.O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub Celebrates 20 Years in San Pedro Square

A San Jose institution turns 20 this week

Amid the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley, full of Instagram-friendly bars and restaurants with fake greenery and gaudy wallpaper decals, one old-school Irish pub remains as popular with locals today as ever. After 20 years, O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub has become a San Jose institution—a spot to grab a pint and have a good conversation with old friends and new. The San Pedro Square bar will celebrate its anniversary from November 16 until the 20th.  

When Ray O’Flaherty opened the pub in 2002, he was 70 years old. “He had loved good Irish beer and Irish pubs all his life,” says the eldest O’Flaherty, Brendan about the barroom’s origins.“Trials and Hannigans in Los Gatos were his favorites.” After years of talking about opening an Irish pub with former San Jose mayor Tom McEnery, who became his landlord, Ray finally made his move. “ We told him he was crazy, but that was just the kind of guy my dad was. And after 20 years of being around, we still can’t believe it,” Brendan says.

The Irish memorabilia that plasters the walls inside the barroom was shipped from the island itself and hung up when the pub first opened. Like the decor, O’Flaherty was an Irish import. He met the matriarch of the O’Flaherty clan, Dubliner Marie O’Flaherty at a dance at the Gresham Hotel, in the heart of Dublin. He gave her and her friends a ride home after the evening’s festivities, and they exchanged details. They were married soon after, in 1961. From then until 1972, the O’Flahertys had five children. The kids grew up during a tumultuous period in Irish history an era known as “The Troubles,” Brendan recounts.

That ongoing conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland—lasting about 30 years from the late 1960s to 1998—hurt Ray’s tourism business. As such, the charismatic entrepreneur sought a change of pace. After a cousin approached him with a rare opportunity to head his promotions company, putting on circus and rodeo performances for first responders in California, O’Flaherty took a leap of faith and relocated his family to Santa Clara in 1972.

“We traveled all along the West Coast,” Brendan O’Flaherty recalls. “And my dad—people called him the ‘Irish Cowboy’—would hop out of a Wells Fargo stagecoach, and us kids would ride an elephant. It was a circus…we had a blast.”

Ray’s affable nature extended from his professional life to his personal one as well. O’Flaherty was an athlete all his life, having played rugby and tennis professionally for years, competing against revered Australian players Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver. Brendan recalls his father playing often with tennis athlete and women’s rights activist Billie Jean King. “She was an aggressive player, so she was always asking guys if they’d play with her during warm ups. … None of them ever wanted to. But my dad, he always said yes. And that’s just the kind of person he was…A stand-up guy,” Brendan shares.

Though the beloved patriarch passed away in 2013, his entrepreneurial spirit and penchant for supporting his local community prevails through the pub’s long-standing popularity and his children’s philanthropy.

Numerous endeavors that grew from the seeds he planted years ago still endure: San Jose’s sister-city relationship with Dublin, the Dublin Sister City Program scholarship, and a 20-year tradition of live seisiúns, held at the pub every Tuesday beginning at 6:30pm, led by Celtic musician Julie Holmer.

The seisiúns, pronounced like “say-shoon,” are informal, improvised gatherings that welcome musicians at all proficiency levels to show up and riff on each other’s notes, melodies, tunes, and vibes. “Sometimes we get seven musicians, other times up to 16,”  says O’Flaherty’s partner, Dave Mulvehill. Instruments commonly seen and heard at these seisiúns include four-string banjos, fiddles, guitars, Irish tin whistles, Irish wooden flutes, Uilleann pipes, mandolins, and even bodhran frame drums.

“Marie comes by every Tuesday and people drop by to say hello to her and listen to these traditional sounds of Ireland. When the music’s playing, and we’re all there together drinking, just enjoying ourselves, it’s a real feeling of family at the pub…a feeling of comfort, you know?” Mulvehill says.

Hailing from the same region in Ireland as O’Flaherty’s founder, Mulvehill came to the Bay Area in 2001. He frequented O’Flaherty’s often and on one night, Ray offered him a job as a bartender. Decades later, Mulvehill is now a partner.

Mulvehill also owns Nouveau, a Bay Area–based hospitality group and several local bars, including Five Points, Dr. Funk, and Hella Good Burger, which recently opened at San Pedro Square.

“Irish pubs should be open to everyone and anyone. … It shouldn’t make anyone feel excluded,” Mulvehill says. “A lot of what makes a successful business is how present you are. After COVID we all came out beat up and tired, but happy and lucky to still be in business…very lucky to have the opportunities we’ve had. A lot of our staff has worked with us for over 10 years, so this celebration this week…it’s a great feeling to be able to sit back together, and just celebrate the pub. It’s not often we get to do that.”

When asked about what the pub’s 20th birthday means to him, eldest son Brendan says, “Everything.” He’s most excited that the family and all of their closest friends will be there together to celebrate the milestone. Though the place at the end of the bar will remain empty this weekend, the pub won’t be. “My dad called himself a “stander-upper,” Brendan says. “He always stood at the end of the bar, drinking a pint of Smithwick’s, keeping an eye on things, talking with people who came in, old friends and making new ones.”

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