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Brian Boru

Brian Boru
Jul 05, 2017

“Brian Boru’s” restaurant and bar was named for the last ard ri or high king of Ireland, Brian Boroimhe, who was killed by the Vikings and their Irish allies at the Battle of Clontarf, outside Dublin, on Easter Sunday, 1014. Brian died, but his army, mostly from Munster (province in western Ireland), defeated the Vikings and effectively ended Norse control of most of Ireland. He was the ancestor of the O’Briens.

This building has had Irish-owned businesses and Irish inhabitants since at least the 1880s, when James Barry operated a saloon here. 57 Center Street was usually occupied by families, mostly Irish, while 59 Center was home to a variety of businesses. The building originally had four stories, but the top two were taken off sometime after a 1920s tax photo was taken of it.

Irish emigrant James Barry (1830-1896) moved to what was then 59 Center about 1880 and opened a saloon here. He operated it for most of the 1880s, along with assistance from his son Michael F., a local pugilist. James was also a stevedore for many years. His son James Henry Barry continued the saloon throughout most of the 1890s. According to local newspapers James or his son James were often in court facing various charges relating to the strict Maine liquor laws at the time (see 26 Sept 1891, Daily Eastern Argus, for James Barry, in Superior Court, for a liquor “nuisance”). Mike Barry was frequently in the news for his exploits as a well-known local boxer. In April 1884, he went to Biddeford to see Dennis Delaney about a proposed fight in Boston. Delaney refused, but sent a letter to the Police News with $125, and “an offer to fight Barry if the latter will put up the same amount.” The Eastern Argus was confident that Mike “will put up. Delaney needn’t be afraid of that.” Six years later, we find Mike Barry, Dennis Delaney, and many other “well known handlers of the gloves” going to Lewiston for a “Grand Scientific Contest” between Mike Daly and Jimmy Dwyer (27 May 1890, Portland Daily Press).

By 1900, Harry Callan, a native of Germany, was operating a saloon and restaurant at 59 Center. He soon after opened a German theme park (Germania Park), with a restaurant, cottages, lodging rooms, and a dance hall near Rigby Park (horse racing) in South Portland. Harry’s wife Annie, an Irish emigrant, worked in his restaurants.

Between 1901 and 1920, 59 Center Street was home to a dizzying array of establishments, mostly restaurants and “cigar shops.” These included the saloon of William Walsh, the cigar stores of Stephen J. Greeley and Michael Joyce, the restaurants of Mrs. Margaret Conroy, John McBrady, and John F. Seay, and the cigar store of Thomas H. Catterson. By 1920, George Wilcox sold clams here. Tommy Catterson (1885-1920), who operated here between about 1914-1916, was a famous ball player in New England, being a member of the Brooklyn Nationals, the Brockton, Lawrence, and Fall River clubs, and the Holy Name Society of Portland. Batting way up over the .300 mark, he was “one of the hardest hitting outfielders in the New England circuit.” His wife Mary was a sister to local sports legend “Giant” Conroy.

57 Center Street housed innumerable Irish families over the decades. In 1900, Mrs. Mary Haverty, Mrs. Winnifred McDonough, Mrs. Mary A. Connors, Mrs. Johanna Lee, Bartley Connolly, Mrs. Mary Devine, Miss Elizabeth Gillespie, John D. Sullivan, and Miss Bridget Foley all resided there.

After 1920, the residents and proprietors of 57-59 Center Street continued to change frequently, sometimes yearly. By 1925, it was the home of Thomas F. Joyce, Osanna Keumurian, Joseph Palamacci, and Clesson J. Clarke; the names indicate that Center Street was becoming a non-Irish neighborhood, as many of the old buildings had been demolished and the Irish had moved elsewhere.

A photo of 57-59 Center Street, taken in the mid-1920s, can be located in the tax office at Portland City Hall. At the time, Margaret R. McDonald owned the building, which included a painters store and dwellings. According to the tax evaluation, the building’s sound value was $2062, its age was unknown, it had stove heating, open plumbing, oil and electric light, a stone foundation, a full basement, a gable roof, brick construction, and wooden halls. The tax surveyor noted, “This house was sold to Clark the painter. Has 7 rents, but must be repaired to rent.”

In the 1930s, Kennan Paint Shop was at 59 Center and various people resided there, including Mrs. Helen Whitney and Mrs. Ruth E. Libby. In the 1940s and 1950s, various businesses operated here and from that time on it was often listed as vacant in the directories. In the mid-1970s, Good Day Market Natural Foods was located here and by the early 1980s, a shop called “Cycles” took over the spot. 57 Center Street had become the home of Thomas J. Corbett, president of “Great American Entertainment.”

In the early 1990s, 57-59 Center Street became The Unicorn,” a club operated by Mary J. Rossi and Jessee O’Rourke. This business lasted briefly and then it was vacant until “Brian Boru” opened up in the mid-1990s. “Brian Boru,” which originally had several Irish-born owners, caters to all clientele and offers a variety of music, including Irish bands. Although not strictly an “Irish” bar, they offer live Irish music sessions with local musicians every Sunday afternoon and on St. Patrick’s Day, there is a line out the door all day and night to get in.

RELATED SITES: Gorham's Corner, Center Street

Author Matt Barker
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