My Irish literature professor in college saw my full name on the first day as he checked off attendance. “Kelleher?” he asked. “You know that’s the name of an Irish king?”
Then, after a moment, he dropped the punch line, “But all families were kings in Ireland, kings of their own little plot of green.” He laughed heartily.
I hadn’t yet learned about the many, many kings of Ireland, but soon enough it would make sense. It’s a country of beautiful fields, dramatic cliffs, continually warring chieftains and big, healthy pours of Guinness.
At Brian Boru Public House, an Old Port pub named for a 10th-century Irish king, I was reminded of the semi-serious concept that every man is a king in his own kingdom. I was also reminded of my favorite Irish colloquialism, because the moment I walked in the door, the staff started, as they say, “taking the piss.”
But that’s the charm of this neighborhood pub. Open 365 days a year, Brian Boru never closes, not even when the city is shut down and the bar patrons are arriving on skis or snowmobiles. It’s an everyman’s pub, a Portland staple, and, if you haven’t been in awhile, this red-painted tavern is worth another look.
“We’re localized, as we like to say,” said owner Dan Steele. “Regulars are a huge part of the business. We’ve been here a long time, so we have a big local following.” He explained that the bar, which opened in 1993, was founded by Irish brothers Feargus and Justin O’Reilly and their friend Laurence Kelly. Steele joined up the following year, and now he’s the sole proprietor of this drinking establishment.
“They wanted a place that reminded them of home,” he said. “They based it on a pub in Ireland called Fletcher’s.”
However, the Irish influence doesn’t extend too far beyond the name and that is probably a good thing. Aside from the crown motif, the bar doesn’t rely on the standard Irish-American signifiers. No shiny decorative shamrocks or try-hard corned beef menu items here. Just good, comforting pub food and a large bar space where visitors can meet, mingle and share a few pints.
“As Laurence would have said, it’s just local. We support it all. No real cliques, and we support diversity in all ways,” Steele said.
The clientele is fittingly catholic (and I’m using that in the lowercase sense of the word), reflecting the ever-changing face of Portland. Brian Boru tries to cater to everyone, and events range from Pride Week celebrations, Burundian DJ nights and retirement parties for the regulars. On Saturdays and Sundays, bartenders serve up massive “Manmosas” (champagne and orange juice in a pint glass) and spicy, strong $3 Bloody Marys. You can even get a Bloody Mary with a bacon-wrapped sausage as a garnish, should you enjoy your vodka with a side of meat.
The beer list is another draw. The shiny taps are emblazoned with the names of local breweries like Austin Street, American bigwigs like Budweiser and Irish imports like the ubiquitous Guinness. The bartenders at Brian Boru pride themselves on offering both “old standbys” like PBR and Bud and modern craft brews made right here in Portland.
“Everything is always changing,” Steele said. “And we are changing, too.”
In a town with more restaurants and bars than one could reasonably visit, this is a good strategy. Sounds like we wont be giving the Irish goodbye to this pub anytime soon.
WHERE: 57 Center St., Portland
HOURS: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Friday; 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
AMENITIES: Patio seating, family-style tables, bar seating, brunch, dinner and lunch available, live music, trivia nights, special events, friendly wait staff, free daily horoscope readings.
BOTTOM LINE: A local hang with an Irish flavor, Brian Boru brings in visitors of all ages, from 20-something brunchers to 60-something retirees. Drinks are strong and inexpensive, and the beer list features plenty of local craft brews alongside national staples.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes