Tom Griffin obituary: Best Irish publican in Nicaragua
Dublin man who lived out his dream by opening a pub thousands of miles from home
Tom Griffin: his pub became a vital hub for Nicaragua’s tiny Irish community, a meeting place for Irish-Americans on holidays, a regular watering hole for hundreds of foreign volunteers, and a popular destination for weekend visitors from the capital, Managua
Born: April 30th, 1946
Died: July 24th, 2019
A love of adventure and a desire to try out something new gave north Dublin native Tom Griffin the motivation to move to Nicaragua, where he opened what became the most successful Irish pub in the country at 61.
Tom had no experience in the bar trade prior to moving to the old colonial city of Granada in 2007 and yet managed to turn O’Shea’s, named after his maternal grandmother, into one of the most popular tourist pubs in all of Central America.
After running a successful juice bar for two years, he opened O’Shea’s in the heart of Granada’s pedestrianised zone in 2009. The pub became a vital hub for Nicaragua’s tiny Irish community, a meeting place for Irish-Americans on holidays, a regular watering hole for hundreds of foreign volunteers, and a popular destination for weekend visitors from the capital, Managua.
It did not matter that Tom did not master the Spanish language. The Nicaraguans loved Tom’s way with people and respected him for how he treated his staff, engaged with his customers, and put in 16-hour days cleaning tables and serving food. Tom seemed to have time for everyone – from the Granada street children to celebrated writers attending the city’s famed international poetry festival every year.
One of his most high-profile customers was the late Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, who was a guest of Granada’s international poetry festival a few years ago. The two men struck up a friendship after Tom approached Heaney outside the bar, with no idea that he was speaking Ireland’s greatest poet of the 20th century. He went to a nearby square to hear Heaney read the following day.
After the break-up of his marriage in the 1980s, Tom’s wandering spirit had taken him to Saudi Arabia, Australia, and then the United States, where he ran a successful business importing farm machinery from Modesto, California, for 15 years.
Move back to Ireland
Tom found it difficult to settle when he decided to move back to Ireland in 2003, admitting to his friends and family that the wind, cold, and rain of four winters in his native County Dublin were hard to take after a decade and a half in California.
After four years at home in County Dublin, an invitation to join a good friend, Liam McDermott, in the Central American sunshine convinced Tom to move to Nicaragua.
Liam, one of his Irish friends in Modesto, had relocated to Nicaragua and kept urging him to visit the beautiful land of volcanoes, lakes, two oceans, sunshine, and friendly people. Liam convinced Tom that he would be much happier in Central America.
Tom spotted a golden opportunity when he met a lady putting up a “for rent” sign outside a large premises on the corner of La Calzada, the city’s main street. He moved into the old colonial mansion in September 2007 and sold fresh juices there for two years.
As the demand increased for his juices, the laws changed and it became easier to sell alcohol on La Calzada. When the 2008 recession hit, he decided to convert his juice bar into the city’s first Irish pub. A British couple on holidays helped him to come up with the design.
The early years were difficult. Tom had to subsidise his business with rental income from his farm back in Ireland, but he began to forge links with NGO’s on the ground in Granada and to build up a strong local trade among ex-pats, Irish-American tourists, and weekend visitors from Managua.
Banter with the fishermen
He used to take off on four-hour round trips to the small fishing village of Casares, to ensure that O’Shea’s had the best fresh seafood in Granada. Tom loved the banter with the fishermen at the market on the Pacific coast, where he was often the only foreigner to be seen, and always returned to Granada with his boot full of fresh produce.
By this time last year, O’Shea’s had become the most popular watering hole in the entire city, which has a population of about 125,000. In March 2018, Tom and his good friend, Wexford man Gerry Webb, organised Granada’s first ever St Patrick’s Day festival, with a parade through the city and a live band outside O’Shea’s.
The event was a huge success. Sadly, just over a month later, a political crisis erupted in Nicaragua which left more than 300 people dead and forced thousands more to move overseas in search of work.
Tourism collapsed, and businesses such as O’Shea’s felt the pinch as people stopped travelling to the country. Many events in Granada, including the 15th annual International Poetry Festival, were cancelled.
Tom was the grand marshal for the second St Patrick’s Day festival in Granada this year but, with tourism suffering due to the political turmoil, he had a massive brain haemorrhage at the end of March. He spent 21 days in an intensive care unit in Nicaragua and battled bravely for four months before dying.
His son Thomas, daughter Catherine, and sister Nonie travelled to Nicaragua for a Mass and cremation at Granada Cathedral, to share a celebration of his life with his Irish, Irish-American, and Nicaraguan friends, in the knowledge that Tom had lived out his dreams by opening a successful pub thousands of miles from home.
His son Thomas is to travel to Nicaragua in November, to take over the business and ensure the O’Shea’s pub remains at the heart of the social life of Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city.