With the month of March upon us and St. Patrick's Day just a couple of weeks away, I figured I'd find someone with whom to discuss Irish music. Growing up in a Catholic family with a father who idolized Dylan Thomas to the point that he named my younger brother after his love for the late poet (and, it could be argued, his equal love for Bob Dylan), to say I was exposed to Irish culture is an understatement. Heck, my little bro got off easy with his Scotch-Irish first and last name combo. In Gaelic, the name Devin means "bard" or "poet," and Grant is an old Scottish surname, complete with its own crest and tartan pattern. So yeah, I grew up eating corned beef on St. Patty's Day, lamb with mint jelly for Easter, and somehow I avoided the Irish drinking curse, which, depending on which Irishman you ask, can also be considered a blessing (it might help a bit that I was adopted).
Of course, any good Irish upbringing had to include music, and my father was once again on the ball in that regard. I grew up listening to the likes of the Irish Rovers and The Chieftains, and once I was out on my own I continued to be attracted to Irish bands, including Van Morrison, Clannad, Black 47, Hothouse Flowers, Sinead O'Connor, The Waterboys, and of course, U2.
But enough about me. I was up for discussing Irish music, and then my buddy Alan Coker reminded me that this past week marked the 10th anniversary of Madra Rua, one of the coolest, and certainly the most authentically Irish pubs in the Lowcountry (sorry Tommy Condons). Perfect! What better folks to talk to about all things Irish than Madra Rua co-owners Stephen O'Connor and Robert "Spense" Spencer. I headed over to the pub and was soon seated across from the pair in one of the cozy nooks that make Madra Rua feel so authentically Irish (yes, I've been in a few Irish pubs in Dublin and Killarney).
On the Music: O'Connor personally picks out most of the music you hear playing in Madra Rua. "You'll hear more jigs and reels during the day," said O'Connor, who hails from Ireland and despite living in the U.S. for years, still has that wonderful accent that makes one think of the Island of Saints and Scholars fondly. "Later on in the evening though, you'll hear a good mix of more modern Irish artists." O'Connor lists The Dubliners and The Chieftains as favorites, and also gives props to up-and-coming act The Coronas, who are relatively unknown in America, but who beat out U2 at the 2010 Meteor Awards (the Irish equivalent of our Grammy Awards) for Best Irish Album.
On Madra Rua's Start & its Primo Park Circle Neighborhood: O'Connor moved to the U.S. from Ireland in the 90s, initially working as an engineer for a construction company on Nantucket in Massachusetts before relocating to Charleston through his job in 1998. The idea for Madra Rua came out of necessity. "I missed the feel of a real pub," said O'Connor. After meeting Spencer by chance ("My wife was in a band with Spence's brother," says O'Connor) the two became fast friends. And after hearing his friend pine for a real Irish pub one time too often, Spense suggested he simply open one, and offered to go in as a partner.
The pair searched for just the right location for their bar and found it on East Montague Avenue in North Charleston. Back in the first few years of the millennium, that now trendy neighborhood was still emerging from years of being known as one of those parts of town where you automatically locked your car doors while driving through it. Despite the fact that the neighborhood was starting to improve, the news that O'Connor and Spenser were building a pub there was met with curiosity by their friends. "They said 'You're really opening a bar on Montague?'" recalls Spencer, grinning. "At the time there were a few businesses in the surrounding blocks, including Aunt Bee's, Johnny's, and Idle Hour," says O'Connor, "but people thought we were crazy for picking that location."
Ten years later O'Connor and Spencer look like geniuses. The Park Circle neighborhood is in the middle of a full scale renaissance, and while plenty of other trendy restaurants and nightspots have sprung up (EVO Pizza, The Mill, Cork), Madra Rua is still viewed by many as an anchor business in the community.
On Why It Works: According to O'Connor and Spencer, business was good from the minute they opened the doors back in 2003. "It's hard to believe it's already been 10 years," said Spencer in a recent press release. "My best memories have to do with the neighborhood and the neighbors. From the day we opened our doors, the neighborhood supported us so strongly. We tried to build an awesome place for people to gather, but it takes a community to make a pub with soul. I've made some of the best friends a man could ask for at the pub."
O'Connor points out that part of the appeal of Madra Rua is that it truly feels like an Irish pub. "We're not here to see how many television sets we can cram into the bar to show the most football games," says O'Connor. While there are a few sets placed around the bar, they mostly show soccer and rugby matches from overseas. The volume is kept low. O'Connor and his staff want the pub to be a place where friends can meet up and actually hear one another talk. They tried live music for awhile, but eventually moved away from having musicians play. "It's more about the socializing," says O'Connor. Business became so good that the pub eventually expanded to a space next door. O'Connor remembers trying to cut through the 23-inch brick wall that separated the original pub space from the expansion space next door. "We bought a miniature jackhammer and exhausted ourselves trying to punch through that wall," remembers Spencer. "Finally, after hours of getting nowhere, we got a friend who had a diamond-tipped saw. He sliced through that wall like it was warm butter." The pub also made news recently by going completely non-smoking (previously one half of the bar allowed smoking), even though there's not yet an anti-smoking ordinance in North Charleston. "We just thought it would be a good idea," said O'Connor, "and so far our customers have been very positive about the change.
On St. Patrick's Day!: Madra Rua already hosts some popular annual events, such as the Lowcountry Lebowski Celebration each June and what has become the Lowcountry's biggest St. Patrick's Day celebration in March. They'll be doing it again this year, on Saturday March 16th from 12-8 p.m.