The beloved Conklin pub has long brought acclaimed Irish performers to its stage as well as Celtic musicians from across Michigan. Fenian’s could host its final St. Patrick’s Day parade on Monday.
By John Sinkevics
Ireland has long shared “a little piece of heaven” with West Michigan.
For more than 26 years, Fenian’s Irish Pub in Conklin has done Irish to the hilt, bringing renowned Celtic folk musicians to the intimate tavern in rural Ottawa County, hosting weekly Irish music sessions and organizing the “shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world.”
Owners Terry and Mary Ann Reagan like to say that “365 days a year, we celebrate Ireland,” unlike watering holes which toast the Emerald Isle only on St. Patrick’s Day. The wee pub has earned an international reputation among Irish folk musicians, many of whom go out of their way to include Fenian’s as a U.S. tour stop.
But all of that may soon come to an end: The Reagans have put Fenian’s up for sale and plan to retire.
MONDAY’S ‘WEARIN’ OF THE GREEN’ PARADE MAY BE THE LAST
The last hurrah hinges on its eventual sale, but Fenian’s final concert currently is scheduled for Aug. 19, when the acclaimed Irish quintet Beoga returns to perform at the pub across from Dykstra’s grain elevator.
So, for longtime Fenian’s buffs, Monday’s traditional “Wearin’ of the Green” St. Patrick’s Day parade down Main Street in Conklin – and the day-long pub “hooley” that follows – might very well be the last.
“It’s time to pull the pin and move on, and rest,” says Terry Reagan, 70, standing behind the vintage bar inside the tavern that the couple bought in 1987.
TAKE A VIDEO TOUR OF FENIAN’S BELOW
Mary Ann Reagan, 68, the red-headed Irish sparkplug behind the authentic music at Fenian’s, says selling the pub will allow her to focus on overseas tours she organizes for Fear n’ Ti & Me Irish Productions Ltd.
“It’s just like having a wee child. You have to take care of it all the time,” she says of managing the pub, which also hosts monthly “Sean-nos singing seisuns.”
But Mary Ann, who survived a diagnosis of cervical cancer a couple of years ago, remains forever grateful for “all the nice people I’ve met, all the people from all over who’ve come in. We have wonderful audiences and wonderful performers.”
Known for shushing patrons who get too chatty during performances, Mary Ann for two decades has termed Fenian’s shows as “concerts in a pub setting,” putting the 110-capacity venue well ahead of the curve amid the trend toward listening rooms for acoustic music.
DRAWING IRELAND’S BEST PERFORMERS TO A WEE CORNER OF OTTAWA COUNTY
The cozy ambience and that authentic vibe have drawn dozens of acclaimed Irish acts to Fenian’s, from accordionist Paddy O’Brien, the first non-local artist to play the pub, to in-demand, award-winning performers Lunasa, Beoga, Dervish, Liam Tiernan, Danu, Dublin City Ramblers, Solas, Teada and many more. “All we do is Irish,” Mary Ann says proudly.
Consequently, word about the pub spread across the pond to Ireland and some bands even have insisted on kicking off high-profile U.S. tours at Fenian’s, despite its remote location.
“Yes, it’s probably the smallest venue we typically play, but personally I get more musically from this type of space than I would in a 2,000-seat venue,” Lunasa’s Kevin Crawford told Local Spins from an Australian tour stop.
“It’s this intimacy and up close and personal experience that makes the gig so unique. A close second to the intimacy would be the audience base and their palpable energy and sheer pleasure at hearing a band like Lúnasa at close quarters.”
Fenian’s, he says, is “small in square footage but huge in terms of the hospitality and enjoyment factor.”
That family-oriented flavor may be what the Reagans, of Coopersville, will miss most. Their children and grandchildren have worked at Fenian’s over the years, and they’ve struck up friendships with patrons from all corners of Michigan and places as far away as Florida, New York, California and, yes, Ireland.
“Being where we are located, we can be everybody’s pub,” insists Mary Ann, who also organized the Great Lakes Irish Music Festival for several years at Van Andel Arena and Fifth Third Ballpark.
‘THEY ALL FEEL IT’S THEIR PLACE’
That homey beauty was on display at a recent Fenian’s concert featuring the Makem & Spain Brothers, with the Reagans greeting and trading jokes with longtime customers who quaffed Guinness and munched on fish and chips.
Although situated in the northeast corner of Ottawa County, the pub draws a devoted clientele, including bicycle riders and hikers using the Musketawa Trail that skirts Fenian’s.
Many of them will be on hand Monday – along with the Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School marching band, Fenian’s marching fiddlers and more – when the pub hosts what may be its final “Wearin’ of the Green” parade. It steps off at precisely 10:55 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day at the north end of Main Street in Conklin and is followed by an all-day party at the pub with live music.
The Reagans have long joked that the parade starts at one end of Main Street but never gets to the other end because there’s a pub in the middle. “Ours is just incomplete,” Mary Ann quips.
That beloved tradition may finally reach the finish line. While the Reagans hope that whoever buys Fenian’s will keep it as an Irish pub, they know there are no guarantees.
“It was just synchronicity. Everything just fell into place,” Mary Ann says of the couple’s decision in the 1980s to buy an old Conklin bar and turn it into an Irish pub. “People didn’t know what to make of us.”
They certainly do now. “They all feel it’s their place,” says Mary Ann. “That’s been the beauty of it.”
Lunasa’s Crawford may have put it best in paying tribute to the Reagans as “incredible hosts” who have been “so passionate about all things to do with Irish culture.”
“I can safely say that they’re a rare breed,” he says, “and should be applauded loudly for all they do to bring internationally acclaimed artists to their little piece of heaven in the middle of nowhere.”
Email John Sinkevics at email@example.com.
Copyright 2014, Spins on Music
A veteran journalist and former music writer for The Grand Rapids Press, John Sinkevics is editor and publisher of LocalSpins.com, profiling regional artists and commenting on West Michigan's music scene. He hosts "Local Spins Live" on News Talk 1340 AM in Grand Rapids at 11 a.m. Wednesdays, with a preview at 9:30 a.m. Wednesdays on WLAV-FM (96.9). He also hosts the hour-long "Local Spins on WYCE" at 11 a.m. Fridays on WYCE-FM (88.1).
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