In all walks of life, individuals make a difference and, in small countries, some individuals can make a big difference. One of those people in Ireland was Hugh O’Regan who sadly passed away – tragically, far too young – last week.
Visionaries can change businesses – and the pub business is no different. Pioneers are people who have the courage to dream and who have the bravery to follow through on those ideas. These types of people are few and far between; you recognise them when you see them.
O’Regan saw a Dublin in the late 1980s, battered, closed and without much nightlife of any real sort. Like many of this generation, he had travelled, he had seen what other cities offer their own people as
well as tourists, and O’Regan – together with other young publicans, such as Jay Bourke – set about changing the face of Dublin’s pubs and clubs.
It is important to contrast the Dublin we now take for granted with the Dublin of 1990.
In 1990, I was working at the Central Bank and entertaining a German guest who looked out from the elevated vantage point of the Central Bank at Temple Bar and the city quays and mused about the war we
fought with Britain and wondered why had the British bombed the city so devastatingly? I told her the Brits didn’t do this. We had allowed our capital city to fall into such a state. We did it to ourselves.
In 1990, the city quays, when looked on from a height, were like an ugly set of teeth smashed and broken, huge gaps between buildings, some buildings kept upright by unsightly iron girders which elbowed
apart other tottering, crumbling edifices that seemed to lean on each other like drunks.
This image was immortalised, for me at least, by a Frank McDonald article in the Irish Times in 1991, which showed a panorama of the city quays under the title ‘City of Culture, how are you?’.
A few years later, O’Regan, still in his early 30s, would build the Morrison Hotel on the site of an abandoned printworks on Ormond Quay. He saw the potential of these sites, not for ‘slap-’em-up’
development, but to build real, living businesses on them as had originally been intended.
But before that, he had figured out that businesses clustered together and he set about creating what we now know to be the tourist hub that is Temple Bar. He figured that if you build and create enough good
places for people to hook up, people will come. This seems straightforward now, but back then, large parts of the city, which are today thriving, were empty.
Hugh O’Regan could be seen in the early 1990s scouring the broken-down buildings for places to transform into spots where people would socialise, chat, drink coffee or beer and have a laugh.
I know this because I saw him. In the early 1990s I was one of the very few people living on Parliament Street. At night back then, that part of the city was an empty place. Hardly anyone lived there and
precious few lived anywhere in Temple Bar.
Parliament Street was a ghost street, full of falling-down buildings and two down-at-heel pubs. It served as a rat-run for CIE buses and little else. The City Hall was unlit and uncelebrated, hardly noted in
Directly opposite my flat stood Read’s cutlers, an exotic place, on its last legs, that sold all sorts of cutlery from knives to swords. Apart from that and one small family-run newsagents down by the
Liffey, there was nothing there.
This is where O’Regan gambled that he could build a continental-style pub, called the Thomas Read – and he soon also built the stylish Oak pub beside it. Both places were an instant success, attracting people
to a part of the city which had been bleak for many years.
Dublin of the 1990s was changing. The baby boom of the 1970s, which peaked in 1979, was coming of age and these people were going out.
This population bulge pushed up the demographic pressure in the city. And obviously, as we entered the 1990s and the economy began to grow, emigration, which had robbed Ireland of a generation in the 1980s,
began to decline. Instead of going out in New York, these young Dubliners went out in Dublin. Tax breaks for developing run-down parts of the city, together with lower interest rates in the mid-1990s,
encouraged the building of new places to meet this new demand. And although pub licences were not yet liberalised, publicans like O’Regan began to find ways around the regulations, which had strangled the
business for years.
In short, Hugh O’Regan did something odd in Dublin: he was a publican who put his customers first. I am not saying others didn’t, but he was one of the pioneers. He built businesses, employed people and, with
the notion of clustering, he went a long way to making Temple Bar an eating and drinking destination.
Many might complain about the direction Temple Bar ultimately took, but without people like Hugh O’Regan, it would never even have started. I know that all sorts of people such as civil servants and public officials will try to take credit for the vision thing, but they know deep down that the vision was driven by an ambitious publican. O’Regan’s bar accepted everyone – gay, straight, young, old, immigrant and local – and this added enormously to the nightlife of the city.
Yesterday, I decided to go for a drink in one of those O’Regan bars, which had made the Dame Street/Georges Street area so vibrant when I was younger. I went to one, admittedly in the late afternoon, and – guess what? – it was closed. It didn’t open till the evening because it was run by receivers, and receivers can’t run bars. O’Regan was trying to change the drinking habits of the city, suggesting that we could go into pubs in the afternoon and not get stocious.
These places are now run by people who have no idea how to run bars and, tragically, the person who opened them in the first place is dead. I know Hugh O’Regan latterly borrowed hugely and overstretched
himself. However, if we vilify those who took risks and created things and side with the dullards who did nothing more than lend other people’s money to those who dared to dream, we will be a poorer place
David McWilliams’s new book The Good Room is out now