Where all the fun begins!
Irish folk singer-guitarist Liam Tiernan can only describe the "Fenian Phenomenon" as magic-a pub like no other where some of Ireland's best and most famous entertainers aspire to perform. That this magical place happens to fall in the tiny, rural Ottawa County community of Conklin makes it that much more inviting. It's like going to visit old friends as opposed to just another show on the road" Tiernan said of Fenian's Irish Pub, where he's booked twice a year. For a renowned international balladeer who's playing the likes of Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall, that's saying quite a lot. I've been known to be kind of fussy about where I play" he said "I've gotten more pleasure out of playing in Conklin than in 80% of the places I've played in the last 30 years. It's a wonderful spot"
Terry Reagan owner of Fenian's Irish Pub
A Conklin spot that draws world famous Irish entertainers
If there is such a thing as an authentic Irish Pub outside of Ireland, Fenian's is probably it- and in the most improbable place: downtown Conklin. For those who've never ventured into this far-flung, northeast Ottawa County burg, the downtown district consists of a grain elevator, a post office, a video/general store, a John Deere dealership, and, of course, Fenian's. Even Mary Ann and Terry Reagan, the pub's gregarious owners, have a tough time explaining why the nondescript tavern regularly draws Irish folk music buffs from a seven state region for monthly concerts. "It was a green building. That was a good omen, said Mary Ann, recalling the first time she saw the pub more than 11 years ago when Terry suggested buying it. Both come from Irish families and visit Ireland at least once a year. "We put into this pub what we know. This is the way pubs are in the villages of Ireland." Mary Ann said, "Irish pubs are an extension of the Irish parlor and the Irish kitchen. We offer good food, good hospitality. The rest is up to you" As for it's budding international reputation as a concert haven, coming about 6 years after starting monthly shows, Terry is stumped, "We don't know why this happened like it did."
Tiernan, who's recorded more than a dozen albums with his former band, Barleycorn, as well as some solo CD's, said he knows, though he conceded the first time he traveled to the pub he wondered why he had come at all. "You keep driving and driving and you look left and right and you see nothing but countryside and you think 'Where is this place?' Then you see it's not one of the more aesthetically pleasing places and you keep asking 'Why am I here?' " The proof comes during the performances. The room is filled and you say 'This is nice' and the room takes on a whole different look. You warm once you start and get the audience reaction: There's total concentration on the audience's part, which is very rare these days. By the end of your first show, you say 'This is a wonderful, refreshing oasis.' "
Always the protective hawk, Mary Ann openly admits she'll shush tables of chitchatting patrons who aren't giving bands the rapt attention they deserve and orders them to "talk about their golf game" out by the "comfort stations". (a.k.a. restrooms) "In the evenings, it's a concert on a pub setting," she explained, "They (musicians) love the attentive audiences. The entertainers that come here, that is what they do for their bread and butter every day of the week. They say playing here is like coming home."
That's certainly why Tiernan, who owns and runs a restaurant in Boston, keeps coming back. He flies to Michigan solely for his weekend shows at Fenian's, and then flies back out. He's certainly not alone. One of Ireland's most beloved balladeers, Paddy Reilly, wings his way in from Ireland every year just to perform at Fenian's - and not as a part of a tour of other US cities. Fenian's also has become a regular stop for duos such as Moore and Broaders, and Stephen's Green. And Tiernan has passed the word to other Irish artists who've since become regulars at this unusual outpost, from Danny Doyle to the Dublin City Ramblers. "Every one of them that went there said they loved it" Tiernan beamed "They're such nice people"
This devotion isn't linked to a hefty payday. Although Fenian's charges a higher cover charge than most West Michigan bars for it's shows, usually $11 - $15 per ticket, the pub holds only 110 people, so it's safe to say some artists play for less than what they might otherwise charge for a gig. "We're the impoverished Irish" Mary Ann joked, noting some Irish bands inquiring about Fenian's have suggested exorbitant fees which the Reagan's can't pay. She said she politely tells them Fenian's can't afford to book them even though they're worth the money and asks them to send along an autographed picture of the band to hang on the pub's walls. Despite that cautionary tale, Mary Ann insists she never calls any bands for bookings: They call her. And, she pointed out; Fenian's is booked with monthly entertainment.
The pub, jammed on Friday and Saturday nights when the Reagan's bring in their featured, out of town entertainers, is truly unlike any other bar with live entertainment anywhere. Along with walls adorned with Irish knickknacks and, of course, the "tri colors" (flags of Ireland), and the pub serves Guinness, Harps and Murphy's on tap. On concert nights the food fare is simple: fish'n'chips and bangers (Irish sausage). But it's the bracing shows put on by the amazing Irish balladeers and musicians that pack'em in. "It's so small and intimate there isn't a bad seat in the house" Mary Ann said.
As a result, regulars are willing to pay a premium to catch topnotch Irish acts. Tickets sell out quickly due to loyal customers who must pay in advance, by check or cash, of course. "We take credit cards but we don't give them back" Terry joked of Fenian's low-tech style, which includes Mary Ann's hand-drawn posters announcing upcoming concerts. Fenian's word-of-mouth, anti-marketing approach makes the pubs success a miracle of sorts. "This pub is known throughout the Irish community in the United States and in Ireland" Mary Ann said, with the couple ticking off various examples of the bar's fame (like pub performers in Ireland asking US tourists if they've ever been to Fenian's). Strangely enough, the Reagan's attribute the pub's success at least partly to its hard-to-reach location off winding country roads. If the bar were in Grand Rapids or Muskegon, they argued, it wouldn't make the patrons feel as if it was "their" pub.
"If it was in Grand Rapids, they'd say, 'this is a Grand Rapids thing'. When it's in Conklin, it can be everybody's. It's the hub of the Irish community." Mary Ann speculated. That hub of a pub, named after Irish warrior rebels of the mid-1800's, serves as the regular meeting place for the Gaelic League of West Michigan. The Reagan's also regularly dole out information about places to visit in Ireland for those heading overseas. So, patrons bring back mementos from their trips to hang on the pub's walls, from photographs to signs to good luck charms.
"It's all part of the magic, said Tiernan, who finds Fenian's "very refreshing in a day and age when everything is so corporate and cold. It's a real Irish pub!!"
**Grand Rapids Press, March 14, 1999**