“The Brazen Head claims to be the oldest pub in Ireland . . . dating back to 1198 AD when it was first established as a coach house … One of the oldest pubs in Ireland with a rich history and once frequented by James Joyce, who mentioned the pub in his novel ‘Ulysses,’ Jonathan Swift, the author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ and supposedly Robin Hood. More recently, it has welcomed the likes of Van Morrison and Garth Brooks.” – from The Drinks Business
I talk with one of the servers, Julia, who just can’t restrain her love and respect for owner Philomena O’Brien. In fact, Julia, along with another Nana’s Irish Pub employee, Jill, won an all-expenses paid trip to Ireland in June of 2019.
The 66-year-old Philomena stressed how these two employees won a contest based not on how much food they sold, but predicated on how much they engendered a sense of confidence and encouragement in the diners to purchase items other than main courses from the menu.
She’s all about customer experience, so Jill and Julia’s ability to impart in their customers a sense of relaxation and being at a home away from home is Philomena’s basic philosophy of restaurant service.
“Food is important. However, it’s how we treat people, and it’s about kindness,” O’Brien says.
This is a typical conversation Philomena has with her staff – one of unbridled equanimity and respect. Julia has been working at Nana’s for almost eight years, having come from Colorado after following her parents out to the Coast.
“What we are trying to do is encourage everyone working here to treat our customers with a friendly and authentic demeanor,” Philomena said.
Public Houses – Food, Drink, Song
I’ve been to some old pubs in Scotland, England and Ireland. One of my favorites is in Edinburgh where I lived for a time. The Sheep Heid Inn (established around 1360) was golden, but there were others that made my list. It is an interesting concept – a traveler’s sense of well-being was to be maintained in the inns and taverns dictated by common law.
The road to Nye Beach and her business is part of the allure Philomena inculcates in her Irish pub, named after her mother, Bridget Clancy, married to Sean O’Brien.
Philomena was born in Ireland and lived near the town of Limerick located on the River Shannon and considered the Mid-West Region of Ireland.
She and her husband left the old country in the 1990s. They ended up in Virginia. The couple opened up a pub, the Irish isle, near Middletown, off highway 66. They raised two daughters and a son for 30 years before their separation.
Before the Irish Isle, Philomena managed a dental business as sort of an HR-comptroller.
Her son Aidan and wife Rachelle migrated to Salem, and so Philomena -- who had never been anywhere west of Chicago -- ended up in Oregon. That was 2007. She was studying the vibrant, edgy Portland restaurant scene to possibly contribute her own vision of a pub-style restaurant in Stumptown.
“Of all the real estate I was seeing in Portland, nothing exactly jumped out at me,” she said. It was a whim to visit the coast. One weekend in Newport hooked her to the lifestyle, the location, the people. She answered a Craig’s List ad for what is now the East annex of Nana’s.
She moved here, and, opened in January of 2008. She was able to purchase the west part of the restaurant – what was the Nye Beach Scoop. She laughs with trepidation how her life’s savings were put into one bucket at the end of the rainbow when the economy hit a major downturn. The outdoor patio opened up in 2009.
Much of her drive to expand Nana’s was fueled through the good auspices of a patron who gave Philomena the money to purchase the entire footprint to what is now a main anchor business on Nye Beach.
The journey from Ireland to her success in the US was facilitated with that so-called green card. It was just last year, Philomena beams, when she officially became a US citizen. “Everything else was afforded me on a green card, just as it is for you as a citizen … except for voting.”
She just purchased a “little house” on Nye Beach. She explains how her neighbor there just came over one day and helped put up a new fence. It’s that generosity of spirit that Philomena illustrates as one big reason she loves working in her pub in Newport.
“It’s just so nice to live in Newport with 9,500 people living here and another 30,000 in the summer,” she said. “This restaurant gives me an opportunity to serve them. Newport’s been good to me.”
Her pub is a venue for live music, and she hands me a CD from Portland-based band St. James’s Gate, which just performed at Nana’s the weekend of Nov. 9. She also slipped me her cousin’s CD, Siobhan O’Brien is an Irish performer who is doing gigs on the East Coast.
Future plans for Nana’s include converting the upstairs into dining space and building another kitchen. For Philomena, her devout belief in doing good deeds steeped in her Catholic faith. “I try to love people, be good to people, and to be fair.”
From the enthusiasm I glean from staff, to the exuberance of customers coming in as the pub has just opened on a Monday at 11 am, it’s difficult to swallow that saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Especially when O’Brien’s ethos of gratitude for staff and thankfulness for everything she has gained in life imbues not only her total being, but the warm glow inside Nye Beach’s only Irish Pub.
When Irish eyes are smiling: Part II
Philomena is both pleased I am with her listening to her story, and yet also embarrassed, as if her life of 66 years is undeserving of a long feature piece.
I might not be able to squeeze blood from a turnip, but I know a good story when I see it.
While talking to Philomena, I met her GM; in fact, Philomena solicited her inclusion in the interview.
Dawn Newman has been at the helm of Nana’s Irish Pub going on eight years. She’s inspired by her boss’ work ethic and attitude about what makes for a fine dining experience.
While Philomena is planning on closing for the first time one day a week – Sunday – her attitude is based on giving her staff some breathing room. That staff swells to 45 in the summer, and shrinks in half in the winter.
We talk about Local Ocean. which opened the year before Nana’s. And we talk about the now closed Café Mundo, which was a going concern (first a food-coffee stand) for as long as Nana’s place.
As I talk to Dawn about my own Tucson roots (she came from New York to Tucson decades ago), Philomena whispers if it’s okay for Dawn to talk about her plans as restaurateur.
What’s in the works – through what Dawn says is Philomena’s doing – will be a Spanish cuisine place to open where Café Mundo did business for more than a dozen years. That dream and vision, Dawn says, germinated when Dawn started making regular visits to Spain. Her daughter entered a religious order in Santander.
So, Dawn’s idea is to have a fully-authentic Spanish kitchen with lunch and dinner service tied to the many flavor and food regions of the highly diverse gourmet-centric Spain – French influences, as well as Moroccan, Mediterranean, Moorish, Italian and even Celtic.
Small Town, Smaller Farm
We talk about fresh, healthy, and local food. Philomena owns 10 acres near Logsden, on the Siletz River, where she is attempting a farm-to-table formula.
She used to live there, but now it’s tended by several people. “A lady from the Philippines grows vegetables on the farm. She uses all organic principles in her farming practices.”
The discussion continues with the benefits of food not sprayed with Round-up or conceived in a laboratory as Frankenfood – genetically engineered seeds.
While the Spanish restaurant at the old Café Mundo will have tapas and paella, probably the most important ingredient to Dawn Newman’s kitchen is the spiritual and intellectual support of Philomena.
Faith in Action
She knows about the struggle of people in Newport to find decent jobs and, most importantly, a roof over their heads.
Julia and Philomena mention that during one summer, with the challenges of working in Newport in with no accommodations, many of her staff lived in a tent on the property of another staffer.
What she is involved in now is tied to Texas-based Gabriel Project. For Philomena, working with her church helping pregnant women get housing and support is part and parcel of her calling as a Catholic. That pregnancy outreach program is through Sacred Heart.
She wants to do more, learn more and help solve an epidemic not only spreading throughout Newport, but throughout the county, state and country.
The conversation then moves to my own background as a social worker, and currently, working in the K12 school system. She has been volunteering with Safe Families for Children. The program started in Chicago in 2003 and is now in 65 cities across 35 states as well as in the UK.
This project is set around assisting families – children especially – facing multiple crises: homelessness, unemployment, medical issues and hospitalizations, domestic violence, incarceration and substance abuse.
Philomena talks about a highly impactful training she had in Salem as part of her volunteer work.
Learning about Adverse Childhood Experiences, Philomena has conceptualized that all things connect, and that homelessness or substance abuse just do not rise out of thin air.
“I have learned you have to open up your heart to treat the people in front of you who are suffering, with dignity,” she said.
This “it takes a village” concept is near and dear to this pub owner. However, she says people, leaders, have to step it up: “It takes an individual to step forward in all efforts for the good of many.”
She understands behavioral health issues, medical issues, substance-abuse issues, legal issues and more can be tied to how intense and overwhelming a child’s adverse experiences have been.
Her own life she counts as “blessed,” as she maintains a healthy family network with her son Aidan, daughters Tara and Caroline, and grandchildren Isis and Ari.
Whether she’s interacting with Father Palmer, the head priest at Sacred Heart, or rowdy customers, or her own dedicated staff, Philomena wants to pass on her empathy and love to as many people she can.
The Gift of Gab – In Philomena’s Own Words
Paul — Your favorite food on the menu and why?
Philomena — My favorites in each category are:
Appetizer: Scotch Eggs. This is a perfect and delicious protein packed meal even though it’s just an appetizer. We wrap two hardboiled eggs in Irish breakfast sausage, panko, deep fried and served with stoneground mustard.
Lunch: Tuna Melt. The tuna is sourced locally from Newell Seafood. We poach the fish, cool it and combine your typical seasonings with celery and onion. Then melt Swiss cheese on rye and there you have it — a delicious and generous sandwich. One half is a plentiful serving, and the other half can be for a friend or lunch the next day.
Dinner: Galway Cod au Gratin. We use cod that is wild caught from the Northwest. It is baked in a cheese sauce that consists of Tillamook sharp cheddar, stoneground mustard and heavy cream. This is served on top of mashed potatoes, a side of peas and freshly baked Irish soda bread. Yum!
Dessert: Apple Raspberry Delight. I love the combination of baked apples and raspberries, covered in a topping of toasted walnuts, butter, gluten-free flour and brown sugar, then covered in vanilla ice cream and caramel. Delicious!
PH — Where did you get the recipes and how'd you learn to cook them?
PO — My recipes came from my mother, Bridget, and my own creations. I remember how my mom loved to cook. She would cook a variety of foods based on who was coming over to our home. This is why I named the restaurant after her. She had a very generous and open heart to everyone she met.
When I opened the Irish Isle in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, I was blessed to meet a chef who was living in Middletown. Sheila Cox taught me how to transpose my home style recipes into restaurant style recipes. I will be forever grateful to her for her dedication to this endeavor.
PH — If you were not living in Oregon, where would you be living and why?
PO —Ireland because it's beautiful and my home.
PH — Breaking bread and sharing spirits and wine is part of the Irish tradition. What other Irish traditions do you follow?
PO — When I grew up my parents used to have get togethers and we would all sing a song (and nobody else could sing your song). It would go around the house and if you couldn't sing then you would recite a poem or tell a story. My dad had a beautiful voice and he would sing songs such as Old Man River, Some Enchanted Evening, Summertime etc. My parents used to sing duets from musicals. The one they performed most often was “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from “Show Boat” My mom used to sing many songs and also recite at the drop of a hat such things like from The Merchant of Venice. This was her favorite!
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?
I can hear my mother reciting it. So, my son Aidan is an accomplished musician. He sings and has written hundreds of songs. When we get together as a family, we continue this tradition. Everyone takes part. My daughter Tara also plays guitar and sings.
PH — Where would you like to visit and why?
PO — I'd like to visit the Holy Land in order to walk where Christ and his apostles walked.
PH — Favorite thing about living in Newport?
PO — My favorite thing about Newport is of course the ocean view and then the people who live here. I am at home here. I'm comfortable in my own skin here. We all have our different view on issues but I'm convinced that there is a mutual respect for each person. I like to believe this.
PH — Least favorite thing.
PO — The lack of housing for the working class and the homeless. My hope is that this can be remedied in the near future. Hoping we can all take a part in this.
Nana’s Irish Pub is located at 613 NW 3rd Street in Newport’s Nye Beach. For more information, go to www.nanasirishpub.com or call 541-574-8787.