Sunday, January 16, 2011
The Ceilidh House: a personal retrospective on a special Pub
This past weekend, I got to take a brief trip to Albany, NY, to participate in an event sponsored by Bear Albany. "Bears," for those of you who may not know, are a 'subset' of the gay male 'community': a little (or a lot) heavier and hairier than the models you find on the cover of Mens Fitness or dancing in a g-string. "Bear Runs" take place just about every weekend of the year, all around the world, and each one serves as sort as a 'reunion-party.' Having been to many of these, I can say that "Bears" are the nicest, most 'normal,' accepting, easy-going, non-judgemental bunch of gay men you could ever meet.
Two bars, ROCKS, and the Water Works, served as host locations for this weekend, and at one of them, a familiar looking face came up to me and said,
"You know, the Ceilidh House changed my life."
Now, the Ceilidh House was a Celtic Pub that I co-owned in Westmoreland, NH from 2007-2008. It swiftly developed a very loyal, wonderful "fan base," people I still consider some of my best friends in the world. Friends who would clear tables if necessary, help new patrons figure out the quirks of the place, spend their money, and offer their support and friendship. They helped set up our musical events, and prepared party favors for New Years Eve. The Ceilidh House "regulars" became sort of a private 'Club,' and the Ceilidh House was their clubhouse. In the single instance where we had trouble with some young drunk punks who came in and gave me a hard time...it was a combination of employees and patrons who actually beat the crap out of them and sequestered them in the parking lot until the police - and the ambulance - arrived. I am incredibly grateful and have wonderful memories of that Pub.
The clientele was an eclectic mix: friends, singing compatriots, collegiates, local "townies," karaoke enthusiasts, celtophiles, music-lovers, rugby clubbers, an afterwork crowd from the city of Keene, and snowmobilers and cross-country skiiers who would happen upon our pub. And on one Wednesday evening a month, we sponsored Bear Night: with no gay bar anywhere within a 90 minute radius, The Ceilidh House became a meeting and reunion center of sorts for gay men from a three state area.
"I never realized there were other guys out there like me. I used to drive 75 miles just to come on Bear Night, and stay over. It has changed the course of my entire future."
We hugged, and he and his friends disappeared among the 250+ men dancing to technoversions of Lady Gaga on the dance floor...
I can never quite figure out how to sort out my emotions when things like that happen. And it wasn't the first time. I often hear my friends refer to the "Ceilidh House" gang...and I am at a loss for words to describe the bittersweet mix of deep pain and fondness I instantly feel.
As the Ceilidh House entered its first winter, it was quite clear that its financial survival was very much in question...and equally clear that my business partner and I had less and less of the common vision we had when the Pub was launched.
The revenue was no where what had been represented to us as typical in the past before we signed the lease, even on our best nights.
The cost of rent and heating oil (for a three story uninsulated barn with living quarters in the basement) ate up a third of the monthly intake. It's location on a hilly, rural stretch of road often made winter weekend visits treacherous: a single freezing rain storm on the weekend would destroy our ability to make ends meet for that month.
My partner's approach to management was more that of a "landed proprietor" than a "working partner." I could not get him to arrange for the beer tanks to be filled, to put up a simple employee schedule, or to open or close on time. On our explosively packed opening weekend...he took off with a friend and left me alone to work the crowd. I would bartend or cook; he would learn neither, but insisted on hiring others. On our single most profitable party - Mardi Gras - he chose not to show up to help at all. He cut short a training session I arranged with him to balance the financial books, to go on a date. He refused to allow me to sell ownership shares to our loyal clientele to raise capital to get through the winters. Eventually, as revenues fell, costs increased, and the task of keeping the Pub afloat took its physical and emotional toll on me, it was clear we were not going to be able to work together.
And so, in March 2008, I relinquished my ownership position and never returned. Most of my patrons were shocked, and many of them continued to try and help the Ceilidh House survive.
And I was left in a terrible, no-win situation: I could explain to each and every person why I needed to leave, and why it would eventually close, and what the problems were - - but what would that accomplish? Sure, I could 'justify' my decision to leave, but I would be bad-mouthing a place that people loved, and which, to be honest, I hoped would survive. I had no right to hasten the Pub's demise by talking poorly about it, and I did not want to be blamed for seeking to destroy it through such talk.
And so, I said nothing to anybody.
It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. And in my mind, my friends - all those who had helped me for months and enjoyed the Ceilidh House - must have been hurt, insulted, and bewildered, wondering why I walked out on it all without so much as an explanation. But what could I say? It hurt, and still does, but I felt that the short-term pain would eventually give way to longer-term understanding.
Three months after I left, the Ceilidh House closed.
I have seen my recipes - some of which were unique to the Ceilidh House - show up in the menus of other area restaurants, and have smiled. Every former patron I meet, whether an 'old friend' or not, still speaks fondly of 'what we had.'
I lost money, and I left many good friends hurt and bewildered. But every once in a while, I have an unexpected experience like the one I had this weekend...and I realize, in the long run, in spite of the difficulties...it was all very, very good. I think the healing is finally complete.