When the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was invited to participate in a poetry festival in Nicaragua a few years ago he was surprised to find a bustling Irish pub in the heart of Granada’s main thoroughfare.
After he decided to take a seat in the shade, to escape the burning heat of the early evening sun, he was even more surprised to be approached by a friendly Dublin man in his sixties.
“So, are you into the oul’ poetry yourself?” asked Tom Griffin, eyeing the book in front of the famed poet. He introduced himself as the owner of O’Shea’s bar on La Calzada, the first and only Irish pub in Nicaragua’s most popular tourist destination.
Tom sat down and chatted with Ireland’s greatest 20th-century poet for almost an hour. Used to being mobbed by well-wishers wherever he went, Heaney was a little taken aback, but perhaps also quite chuffed, that Griffin had no idea who he was or aware of his fame throughout the English-speaking world.
After ascertaining that he was a guest of the International Poetry Festival, held annually in the city, Tom promised to attend one of his readings in a city park the following evening.
“Jaysus, it was mighty stuff altogether,” Tom told me afterward.
Tommy, who passed away last week after a four-month battle with illness, was a larger-than-life-character who had become something of a legend in his adopted land since moving there twelve years ago.
It didn’t matter that he did not have a great command of the Spanish language. The Nicaraguans loved Tommy’s way with people and respected him for how he treated his staff, engaged with his customers, and worked hard in the heart of the old colonial city.
Whether you were a rich Irish-American businessman on vacation from Texas, a powerful politician from Managua, a young Irish backpacker, a volunteer from Canada, or a Granada street kid, it didn’t matter to Tommy.
He had time for everyone and used to love the banter with the locals and the tourists as he surveyed the world pass from the front door of his pub, where he regularly put in 16-hour days.
Like so many people of his generation, Tom left Ireland in search of fun and adventure. By opening up a pub in Nicaragua, of all places, at 61 years of age, he showed his friends and family that it’s never too late to make a big change in life.
After the break-up of his marriage in the 1980s, his wandering spirit took Tom to Saudi Arabia, Australia, and then the United States, and he could not settle when he finally decided to move back to Ireland in 2003.
He has always kept on good terms with his adult children but admitted that the wind, cold, and rain of a couple of winters in his native North Dublin were hard to take after a decade and a half of living in Modesto, California.
After four years at home in Co Dublin, an invitation to join a good friend in the Central American sunshine convinced him to move to Nicaragua and open a juice bar 12 years ago.
His family thought he was crazy at the time!
An Irish friend from his time 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. Liam convinced Tom that he would be much happier in Central America than attempting to adjust to the cold and rain of an Irish winter.
So Tommy leased out his farm in North Dublin and decided to start a new adventure in the sun.
Even though Tom had never worked in the bar trade – he used to joke that he did all his research from the other side of the bar in California! – he saw a golden opportunity when he spotted that a large premises on the corner of the city’s main street was up for rent.
Tourism was just starting to take off in Nicaragua. He moved into the old colonial mansion in September 2007 and sold juice for two years. As the demand increased for his juices, the laws changed and it became easier to sell alcohol on La Calzada. When the 2008 recession hit, he decided to convert his juice bar into the city’s first (and only) Irish pub.
The early years were difficult. Tom had to subsidize his business with the rental income from his farm back in Ireland, but he began to forge links with NGOs on the ground in Granada and to build up a local trade among ex-pats in Granada, Irish-American tourists, and weekend visitors from the capital, Managua.
The locals began to appreciate Tom’s hard work when they would see him out cleaning the tables or buying food from local producers.
He used to take off on four-hour round trips to the small fishing village of Casares, to ensure that O’Shea’s had the best fresh seafood in Granada. Tom loved the banter with the fishermen at the market on the Pacific coast and always returned to Granada with his boot full of fresh produce. He was often the only foreigner at the fish market.
Eventually, O’Shea’s began to attract a colorful mix of local characters and Tommy was reputed to have the best fish ‘n’ chips in all of Central America.
People would sit at the tables outside the pub seven nights a week or enjoy the regular table quizzes in aid of a local volunteer program.
By this time last year, O’Shea’s had become the most popular watering hole in the entire city, which has a population of about 125,000. In March 2018, Tom and his good friend, Wexford man Gerry Webb, organized Granada’s first-ever St Patrick’s Day Festival, with a parade through the city and a live band outside O’Shea’s. It was such a huge success, they had great plans to expand it.
Sadly, just a month after I interviewed Tom for an IrishCentral article last year, a political crisis erupted in Nicaragua which left more than 500 people dead and forced thousands more to move overseas in search of work.
Tourism collapsed, and businesses such as O’Shea’s felt the pinch as people stopped traveling to the country. Many events in Granada, including the 15th annual International Poetry Festival, were canceled.
The political turmoil was a huge blow to all of the tourism businesses in Nicaragua and Tommy Griffin, suffering from stress, had a massive brain hemorrhage at the end of March. He spent 21 days in an Intensive Care Unit in Nicaragua and battled bravely over the past four months.
As his family in Dublin launched a campaign to fly Tommy back to Ireland, he passed away late last week.
Members of his family, including his beloved son and daughter, flew out to Nicaragua for his funeral Mass at the weekend and some of his ashes were scattered in Granada, a city he had come to love and a city which loved him. A further celebration of his life will take place in Dublin in September.
It should be a huge consolation to his family that Tommy absolutely loved the life he lived – and how many of us can truly say we lived out our dreams by opening up a successful Irish bar thousands of miles from home?
Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award in Dublin last October. Find him on Facebook or Twitter here. Visit his website here - CiaranTierney.com. A former newspaper journalist, he is seeking new opportunities in a digital world.
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