March 2024

Irish pubs: dark beer & new friends

Almost every big city has an Irish pub. Utrecht has three. What makes these pubs so popular, apart from the Guinness and Irish music? We visited the city’s oldest Irish pub: O’Leary’s.

Reading the sign on the door, you feel at home straight away: ‘There are no strangers here, just friends you have yet to meet!’ It’s been hanging there since the place opened in 1995. ‘It’s our motto,’ shouts Adrian, owner of O’Leary’s on Adelaarstraat, as he tries to make himself heard over the enthusiastic Irish live band. ‘Two couples sitting next to each other in an Irish pub will talk to each other. You don’t see that as much in a Dutch bar.’

Adrian and his mother, Ann O’Leary, opened the pub 29 years ago on Queen’s Day. It was a clever move – the bar was packed and Guinness flowed like water. These days, Adrian runs the business on his own, but still turns to his mother for advice. Like him, she lives above the pub. ‘We discuss every decision concerning the business, like whether we need a new bench or table, for example,’ says Adrian.

Patron saint

Adrian’s family left Dublin in the early 1980s to escape high unemployment. Once in the Netherlands, Ann started organising Saint Patrick’s Day parties in various bars. This is an important Irish public holiday that celebrates the patron saint of Ireland. Adrian already worked in the hospitality industry, so it was a small step to buying his own pub.

At first, they weren’t sure whether people from the city would find their way to the new pub in the Vogelen neighbourhood. But they soon did, perhaps partly because at the time, O’Leary’s was the only Irish pub in Utrecht. The fact that the family already had plenty of Irish friends and acquaintances in the city certainly helped them build up their clientele. ‘You still see those “old regulars” sitting at the bar,’ says Adrian, who sees himself as a traditional, old-school publican.

But not all their customers are Irish, he hastens to add. ‘We get a lot of English-speaking expats from countries like Portugal and Spain.’ And then there are the local Utrecht regulars with a taste for Guinness, Irish whiskey (such as Jameson and Paddy), rugby (on TV) and Irish folk music.


Twice a month, Adrian hosts jam sessions with alternating groups of musicians. They play traditional Irish songs on the guitar, banjo, flute, violin and Uilleann pipes (bagpipes). Banjo player and regular André, who comes from Gouda, is one of those jamming this evening. He’s on a break and takes a swig of his Guinness. ‘An Irish pub feels like a cosy living room. There’s always someone to talk to.’ His Irish wife introduced him to the country’s culture and music. ‘Before that, I mainly played covers of The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel.’

And what’s he playing for us this evening? ‘The music you hear now is Irish dance music,’ he explains. Adrian: ‘We used to hold Irish dance classes here, but it’s too small really.’ The owner remembers that once, years ago, the top Irish band Clannad performed in O’Leary’s after they’d done a concert in the city. ‘I’m the only barman who’s ever told the singer Moya Brennan: “Okay, that’s enough!”
It was 5 o’clock in the morning.’

There’s no shortage of faithful regulars, but to attract the younger drinkers, O’Leary organises rowing, darts and rugby tournaments for customers and staff. Irish-born Kathy is a keen rower. She also visits the pub for what she calls social guarantee. ‘Most of the people who come here have some connection with the Irish culture. They’re always ready for a chat.’

So why does almost every big city have at least one Irish pub? Adrian jokingly replies that it’s because there are more Irish passport-holders living outside Ireland than there are in Ireland itself. ‘You find Irish expats everywhere,’ he explains. So is he going to organise a St. Patrick’s Day celebration for them and his other customers this year? It’s more than likely. ‘We usually have live music and serve Irish stew and coddle, a dish from Dublin made from sausage and potatoes.’

17 March 2024, St. Patrick’s Day

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