There’s a cliché about Irish people abroad: when they meet by chance, they invariably know each other in some form or other/are related/are friends with the same lad from Ballingarry. Much as I might scoff at this—and believe me, I really, really do—it is pretty much what happened when Tom O’Leary crossed my path.
It was back in the olden days of 2016 when former Portland Monthly food editor Ben Tepler first mentioned in passing that there was a new Irish bar on NE Alberta and that the owner was Irish, and an actor on “some Irish soap opera.” I laughed outright, letting him know in no uncertain terms that there was really only one Irish soap opera (sorry to Glenroe, but like, in recent history at least), and he was clearly talking “seafóid” . “Well you might know him,” says Tepler, to which I laugh even louder. For the love of all that is good and holy, we don’t all know each other!
Ahem. Lo and behold, the proprietor of T.C. O’Leary’s (2926 NE Alberta St) is in fact none other than Tom O’Leary, erstwhile star of Fair City, and former roommate to my little sister, Aoife. So yeah, what can I tell you, Americans? It’s all true.
What’s also true is that T.C. O’Leary’s, Tom and his wife Siobhan’s fine establishment on Northeast Alberta, is everything I didn’t realize I needed in an Irish pub—and as someone who tends to run fast in the opposite direction to most Irish drinking establishments outside of my home country, this is saying something.
The reasons are manifold, but on this day of our patron Saint Patrick, it would be remiss of me not to sing the praises—in fewer verses than is traditional, I promise—of Portland’s finest dyed-in-the-aran-wool Irish bar. Here's why.
There’s a snug: A what, you might ask? I’m glad you did. It’s a secret drinking spot, usually a walled-off portion of the bar that’s set aside for priests and other private tipplers, and as commonly found in Irish pubs as, say, a door or an old man muttering into his cap.
Sessions! Nothing says a good Irish pub like a good seisiún, and there’s no place for the sesh like O’Leary’s, which boasts live music crammed in a corner of the pub as it should be on a regular basis, from traditional Irish music to local singers. Mighty stuff.
Fish and chips wrapped in paper: Look, I don’t want to tell you how to serve your fish and chips, but get that plate away from me, you monster! The best fish and chips comes out of a paper cone or some such package, and that is a fact. Don’t be mad at me; somebody had to tell you.
The ancestor wall: T.C. O’Leary’s has a wall dedicated to the ancestors of not only the proprietors, but of many of their regulars. It’s a touching tribute to the Irish diaspora and to those who put their time in as part of this establishment’s extended family of customers.
Black pudding: This stuff is not for the faint of heart, but Tom has been known to make it himself, a kind of blood sausage that’s a staple of the Irish breakfast. I’m not going to lie, blood sausages are made of what you think they are made of and black pudding is no exception, but you have to hand it to him for taking the can-do Portland maker spirit and marrying it with the Irish taste for way too much meat at breakfast.
Tayto: Sometimes Tom secrets these Irish delicacies behind the bar. I’ll say no more.
Tom: As disclosed above, it turns out I have a personal connection to Tom, so take this however you will, but the man is a born publican. Convivial, charismatic, given to speeches on tables, full of the chat, and with a real sense of how to make everyone who walks in the door feel like they’re part of the wide Irish family, Tom O’Leary is just the sort of tonic you need after such lonely times as we’ve all been through. The pub will no doubt be packed to the hilt today, Paddy’s Day, but that’s what happens back in the old sod too. If you’re lucky, Tom’ll pull you a pint the way they’re meant to be pulled, and you’ll raise a glass to a warm space on a wet day, which is about as Irish as they come.