McNamara’s Pub still on top of world

Friday, May 24, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 21
By Joe Morris | Correspondent

drink and decor. The combination led to worldwide publicity from an Irish magazine, drawing newcomers to Donelson. 

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Maybe it’s the authentic Irish music, both live and on the sound system. Perhaps it’s the food, certainly likely with a chef named Magic.

Or it could be the décor, or maybe that one of the owners is actually from Ireland … but whatever it is, McNamara’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in Donelson is really, really Irish.

So much so that Ireland of the Welcomes, a Dublin-based publication with a worldwide distribution, named McNamara’s to the No. 1 spot on its list of “Top 10 Irish Pubs Worldwide” earlier this year.

“We had a ‘call to action’ in our previous issue, which asked readers to write in nominating their favorite Irish pub in their own locality, or one anywhere in the world that stood out for them,” says Shauna O’Halloran, the magazine’s editor. “McNamara’s received a number of entries and was one of the first entries to arrive, too!”

Winning this particular contest is notable. While many Tennesseans may not know the publication, Irish ex-pats are well aware of it. Ireland of the Welcomes is aimed at a worldwide audience, especially those of Irish descent. It boasts around 190,000 readers, and has been publishing since 1952.

But wait, there’s more on the awards front: The pub also made the Huffington Post best-pubs list on St. Patrick’s Day, and the twin accolades have left owner Sean McNamara a bit shell-shocked.

McNamara's Pub

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“We really haven’t been going after a lot of publicity; this has all just really fallen into our lap,” McNamara says. “But we’re certainly pleased.”

McNamara and his wife, Paula, opened the pub in 2010. The site was one he’d driven by “thousands of times,” and a quick tour allowed him to see the possibilities.

“I’ve been in town since 1995 and have been working in the Irish pub industry at just about every place in Nashville since then,” he says. “We live in Pennington Bend, our children go to Holy Rosary Academy, and so when we began looking for our own place we walked into this building and realized that it would be the perfect venue for us.”

In addition to his own pub experience, he had a leg up on authenticity thanks to Paula, who’d come to the United States from Ireland in 1997 to work at what is now the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.

“Ireland’s tourist board was hosting people to come over and learn the hospitality trade, and then they were supposed to go back and staff the major hotels,” McNamara explains. “I was able to convince her to stay.”

The McNamaras opened the pub along with general manager and business partner Kirk Orndorff, and it was a quick hit with local Irish ex-pats, and has drawn a steady and growing clientele thanks to a family-friendly atmosphere. But first and foremost, McNamara says, it’s about being as Irish as possible in the middle of Tennessee.

Ireland of the Welcomes, a Dublin-based publication with a worldwide distribution, named McNamara’s to the No. 1 spot on its list of “Top 10 Irish Pubs Worldwide” earlier this year.

“I learned a lot in the years I worked at Mulligan’s downtown and other Irish-themed places,” he says. “If you’re going to do it, you have to be authentic. The first thing is the music. I’m a stickler about it. People really underestimate how much a soundtrack does for a place. The colors, the atmosphere, the music, all the way to the pot of tea … it’s like stepping into home if you’re Irish.”

He’s got the music fairly well covered, being an Irish musician himself with a fair amount of exposure over the years. He is a member of house band Nosey Flynn, just to keep his hand in. Guest artists who appeared have included Irish folk singer Finbar Furey, vocalist Sean Keane and accordionist Jimmy Keane to supplement those efforts.

On the food front, he credits Chef Francis “Majic” Gyelbi with another bit of cred, that of a spot on Urban Spoon’s Top 100 family friendly restaurants. What’s more, the pub’s also been featured on “Eden’s Eats.”

But even with all this, McNamara still says the magazine honor took him by surprise.

“We’d gotten an email saying they were going to run a special on Irish pubs around the world, and so Paula jumped on it, sent over a few photos and gave them a rundown on what we’re all about,” he says. “A few months later, a customer walked in and said their list was out. I asked if we’d made the list; he told us we were in the top spot. It really came out of left field.”

This was the first year for the reader’s poll, O’Halloran says, adding that she and the magazine staff were pleased with the “great response, amazing feedback from the pubs that got mentioned, and the sheer passion from people waxing lyrical about their favourite places to get an Irish pint. It will certainly be happening again.”

And as for a Donelson pub on top of the pile, she only adds that “Ireland of the Welcomes readers are all over the world, from Tennessee to New Jersey to Canada and Australia, New Zealand ... you name it. Our entries reflected that and perhaps highlighted just how many great, authentic Irish bars there are all over the world,” she says.

“Readers always commended things like Irish music sessions, good Irish porter and stout and a real Irish welcome when it came to telling us what they loved about their local bars, and McNamara’s scored highly on all three.”