Daniel OConnells heart was buried in Rome, but his body was buried in Ireland.
After a few pints of Harp at a bar recreated from a 19th century Irish pharmacy, Im ready to settle into a snug at the front of the bar, protected by an ancient confessional screen from an Irish cathedral and make a confession; I am a fool for intimate spaces and completely in love with Daniel OConnell.
The man OConnell has been parsed and buried since 1847, but the restaurant and bar, located at 112 King Street, is now a year old.
Last Thursday, it celebrated the milestone with a kickin’ party, attended by the Mayor, and likely, the Ghost of Daniel O’Connell himself. Johnny Jump Up provided the music. Daniel O’Connell provided the spirit(s).
Luckily, a passion for this pub and its prized furnishings, its interior laced with stories and meaning, and its many and beautiful bars require no absolution. A love of this restaurant is a pure love of interiors, brilliantly conceived food and a beautiful location.
Less pure, its true, are my feelings about an Irish brogue, and I must confess that although my body is settled in at a beautiful table in the upstairs dining room, my heart is downstairs with the bartenders (recruited from Ireland) that are almost as appealing as the antique and artfully crafted interior.
Daniel OConnells had been more than 10 years in the making. As Mark Kirwan and his partners OSullivan and Brennan looked for a building they could buy and transform into what Kirwan describes as a Modern Irish restaurant in a modern Irish setting. They collected choice pieces of Irish architectural salvage and waited for the right location and the right time to build OConnells. When the building and the business that previously housed Bullfeathers went on sale, Kirwan and his partners knew they had found a place to craft a restaurant with an authentic Irish setting and real personal meaning.
Gesturing to the pictures of hurling teams from each of the owners home counties, benches from an Irish monastery and a pitch pine floor from an Irish cottage (it is a golden and beautifully cut floor) Kirwan speaks to the authenticity of OConnells.
This is not a Disney-fied Irish bar, he said, everything here is really Irish and has real meaning.
Later, in the upstairs dining room, he paused to point out an old newspaper article about Daniel OConnells life and death. The walls here are a warm brown, not far from the color of a fresh, speckled egg. Id rather the walls be bare, explained Kirwin, than filled with items without meaning.
OConnells, however, does not feel the least bit bare, and if anything, the warmly colored walls lend a blank intimacy to the carefully designed rooms that change levels and turn corners in order to create smaller spaces within the larger context of the restaurant.
The restaurant, with 285 seats and a roof deck that will open in warmer months, could have been cavernous, dark and huge, but the space is transformed by attention to detail.
Beneath clear glass in the floor of the Kirwan Bar, in front of a fireplace, rests a cloak lined with papal red. It is a cloak that Daniel OConnell himself would have worn; its exterior is impenetrably dark but it reveals an interior that blazes with belief. The cloak is there, imbedded in the floor of Daniel OConnells Restaurant and Bar, to remind us of the man OConnell himself, his belief in Irish liberation and his dedication to non-violent reform. The fire burns in a hearth made of Irish stone, laid by an Irish stonemason, and here, in the heart of OConnells it seems like a good idea to raise a pint to the great man who fought for the religious and political rights of Irishmen.
A portrait of OConnell looks down on his cloak and the crowds of diners and drinkers that stand in front of the Kirwin Bar. Salvaged from Waterford Castle, the bar is intricately carved. It is flanked by a row of monastic pews and the opposite corner is filled with barristers benches from an Irish courthouse. Everything OConnell might see from his portrait is from his time period and his native country. Every stick of wood you see in this place is from Ireland, said the bartender (and believe me, Im listening). If you hear the sound of a power drill thats the one worker whos still left doing the finishing touches.
An interior of snugs (private booths tucked into the more public bar to allow for private conversation), confessionals, barristers and monks benches, a 19th century pharmacy (with remnants of 19th century cures still in its drawers) and a cathedral ornament all required specially crafted installation. During construction, OConnell would surely have enjoyed the view from across the street as well.
Each of the four bars in Daniel OConnells is named. Three of the bars are named for the owners. The Kirwan Bar is in the largest room downstairs, The Brennan Bar is the oldest bar and the smokers bar, and the OSullivan bar is upstairs in the front; here the mirrored glass is etched with a copy of Daniel OConnells signature and, scrawled artfully, is his informal title, The Liberator. OConnell worked to liberate his people and was the predominant Irish politician of the 19th century.
Good God, he once said, What a brute man becomes when ignorant and oppressed.
The fourth bar at OConnells serves to honor and educate. Named for John Fitzgerald, an aide de camp to General Washington, colonel of the Virginia militia, mayor of the port and owner of most of the 200 block of King Street and Fitzgeralds Wharf in the late 18th century, the Fitzgerald bar reminds Alexandrians of their Irish roots, and of the power of Irish history and political activism in the shaping of the waterfront and national history.
At OConnells, history and education come hand in hand with libation.
Open evenings; OConnells has now eased into its hours and its menu, and is open for lunch. In the meantime, duck, skate and prawns are all tasty, as is the fish and chips. Even with a short menu, there is something at OConnells for everyone and the full menu promises to showcase Irish ingredients and preparations and be more inventive and finer than typical pub grub which is, as Kirwan pointed out, More English than Irish anyway.
Theyll be none of that at OConnells where sitting in an ancient confessional with a Harp and a whiskey, one even begins to think in a brogue.