Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/3/2016 (1436 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Mighty news for anyone who didn’t get their fill of unicorns and black velvet bands on St. Patrick’s Day, which fell last week: since April 2015, Shannon’s Irish Pub has hosted a weekly Celtic jam featuring some of Winnipeg’s fiercest Irish folk musicians.
For three hours every Sunday — from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. — men and women adept at fiddle, penny whistle, accordion and bodhrán (a type of drum) take over the pub’s Jameson Stage, where they serenade those who have popped down for bangers and mash or Guinness-battered fish and chips.
(When we say "down," we mean down. Shannon’s is a windowless, zero-clocks-on-the-wall subterranean watering hole located at 175 Carlton St. that, in previous incarnations, was home to such bygone faves as G. Willikers and the Carlton Street Fish Market.)
"They’ve added a real authentic touch to the place," says owner Gerard Fletcher, seated at his signature, five-metre-long oak bar, steps away from where a trio of McConnell School of Dance students are jigging to a ditty titled Christy Barry’s Set.
"But the credit for the music really goes to Dale Brown. He’s the person who spearheaded this whole thing."
Just over a year ago, Fletcher asked Brown, a member of the Dust Rhinos — a five-piece Celtic rock outfit that regularly headlines at Shannon’s — if he had any ideas for a vacant entertainment slot on Sunday afternoons. Brown didn’t have to give the question much thought.
'I've always said we're not the owners of Shannon's so much as the keepers.The place really belongs tothe people who've been coming here night after night,year after year'— Gerard Fletcher
"Before joining the Rhinos, I cut my teeth as a fiddle player at sessions exactly like these — sitting around in a circle and playing traditional tunes that were 60, 70... 100 years old," says Brown, whose own band has been described as the "Irish Rovers on speed."
"So when Gerard gave me the nod, I called everyone I could think of and asked, ‘Hey, do you want in?’
"No other pub in town is doing anything similar, but if you were to go the East Coast of Canada or the U.K., you’d see something like this almost every night of the week."
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How exactly did Fletcher — a classically trained chef born in the West Indies — end up running an Irish-flavoured restaurant and bar in downtown Winnipeg? The answer, strange as it may seem, is tied to an infamous day in September 2001.
Fletcher’s family emigrated from Grenada to Toronto when he was three years old. He credits his mother for his love of cooking.
"I remember a curry goat roti dish she used to do where she made the shells from scratch. It was a painstaking process, and I used to sit in the kitchen watching her intently, waiting to lick the spoons," says Fletcher, who graduated from a two-year chef’s course at George Brown College when he was 21.
Fletcher moved to the Maritimes in 1997 to take a position as executive sous-chef at the Chateau Halifax. He was still working at the 277-room inn in 2001 when a pair of airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
"It was my day off, and I was mowing the lawn," he recalls. "The TV happened to be on when I went inside to get a beverage, and at that precise moment, the first tower fell. It was so surreal."
A couple of months later, Fletcher was summoned into his general manager’s office. Because of the economic fallout associated with the attacks — tourism in North America ground to a halt in the wake of 9/11 — the hotel was cutting costs, he was told. Fletcher had a decision to make: he could remain in Halifax and try to catch on somewhere else, or his boss could make some calls and ask if any other Canadian Pacific Railway-run hotels in Canada were hiring.
"Before I accepted a transfer to the Delta (350 St. Mary Ave.), I’d never even set foot in Winnipeg. It was one of those places I literally used to drive around on my way to somewhere else," he says with a laugh.
Fletcher ran the Delta’s banquet and catering division until 2005, when he decided it was time for "a new adventure." He was still trying to figure out what that might be when he spotted an ad for a part-time kitchen position at Shannon’s Irish Pub. Thinking, "It’s part-time, I can quit as soon as I find something better," he applied for the job.
Part-time at Shannon’s turned into full-time, full-time turned into running the entire kitchen and, after the owner opened a second restaurant elsewhere in the city, running one kitchen turned into running a pair of kitchens.
Fletcher eventually left Shannon’s to cook at Restaurant Dubrovnik. In 2007, he received a message from his old boss, wondering if he was interested in buying Shannon’s Irish Pub.
"I was like, ‘What? Seriously?’"
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Shannon’s Irish Pub opened in 2002 as Shannon’s Irish Club. For the first few years, patrons paid $5 for a lifetime membership — a move that allowed the bar to circumvent a law that required restaurant owners to follow strict food-to-liquor sales ratios. No surprise, the club’s private status also resulted in a few wild nights.
"Looking back, it probably would have been a good idea to put up a sign reading, ‘Under new management,’ when I took over," Fletcher says.
"I don’t have any stories myself, but I’ve definitely heard a few. It took a while, but eventually word got around that we weren’t a crazy weekend basher bar anymore."
Timed for St. Paddy’s Day, Shannon’s recently ran a contest asking customers to put together a 15-second Instagram video detailing their favourite memory associated with Shannon’s, which has been the backdrop of a number of movies, including The Hessen Affair, starring Billy Zane, Goon, starring Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel and Eugene Levy, and Keep Your Head Up Kid: The Don Cherry Story.
(Not only was Shannon’s an official venue during JunoFest 2014, it was the unofficial home of the Iron Maiden Fan Club, when the British heavy metal band brought its Maiden England world tour to the MTS Centre in 2012.)
The winning entry was submitted by a couple who met at Shannon’s, got engaged there and later staged their nuptials in the shadow of the room’s two pool tables — a story, incidentally, shared by Fletcher and his wife, Louise Côté.
One night before he owned the joint, Fletcher was at Shannon’s having a few beers "with the boys" after his shift in the kitchen. At some point that evening, a woman came down the stairs and plunked herself down in a bar stool that "belonged" to a regular named John.
"Back then that was a pretty serious offence, and when John showed up, he had no problem telling her to move," Fletcher says.
"Luckily, I was able to placate the situation, and afterwards she and I struck up a conversation. One thing led to another, and a couple of years later, we got married right here in the bar."
(All’s well that ends well: the seat Côté "stole" that night now has a honorary spot in the Fletchers’ Windsor Park home.)
Fletcher looks around, takes a deep breath and fiddles with his coffee cup when he is asked what he attributes his business’s longevity to.
"That’s a tough one. I’d like to think it’s because of my stellar personality or because the beer’s really cold and the stew’s really good, but to tell the truth, it’s a combination of things," he says. "We’re not the prettiest face on the block, that’s for sure, but we’re an honest place.
"I’ve always said we’re not the owners of Shannon’s so much as the keepers. The place really belongs to the people who’ve been coming here night after night, year after year."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.