Life-sized memories in a pint-sized glass

Bartender reflects on 16 years at the most-loved bar in the country

Josh Pennell
Published on December 12, 2014
Damian Dubourdieu has been tending bar at O’Reilly’s Pub for 16 years.
­— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

“Bartending is about social interactions between people, not just sort of cracking a beer and putting it in front of somebody.”

That’s Damian Dubourdieu’s take on it, and he should know. He’s been slinging spirits at O’Reilly’s Irish Newfoundland Pub on George Street for close to 16 years — just a little more than a year after the place first opened.

Recently, O’Reilly’s was named the country’s most-loved bar after a voting campaign put off by enRoute Magazine and Rickard’s Beer.  

“It’s more about the scene. And part of the job of the people that work there is to set that scene and make people feel comfortable. And when you boil it all down and try and wrap it up in a couple of words, I think that’s the key to our success,” he says.

O’Reilly’s opened just next door to where it is now. The capacity was 99 people, Dubourdieu remembers. After about 10 years, they needed to find a new home.

That can be problematic for a bar. Though it was just a jaunt next door, Dubourdieu recalls people — customers and staff — wondering if it was going to be the same.

“No, it wasn’t the same. But we actually grew and we got bigger,” he says.

Quick start

And they started from Day 1. They shut down the old spot on a Wednesday. Ten days later, the new location opened its doors on a Friday night.

“Basically, they laid down saws and hammers and nails and all this sort of stuff at 8. We cleaned up for an hour and we opened by 9,” Dubourdieu says. “Now, when we opened, it wasn’t quite ready to go-go but, hey, the spirit was still there. We still had live music. Dermot (O’Reilly) and Fergus (O’Byrne) played that night.”

The place has been growing ever since. Soon the capacity will be somewhere between 700 and 800, according to Dubourdieu.

It’s the Irish-Newfoundland culture mashed up with the music and atmosphere that gives the place the goods, he figures. But those are ingredients plenty of places toss in. Follow the recipe all you want and you’ll rarely get the same product on the other end.

“A big part of the success is just recognizing people and remembering them if you can,” Dubourdieu says. “It’s like having a big group of friends. The people on your Facebook — there are people you probably meant once. There are probably people you meet once every couple of months and probably people you meet once every five years.”

“But you do your best to remember something about them. You remember their drink. You show recognition in your eyes even if their name escapes you. It gives people a sense of comfort and belonging. With the music and the swell of the crowd, you’re not always in a position to speak for longer than the break between songs, anyway.

“You’re the master of a four-second conversation,” Dubourdieu laughs.

“Through the ebb and flow of the night, you read the crowd and the mood of the place. You change with it, giving what’s needed and what you can.”

Enjoyable job

Sixteen years ago, Dubourdieu applied for a job bartending because he didn’t have one, but he did have a student loan.

“I actually enjoyed myself and I still actually enjoy myself because what it comes to is dealing with people.”

That means dealing with some people who have a real ineptitude at handling a good time, but also getting to know the regulars that you take to. There’s also being there for special moments, the most memorable for Dubourdieu being when Ryan’s Fancy played a reunion show — and what would be their last performance together.

“There was grown men crying,” he says.

That’s likely not the only time he’s seen grown men cry in the bar. He’s witnessed the younger musicians come and watch the seasoned ones, turning the place into a music school as much as a pub. He’s met people from all over the world.

“Outside of the 9/11 (incident), nobody comes to Newfoundland by accident,” says Dubourdieu.

We’re still too far off the beaten path for such accidents. But no matter how people get here — by hook or by crook — and no matter where they come from, people are often drawn to a pub. In St. John’s that pub is often O’Reilly’s.