What’s in a name? A great deal as far as Jean-Luc Bardy is concerned. Growing up in Marseilles in the 70s, Bardy, whose father coached the French athletic team, became an avid reader of the French sports paper, l’Equipe. Seeing constant references to soccer star Liam Brady, he was struck by the similarity in their names and consequently started to follow the Irish soccer team. So when Bardy, who had left catering school in 1982, decided he needed to learn English to further his career, he chose Ireland to gain work experience.
It was a life-changing decision for the Frenchman, who had been working as a wine waiter at the Second Level restaurant on the Eiffel Tower. “When I arrived in Dublin, “he says, “I didn’t even like beer. But after a week I was taken to a pub and tasted Guinness for the first time. It was a magical experience. Now I like all beers, though Guinness is still the best”.
Indeed, so taken was Bardy by the whole concept of Irish pubs he decided he would eventually open one in his hometown. “Believe me, “he says, “for a Frenchman to go to Ireland and experience a pub for the first time, it is very special. There is something unique about the Irish pub: the atmosphere, the feeling, even the firelight”.
It would be some years before Bardy raised the money to realise his dream but he was never in any doubt about the pub’s potential in his home town or the name he would give it. “Until I opened O’Brady’s in 1996, there were only bars in Marseilles. A city of one million people without a single pub, can you imagine that?”
Having gone to Guinness in Dublin for advice, Bardy chose the Irish Pub Company to design and build his pub and decided on his favourite kind of Irish pub for the country cottage look. “We import peat for the fire. Close your eyes and you think you have stepped into a little pub in the Irish countryside. The smell is the first thing you notice.”
Situated in a residential area of the more prosperous south side of Marseilles, O’Brady’s was a hit from the beginning. “I had no big opening,” Bardy says, “we finished the work at 6pm on Oct 10th, 1996, and I just pulled back the shutters and opened the doors. People came crowding in. The word had got out that a pub was opening. We have been packed ever since.”
The sports theme is very evident in the pub. GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) and soccer jerseys, scarves and flags hang in abundance from the ceiling, and such is their coverage of TV sports that l’Equipe awarded the pub second prize in its international Sports Bar competition. But the sports connection goes beyond even that. O’Brady’s is one of only two official Celtic supporters’ clubs in France, with a membership of 20 and its own Web site, which it shares with the pub, though Celtic supporters are outnumbered by those of local club Olympique de Marseille.
It is one of OM’s ex-players, Irish star Tony Cascarino, who is the pub’s unofficial godfather. “I told him I was going to open an Irish pub in Marseilles,” says Bardy, “and, soon after, he moved from 10 kilometres outside Marseilles to 100 metres from the pub. He was often here, drinking Ballygowan after training and Guinness after the games. Everyone loved him and he was very successful; he scored 72 times in his two seasons at Marseilles.” Bardy, whose nickname on the soccer field is, appropriately, Tonygoal, plays as striker for the O’Brady’s soccer team.
There may be few Irish expatriates in Marseilles, but Bardy is determined to keep the pub authentically Irish. Though he believes most of his customers have now been to Ireland and have a love of the country, he found encouraging them to drink pints a difficult experience at the beginning. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “In Marseilles, they just ask for a draught beer, meaning a half pint of lager. We had to teach them to know what they were ordering and to accept the pint.
Guinness is very popular, our number-one drink. In Marseilles, the Italian influence is very strong and Guinness is seen as a macho drink, a man’s drink.”
Bardy sources Irish food, such as smoked salmon and butter, from Comptoir Irlandais, a cash and carry in Brittany, and Irish stew and Irish brunch (sausages, white and black pudding, bacon, eggs, mushrooms) are the favourites on the menu, along with beef and Guinness stew, the big seller in winter. “It is important to open at lunch,” Bardy says, “I believe a pub is part of the community and should be open to it all day, seven days a week. The customer should feel the pub is always available to him, not just in the evenings. OK, food is less cost-effective in the short term than drink, but in the long term it is good for the pub.”
Irish music too has proved very successful, with recorded Irish traditional and rock music, “never louder than people talk, this is vital”, and sessions on Monday nights, where local musicians are invited to come along and play for a pint. For the biggest nights, like St Patrick’s Day and Halloween, musicians will come from Ireland.
Probably the greatest challenge for O’Brady’s, as with many Irish pubs in the era of the Celtic Tiger, is finding good professional Irish bar staff. Bardy has many requests from Irish students wanting to spend the summer in Marseilles, but he insists on professionals. However, he instils a love and knowledge of Ireland in his bilingual non-Irish staff, and if they haven’t been to Ireland, Bardy sends them there to absorb the culture.
Bardy’s insistence on authenticity extends even to being the only pub or bar in Marseilles not to stock pastis, such as Pernod. The only spirits he sells are Irish whiskeys, which are served straight, in Irish coffees or hot with cloves, water and sugar.
“This,” says Bardy defiantly, “is an Irish bar.”
And that is the name of the game.