Photo: Patricia Bour-Schilla
Saint Paul, Minnesota: Everyone’s heard the tale of how it was built by drunken Irishmen who are responsible for the nonsensical layout of winding streets. Congruently, everyone who lives or has ever lived in Saint Paul knows that the one thing this city will never be without is its abundance of Irish pubs. My grandpa Roy was raised in the heart of this city where he brought up five children with the help of his lovely wife, Helen. Like many typical working men of Saint Paul, his three loves were family, friends, and O’Gara’s Bar.
On the corner of Selby and Snelling avenues, the green awnings of O’Gara’s are known to many. In the late 1940s, shortly following World War II, my grandpa chose this neighborhood bar as a meeting place for friends and fellow vets to unwind each Friday after a long work week. They’d share a few laughs, a few drinks, and memories from Pearl Harbor. Primarily Irish, it became a melting-pot of backgrounds and ideas.
As my dad and uncles grew, they, too, came to call the bar theirs on Friday nights. No matter how blustery, rainy, or muggy, they still made it out for a cold one. On the rare occasion that trips or vacations couldn’t be avoided, there was always a phone call to the bar making sure everyone was in good spirits.
At the age of five I was already acquainted with the place my grandpa referred to as “The Club.” I attended O’Gara’s Santa Claus breakfast and sat on Santa’s lap while my cousins chased each other around the room. I remember the sight of my grandpa sipping brandy gingers, surrounded by his aging circle of friends.
I remember squeezing into a booth after a softball game, slurping my club soda and listening to my grandpa regaling his friends with stories of Ireland. I longed for the day when I could sit on the bar stool beside him with stories of my own. I’d tilt my head and watch as he opened the can of ginger ale he’d brought from home and pour it into his tumbler of brandy. He never complained that they didn’t serve ginger ale, he simply brought his own. The bartenders, along with the owners, Dan and Tim, never failed to make us feel welcome, and often before they knew it they’d be lost in the conversation. The topics amongst the boisterous crowd would inevitably lead back to varied opinions regarding politics, Cretin-Derham Hall sports, and good beer.
The grand age of twenty-one marked not only a milestone in my family, it was also a rite of passage. I, like my cousins and second cousins before me, was presented with my first beer and a walleye dinner at O’Gara’s. My grandpa was sure to treat anyone sitting at our table. He could turn even the moodiest bar-goers into friends with his ebullient laugh.
Slowly, as is life, the rosy faces of that hearty group began to fade. Whether it was due to a stroke or lung cancer, one by one, their bar stools sat empty. The winter of 2007 brought the news that my grandpa had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember sitting at the bar the first Friday he was too sick to make it out. I knew then it wasn’t good, because nothing kept him from his bar. Dan continued to send walleye dinners to his home each Friday.
His heart put up a good fight until he left us in the spring. I thought it would be too painful to set foot in my grandpa’s bar without him, yet it has now become more a part of me than ever. No matter how unpredictable life is, I know that on any given Friday night I can walk into O’Gara’s and find my family. I’ll find cousins who’ve returned with amazing stories of China and South America. I’ll find uncles offering free legal advice, and I’ll find my dad, with a beer waiting for me.
Collette DeNet was born and raised in Saint Paul. Do not be fooled by the spelling of her last name: it does not rhyme with her first name (the ‘t’ is silent). This bright young twenty-four-year old is an avid Guinness drinker and travel enthusiast. She also has a deep love for acoustic ’70s ballads and Irish folk songs. If you ever need to find her, she is probably walking around Como Lake with her dogs singing a cheesy ’70s ballad.