer of 1979. The visit was intended to be a family reunion as O’Donovan was in New York to visit his brother, Declan, an Irish diplomat then stationed at the United Nations. (Declan O’Donovan is now the Irish ambassador to Portugal.) But O’Donovan was offered a short-term job at Joyce’s, an Irish place in midtown Manhattan. He left after the summer, but returned the following year and was again offered a job at Joyce’s.

“They asked me if I wanted to be a bus boy,” O’Donovan said. “I had to tell them that I had only a learner’s permit – I couldn’t drive a bus.” The manager explained that a permit would not be required, and O’Donovan soon learned that bussing tables isn’t quite like driving a bus.

O’Donovan kicked around the Irish pub scene in New York for more than 20 years, finally getting a chance to own his own place, Judge and Jury in Bay Ridge, in 2003, this not long after he and his family moved to Cranford. Five years later, tired of the commute to Bay Ridge, O’Donovan opened Kilkenny House.

“One thing I couldn’t believe,” he said, “this town where every second boy is named Kevin and all the girls are named Maura and Bridget had no Irish pub. It’s a family-oriented town, so I decided to open a place where families could come for dinner. I wasn’t looking for a place that would be packed at midnight. I don’t care about that.”

The “place” took off, mostly through word of mouth. O’Donovan, drawing on what was now long experience of the Irish pub scene, created a space that looked friendly, authentic, and clear. A fireplace gave it a homey feel while the dark wood bar and hardwood floors added authenticity.

But there was more to Kilkenny House than Gaelic steak and a couple of pints. O’Donovan, a wiry man who looks fit enough to keep up with his pre-teen sons on the soccer field, eagerly became involved in his home town’s volunteer and service organizations.

He was a coach, he was a member of the town’s business association, he developed a rapport with the local fire and police departments, and he became active in his neighborhood school’s PTA.

And so, in the aftermath of Irene, when he decided that he wasn’t “done” after all, he found out that he wasn’t alone, either.

Volunteers soon began coming by to help clear the place of debris. Local merchants brought over meals for workers and volunteers. Contractors stayed on the job above and beyond the call of an invoice. Some of his staff stayed on to help rebuild; those who couldn’t were hired temporarily by other businesses in the town.

O’Donovan didn’t have flood insurance, but he did get a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration, which helped ease the cost of reconstruction.

Six weeks later, in early October, Kilkenny House re-opened for business. The place was so packed with friends and well-wishers that O’Donovan had to stand on the bar to ask for quiet, so he could thank everybody who helped out.

“I was bawling my eyes out, I’ll tell you,” he said. “You know, some people wanted to do a benefit for me, but that wouldn’t have been right, because lots of people had it far worse. Some people lost their homes in the storm. My benefit was seeing everybody in that room the night we re-opened. That was benefit enough for me.”

So far from being done, Barry O’Donovan has picked up where he left off. Thanks to his neighbors, his family, and his singular determination.

Source: TERRY GOLWAY, the Irish Echo

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