Irish restaurateur wins award for bouncing back after Hurricane Irene

Mon, May 14, 2012, 01:00

WHEN BARRY O’Donovan finally reached his restaurant, the Kilkenny House, in Cranford, New Jersey on the night of August 28th, 2011, he wept.

The basement where the Kilkenny-born restaurateur had his offices, food storage and electrical plant was under 12 feet of water. The ground floor of the restaurant was flooded. Hurricane Irene had swept through that day, breaking the banks of the Rahway River.

“I thought I was done,” said Mr O’Donovan (51). “It took us hours to get there. The road was a river. I called my insurance company and they said we weren’t covered for floods. I opened the taps and gave beer to everyone who came by. I gave the food upstairs to the fire department. What else could you do?”

Mr O’Donovan came to the US in 1979, to visit his brother Declan, an Irish diplomat who was posted to the UN and is now ambassador to Lisbon. He took a summer job as a bus boy with an Irish restaurant in New York, returned briefly to college in Rathmines, then accepted an invitation to train as a restaurant manager in Manhattan.

In the course of a 22-year stay in Brooklyn, Mr O’Donovan met his wife Peggy, from Lanesboro, Co Longford. “She’s Maureen O’Hara with black hair – looks and temperament. She’s my backbone,” he said. They moved to New Jersey, had two sons and opened the Kilkenny House in September 2008.

Mr O’Donovan moped for a day after the hurricane. “Then you get your act together,” he said. The US immigrant experience had made him resilient. “I’d gone through adversity – like not being able to go home for 10 years when I was undocumented. There was no way I was going to fail.”

Mr O’Donovan used his own money to start rebuilding, with help from the local community. “The flood happened on a Saturday. On Tuesday I started demolition,” he recalled. The Small Business Administration (SBA) cut through the red tape to process his disaster loan within 10 days, for a substantial part of the $300,000 in damage. O’Donovan promised to reopen within six weeks, for Peggy’s birthday on October 15th. The restaurant, with a staff of 22, reopened a week early.

On May 22nd, Mr O’Donovan will receive the SBA 2012 Phoenix Award at a ceremony in a Washington hotel.

“Barry O’Donovan displayed tremendous courage and resourcefulness in the aftermath of the flood, and he exemplifies the spirit one must have to rebound after a disaster like this,” said SBA administrator Karen Mills.