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The Mastermind Behind The International Irish Pub


Wherever you go in the world, the Irish pub looks the same - dark wood, smoky mirrors. Some of that is Irish immigrants wanting to recreate the feeling of home, but a lot of the style of the international Irish pub comes from one man. Robert Smith and Ailsa Chang of NPR's Planet Money team have his story.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Before we meet the mastermind of the Irish pub, we wanted to show you his work.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: A pub so exclusive we had to undergo a full-body scan just to get in.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Over loudspeaker) This is a general boarding call to all remaining passengers traveling on Virgin Atlantic flight VS46.

SMITH: Where are we?

SIOBHAN BRETT: We're in Terminal 4, JFK Airport.

SMITH: The most Irish place to be.

BRETT: (Laughter) I've never felt more at home.

SMITH: That is real life Irish person Siobhan Brett.

CHANG: We're next to Gate 5, sitting in a pub with pints of Guinness. Now, it's still an airport bar, but everything around us is from Ireland.

BRETT: The furniture is all so heavy duty. And that's a telltale sign, I guess, that you're...

SMITH: Yeah, these chairs weigh like a thousand pounds.

BRETT: Right, right. (Laughter) And the table's 2,000 or 3,000.

SMITH: Siobhan is a reporter who traced all of this stuff back to one man - Mel McNally and his Irish Pub Company.

CHANG: Not only have they designed thousands of these kinds of pubs, they sell bar owners all the necessary wood, fabric and decorations.

BRETT: That's their selling point, that if you want to really nail it, come to us, and we're going to give you all of the components of what an Irish pub is.

SMITH: Authenticity in a box.

BRETT: So they say.

CHANG: Well, so Mel McNally says. He's shipped these custom-designed pubs to almost every country you can think up.


CHANG: Kazakhstan.

MCNALLY: I'm doing one in Kazakhstan at the moment...

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, wow.

MCNALLY: ...In Astana. Give me another one.

CHANG: The Ivory Coast.

MCNALLY: Interestingly enough, my son has nearly signed a contract for one there.

CHANG: The idea for this business started when Mel was an architecture student in Dublin in the 1970s. He had a final project due, and Mel and his buddies decided they would figure out the architecture of the Dublin pub. His professors thought it was a joke.

SMITH: Did they not think of it as architecture?

MCNALLY: That was the worry, obviously, by the tutors that this was a bit of a scam to get out and have a good time.

CHANG: But Mel took it really seriously. He scanned the fronts of pubs and figured out what drew people in.

SMITH: The very best bars, he discovered, divided up their space into smaller nooks which...

MCNALLY: Help people to together in twos and fours and eights. And they communicate, and they get to meet each other.

SMITH: And they keep coming back. Mel believed he had found the secret of socializing.

CHANG: Eventually, he started the Irish Pub Company. For around a half million dollars, he will design an Irish pub for you. Six styles to choose from, no location too weird or remote. And then to make the space work, Mel will ship you all the right Iris bits in a container.

SMITH: Mel offered to show us the magic being made at a pub his company is working on in Stamford, Conn., right now.

CHANG: The place is part of the Tigin chain of pubs. Mel does all of their designs, and the Irish Pub Company is updating this location.

SMITH: It's there that we meet Darren Fagen, who works for Mel. He says the basic flow of the pub is already working, but Mel has a plan for new decorations arranged in a signature Mel McNally style.

DARREN FAGEN: It's very haphazard. He uses the word higgledy-piggledy (ph).

SMITH: You know, there's bottles tucked here and, like, there's some weird plate up over there.

FAGEN: Right.

CHANG: There's a deliberateness behind this.

FAGEN: Correct. And it's a reflection of Irish families, where over generations and generations they all lived in the same house. But they threw nothing away, so everything went on the shelf.

SMITH: (Laughter).

CHANG: There is a certain amount of storytelling that goes on in a business like this. But if you sit on an Irish chair and stare up at Irish junk, does it really capture the feeling of an Irish pub? Is it authentic?

SMITH: Darren smiles and with his best Irish accent says what they've told bar owners around the world.

FAGEN: It's authentic because we're doing it (laughter).

SMITH: Robert Smith.

CHANG: Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARPAINT SONG, "SO GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.