“Berlin D2 came up on Saturday, and then later his name came up as the man involved in it, and it was like, ‘Ah f**k, here we go again’.”
The speaker is a senior figure in the Dublin pub sector, speaking off the record about when he discovered that Jay Bourke – Jonathan Paget Bourke – was associated with Berlin D2, the establishment that burst into the news last weekend courtesy of a social media video clip.
Bourke was once a very high-profile publican, restaurateur, nightclub operator and media figure, but the 54-year-old Dubliner’s public profile has been much reduced over recent years.
'The licensing laws are 200-years-old. There are 200 statutes on the books and they are complicated and arcane. Nightclubs don't exist in law'
That changed on Saturday when two short video clips appeared on social media showing what looked like complete indifference to the Covid-19 social distancing rules being displayed at Berlin D2 on Dame Lane, Dublin 2. It soon emerged that Berlin was associated with Bourke.
One clip showed a young barman standing on the counter pouring drink straight from a bottle into customers’ mouths, while people danced and music played.
A second short clip, where a different song was playing, showed young people dancing in a modestly-sized enclosed space, while a waitress carrying a tray of shots walked among them, offering the drinks for consumption.
A ‘rogue incident’
The Licensed Vinters Association, which represents pubs in Dublin city and county, described the footage as "outrageous and appalling".
“That business should be shut down immediately. It is not a pub and does not hold a pub licence,” it said in a statement.
Bourke was in west Cork, swimming in the marine nature reserve, Lough Hyne, when the controversy broke. He drove up to Dublin on Sunday to deal with the crisis and immediately spoke, as he said to the media, to “my staff” and the local Garda inspector in charge of licensing. Counselling was made available for staff who were being viciously assaulted online.
He was “embarrassed and mortified” by what had happened, he tells The Irish Times. He also says he is satisfied, having reviewed all the CCTV footage, that the barman-on-the-counter moment was a “rogue incident” during what was a four-hour, pre-booked afternoon event that had been mostly well conducted.
The promotion for the €25 event described it as a “boozy brunch with your buds”. Berlin does not have a seven-day drink licence but is part of a premises, The Front Door, which opens onto Dame Street. The latter has both a special restaurant licence (SRL) and a theatre bar licence.
These type of establishments seriously annoy some Dublin publicans. “It’s almost impossible to open a pub these days. That’s why [Jay Bourke] is always messing at the edges of the licensing laws with wine licences and theatre licences and restaurant licences,” says the above quoted figure from the pub sector.
“The reason the business [holds strong views about Bourke] is that he essentially uses back doors into the bar trade.”
Bourke got into difficulties, like so many others, but he spoke out more than most. He also got pulled into court over unpaid debts
The writer, publisher, food critic and museum director Trevor White, who has known Bourke for 30 years, says he has always admired the businessman’s imagination and tenacity but his business track record shows his flaws. “In a normal summer, Jay’s critics and creditors would have no trouble filling a small bar,” says White.
Bourke, in response to the publican’s comment, tells The Irish Times he was heavily involved in the 2000s in an effort to have something done about Ireland’s complex licensing law regime, but that no comprehensive reforming legislation ever resulted.
“My response is that the licensing laws are 200 years old. There are 200 statutes on the books and they are complicated and arcane. Nightclubs don’t exist in law.”
“The talents are clear and the failures are clear,” says a property figure who has had business dealings with Bourke. The same unique creativity and independence that make him a success, contribute to his getting into difficulty, he says.
It is difficult to sell alcohol responsibly, says the businessman, who has been involved in the pub trade but no longer is.
Businesses want to maximise their sales, but this can lead to people getting drunk, and all the misery that can go with that. This challenge is all the greater when selling alcohol during a pandemic, when so many businesses are under pressure. “There’s a conflict there.”
On a roll
Back in the early 1990s, Bourke brought something refreshing to the Dublin bar and nightclub scene, as did the late John Reynolds, founder of the Pod nightclub and later Electric Picnic, and the late Hugh O'Regan's Thomas Read group.
“I would describe them as unique characters,” says the property businessman. “They created a great excitement.”
Bourke, he says, has a “great nose” for the city and its streets, which he gets from wandering around it. (Bourke lives in Rathmines and likes to do his travelling around Dublin on his bike.)
He was only 22 when he opened the Globe in 1993 on South Great George's Street, with his then business partner, Eoin Foyle. The premises also housed a nightclub, Rí Rá, and queues outside the door were not just a weekend phenomenon.
As the years passed the Savoy nightclub and Bodega bar in Cork, the Market Bar, the Front Lounge, and Odessa restaurant in Dublin, and the Cafe Bar Deli chain, were among the outlets added to his portfolio. He owned the restaurants and cafes that operated out of the old Bewleys Cafe building on Grafton Street. He and Reynolds got involved in an ultimately unsuccessful boutique hotel venture in Co Meath. He was on a roll.
A Dalkey native and economics graduate – his friends include the economist and Irish Times columnist David McWilliams with whom he shared rooms in Trinity College – there has always been an air of privilege about Bourke, but also an informal style that seeped into his hospitality establishments.
His father, John Paget Bourke – a cousin of Mary Robinson – was a successful banker and businessman who at one stage was a potential candidate for the job of managing director of the Bank of Ireland. He was later chairman of Irish Permanent.
Bourke's father holds slightly more than half of the shares in Ronrob Ltd, a Bourke family company that in turn owns shares in the Dublin hospitality businesses with which Bourke is associated these days.
These are the Pantibar on Capel Street, and the Penny Lane Cafe, close by, both of which are owned with Rory O’Neill, otherwise known as Panti Bliss. The two establishments have seven-day pub licences.
Up to last year Ronrob also had an interest in the Pygmalion, on South William Street. Bourke also has shares, held outside Ronrob, in Trillium Leisure Ltd, the company behind the Front Door/Berlin D2.
He was a vocal member of the hospitality sector during the crash. Incomes and turnovers dropped sharply but, Bourke argued strongly, some landlords weren’t accepting their share of the pain.
He got into difficulties, like so many others, but he spoke out more than most. He also got pulled into court over unpaid debts, including personal and company tax debts.
A number of judgment orders were registered against him between 2010 and 2018, including one for Temple Bar Cultural Trust (TBCT), and one for ACC Bank, which was owed €1 million.
“I paid that back, with interest and costs,” Bourke says about the ACC debt. He also paid back TBCT, which was the landlord for his restaurant, Eden, on Meeting House Square.
“In 2006, the rent went from €65,000 to €145,000, and sales plummeted by 40 per cent. [Eden] is now derelict.” The 2006 rent review “destroyed a great debt-free, award-winning restaurant”.
But while the recession was difficult, he had the benefit of having sold some assets at the top of the property bubble.
“My father always told me that you haven’t learned business until you’ve learned how to sell stuff,” Bourke told The Irish Times in 2011, in reference to the sale in 2006 of the Globe and Rí Rá.
“You don’t want to sell though, because you love them, and you built them. But then the pub is making 200 grand a year and you’re being offered €6 million and you think, ‘Gosh, the maths don’t support holding on to them’.”
In 2017, the High Court disqualified Bourke from working as a company director for seven years. The order arose out of the liquidation of his Shebeen Chic pub on South Great George's Street in Dublin.
The judge said Bourke had continued his efforts to trade out of difficulty for too long, when he knew the operating company was insolvent.
“I’m not allowed be a director,” he tells The Irish Times this week. “I’m a shareholder in Trillium and an employee. Because I am experienced in disaster management, I took the reins on Sunday morning.”
The businessman has always been combative and articulate. His quotes often made good copy, though some feel they might not always be in his best interest.
When this reporter spoke to him in 2008, about a €158,815 tax settlement arising from the under-declaration of VAT by Sherland Entertainments Ltd, which ran the Cafe Bar Deli group, Eden, and other outlets, Bourke said it had to viewed in the context of the size of the business.
“It was just a mistake, you know. We are turning over so much money. I have no sense of shame about it. None. I’m not even embarrassed.”
The company employed 680 people, and had collected up to €50 million for the government over the years, he said. The Revenue should erect a statue of him given how much tax he had collected, he added.
This week, he said the quip about the statue had been revived in the numerous profiles that appeared in the media in the wake of the Berlin debacle. “It never goes away,” he said, referring both to the 2008 quote, and last weekend’s social media storm.
His wife is a published novelist and former lawyer and the couple have two grown children. They have no interest in following him into the hospitality industry, which is hard and noisy work that invariably involves antisocial hours.
“I’m much less active, and I’m much quieter now,” he said. “We all have our phases. I have no interest in being that person again. I don’t have the energy in any event. And the last recession, it changed everybody.”
He never really liked “excessive things” and never really changed his lifestyle over the course of his career, he said. “I love cycling my bike. I love swimming in the sea. I love sailing. I have wonderful children. I am a very lucky man.”