Dublin man Tom Griffin is the owner of O’Shea’s, the only Irish bar in the beautiful Nicaraguan city of Granada, which he opened at 61 years of age.
An hour in the company of North Dublin native Tom Griffin, owner of the only Irish bar in the beautiful Nicaraguan city of Granada, should be enough to persuade you that it’s never too late to make a big or unusual change in your life.
After a lifetime of adventures which took him to Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the United States, Tom just could not settle when he finally decided to move back to Ireland – after being coaxed home by his siblings and adult children – back in 2003.
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He stuck it out for four years, but just could not cope with the wind, cold, and rain after a decade and a half in Central Valley, California. His family thought he had lost the plot when he announced that he was moving to Central America to open up a new business, in Nicaragua of all places, at 61-years of age.
Tom loved the climate in Modesto, where he had lived for 15 years. So returning to Dublin was a bit of a shock. One of his Irish friends in California, Liam McDermott, had moved to Nicaragua and kept urging him to visit this beautiful land of volcanoes, lakes, two oceans, and friendly people.
After a couple of visits, Tom just could not get the place out of his head. And, when the move to Ireland did not work out as planned, he found himself seeking out business opportunities in the gorgeous old colonial city of Granada, one of the oldest cities in the New World.
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Today, he owns a thriving Irish bar, O’Shea’s, in the pedestrian heart of the city, which has become a firm favorite with expat, locals, and North American tourists over the past decade.
Bizarrely, Tom had never worked in the pub trade before, after a lifetime of farming and dealing in farm machinery. He ran the premises as a juice bar for the first two years, after taking over a splendid old building on La Calzada, now the most famous tourist street in the country, in September 2007.
“The Celtic Tiger was roaring when I moved back to Ireland, but I just couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything,” Tom tells IrishCentral with a laugh. “I had planned to go home to stay in 2003. I had my farm in North Dublin leased out and I was just doing handy jobs for the family, fixing this and that. But I was getting very withdrawn, especially in the winters with the darkness and the cold.
“I visited my friend Liam in Nicaragua twice on holidays during my four years at home. I had always been a traveller. I had moved to California in 1989, after my marriage had broken up. Before that, I had lived in Australia and Saudi Arabia. I was always looking for opportunities and, in California, I was importing specialist farm machinery from Australia.”
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Tom admits that he had no background at all in the hospitality or pub trades before he surprised all his friends and family members by making the big move to Nicaragua.
“I was in the bar trade in California, but I was on the other side of the bar . . . drinking with my buddies!” he exclaims. “When I moved back to Ireland, I wasn’t going to start farming again. I had my own farm leased out. My buddy Liam kept telling me I should find something here in Nicaragua and there was very little tourist infrastructure here at the time.”
Tom lucked out on a visit to Granada. He was walking down La Calzada street when he saw a Nicaraguan woman place a ‘For Rent’ sign outside a colonial mansion early on a weekday morning. He stopped for a chat and within an hour the deal was done. That was April 2007. He moved in five months later.
“At the time, I had no interest in running a bar,” he says. “I loved the fruit in the Central Valley and I loved juicing, so I opened up the city’s first juice bar for tourists. I was serving breakfast with the juices. There was only one hostel and two bars on La Calzada at the time and it’s remarkable how much the street has grown since then.
“The juice bar took off and I used to have people queuing here for juices in the hot sun. But then the economic crash happened in 2008. The number of tourists coming to Nicaragua collapsed. The bar trade didn’t appeal to me, but I was forced into it. The police told me that I could serve alcohol and I just decided to turn the juice bar into an Irish pub!”
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A British couple in their 30s, who happened to be industrial designers, popped in for breakfast one morning. He told them he was thinking of turning the juice bar into a pub.
“They were lovely people. They dropped by that afternoon. They designed the logo for O’Shea’s and the internal fittings for the pub. It cost me two breakfasts. I painted the place green and suddenly the juice bar had become the city’s first Irish pub!”
He chose the name O’Shea’s because it was a “short, strong Irish name.”
Tom admits that the business struggled to make money at the start. He had to subsidize it with rental income from his farm back in North Dublin.
“It wasn’t a viable business for the first couple of years,” he says. “The locals didn’t really know what to expect from an Irish pub. But then they saw that I was sticking with it. The locals would see me cleaning the tables or stopping for a chat with the customers on a Friday night.”
Gradually, O’Shea’s became a huge social hub for local Nicaraguans, expats and volunteers in Granada, and visiting tourists from Europe and North America. An eclectic bunch can be found sitting outside O’Shea’s seven nights a week, particularly at the weekends when visitors from Managua, the capital, throng La Calzada in search of good food and fun.
Tom has made many friends among the expats of Granada and his Irish pub is now the most popular watering hole in the entire city, which has a population of about 125,000. He’s just as likely to have a group of Irish-Americans from Texas or Arizona sitting at one of his tables as a family of Managuans enjoying a weekend away from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
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Food remains a huge part of his business. Tom regularly travels to the market in the small Pacific fishing village of Casares, where he is often the only foreigner sourcing fresh fish from the day’s catch. He makes a three hour round trip by car to make sure his customers get the best fish at O’Shea’s.
Although he is close to 70 now, he has no interest in retiring or moving back to Ireland. He loves life in Nicaragua, where the warmth of the friendly locals compliments the heat of the Central American sun.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” he admits. “I live at the back of the pub and I used to work 18 or 19 hour days. I used to go to the city market at 7am, come back, get breakfast prepared, and serve customers food and drink until late in the evening.”
Life has become easier over the years. He has taken on a Nicaraguan manager, who spent 30 years working in the bar trade in the US, before returning home to take care of her elderly father. She was celebrating her birthday at O’Shea’s and, when he found out her background, he offered her a job there and then.
“The last thing people expect is to find an Irish guy from Dublin in his late sixties here, serving them rum or beer in an Irish bar in Nicaragua. North American visitors seem to love talking to me about my life story.
“The locals just seemed to appreciate my Irish charms, that I’d come out and clean the tables or ask them how they had passed the day. I would ask them how they were and they appreciated that. There was no history or knowledge of an Irish bar in Granada before O’Shea’s but now, thanks to my staff, it’s probably the most famous bar in the city!”
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At the moment Tom is finalizing plans for the St Patrick’s Day festivities in Granada with members of the city’s tiny Irish community, including his good friend, Wexford man Gerry Webb, who opened up the Casa Del Agua guest house in 2010.
The celebrations will involve a small parade along La Calzada and a full live band in a marquee outside O’Shea’s.
“I am very happy down here now,” he says. “I have genuine, good friends here in Granada. This whole street has taken off and Granada is called the ‘jewel’ of Central America. If I was back in Dublin, I would not be sitting outside enjoying the hot sun on a beautiful afternoon at this time of year!”
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