Irish Rover owners look back on 25 years of food, fun and characters

Michael and Siobhan Reidy opened the Irish Rover 25 years ago. They will celebrate with a week’s worth of special events at the pub. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Michael Reidy’s booming voice trumpets through the pub anytime he sees a familiar face.

“Hey! How are things?” he calls to one customer he recognizes. A few minutes later, a couple walks in with a service dog, and he greets them as well, adding at the end a “Hello there, sweetie” intended for the dog.

It’s just another day at the Irish Rover, which celebrates 25 years in business starting with a special event on Sunday, Nov. 4, with more events continuing through the week.

The kick-off Stout Fest on Sunday will feature hard-to-find stout beers and live music. On Tuesday, Nov. 6, there will be a whiskey tasting, followed by Guinness Night on Wednesday, Nov. 7, Irish Whiskey 101 on Thursday, Nov. 8, and traditional Irish music at the anniversary blowout on Saturday, Nov. 10. The concluding event also will be a fundraiser for APRON Inc.

Widman’s Saloon and Grocery, circa 1860s. The building would, 130 years later, become the Irish Rover. | Courtesy of the Irish Rover

Reidy and his wife and Rover co-owner, Siobhan Reidy, sat down to reflect on what the always-joking Michael refers to as “one delicious hell after another” over the course of a quarter-century running an Irish pub.

Michael had come to New York from his native County Clare in 1984 to spend time with his brother. He had been on his way to Australia but met Siobhan and never got any further.

They enjoyed their first date — surprise, at an Irish bar called O’Flanagan’s — fell in love and married in 1986. They relocated to Louisville, in large part because Siobhan’s father, who lived here, convinced Michael that Louisville needed an Irish pub.

That led them to Kentucky, where Michael worked in the restaurant business for a while and Siobhan worked in PR, as they tried to find the right location to open the Rover. They found it and took control of the building in 1993.

The couple remembers, while they were doing construction to convert the space from a former statuary, people from the neighborhood stopping by to ask when they were going to open. Choosing the Clifton neighborhood was done with a purpose — the Reidys wanted a location with a dense population so people could walk to the pub.

The welcoming building looks to most like a former family home, especially with a hearth in the main dining room, old furniture, ceiling fans, French doors, piano, bookshelf and family photos on the walls. However, it was built in the late 1850s to be a saloon and grocery.

The Irish Rover feels like a home away from home for many regulars. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

The original owners, Henry and Catherine Holtzheimer, ran the business as Widman’s Saloon and Grocery, with the family living on the second floor. It remained a family-owned business until 1942. It later turned into a statuary, then had a brief life as Another Place Sandwich Shop before owner Jim Goodwin sold the property to the Reidys.

While so many who stopped to check on the future pub were excited by the prospect of having such a business nearby, one woman said, “I live in the neighborhood, and that concept is never going to work,” Siobhan recalls. That was sometime in mid-1993, and still the Rover lives on.

Two months after the Irish Rover opened, the blizzard of 1994 hit Louisville, effectively stopping the city in its tracks. At the time, the Reidys lived in the Highlands, and they knew they needed to somehow get to the pub to check on it. So, they strapped on snow shoes and, with their 2-year-old in tow, hiked to Clifton.

The snow at one point banked up higher than some of the ground floor windows, but two days in, the pub opened and neighbors trudged through the snow to get there.

The Irish Rover as it appeared not long after opening. | Courtesy of the Irish Rover

Naming the pub fell to Michael, who said he literally had pages upon pages of ideas. Siobhan had insisted it have the word “Irish” or “Ireland” in the name, but without that, the business could have been named the Aran Men (after Ireland’s Aran Islands), the Holy Jumper, the Old Triangle or the New Triangle.

The Irish Rover did well enough that the couple decided to open a second location, the Irish Rover Too, in La Grange in 2003. The restaurant and bar lasted 10 years before the Reidys decided to close it and sell the property.

One of the draws there, in addition to the food and authentic Irish atmosphere, was the rumors of a haunting. Employees believed the spirit of a little girl was there, and historic records showed a family that had lived in the space in the early 1900s had been hit hard with an influenza outbreak.

One employee saw the girl peeking at him from a window behind the pub. At times, Siobhan says, she would arrive to open up the pub, and the toys and crayons they kept in one corner for kids who came in with their families would be spread all over the floor.

“We had people say, ‘Why is that little girl getting in the way?’ ” Siobhan says, adding that several of the servers felt someone playing with their hair at various times.

The most recent strange occurrence at the Irish Rover was a mysterious fire that damaged a front door back in January of this year. It was deemed arson, but it still is not known who set the blaze or why.

“Someday we’ll find out,” Michael says in his familiar, booming brogue, “and then it won’t matter anymore.”

Michael Reidy with his parents in County Clare, mid-1960s. | Courtesy of the Irish Rover

Of course, the highlight of the entire 25-year journey has been the people. Everyone from Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famers to Nobel Prize winners have come through those double green doors under the awning with the shamrocks surrounding the pub’s name.

“A lot of great characters have passed through here,” Michael says. “If you’re around long enough, you’re going to meet ’em.”

“And own a bar,” Siobhan adds.

Clearly, Michael likes people. He’s genuinely interested in talking to everyone who comes in, because he believes everyone has a story. He says, “Everyone is more interesting than you are.”

He adds: “I just like talking to people. If I was standing by that wall there, I’d probably be talking to the doorjamb.”

What would the couple be doing if not for the Irish Rover? They have no idea.

“We truly just fell into it,” Siobhan says.

“Maybe look through the bars from the inside of a jail,” Michael jokes before suggesting possibly something in sales. “Now I’m in the business of selling good times.”

Whether it’s the Scotch eggs, the shepherd’s pie, the non-stop Irish music or just a pint of Guinness at the bar, it seems the Irish Rover has something for everyone — but none so much as its owners. Asked the secret to the pub’s longevity, and Michael says it’s fear.

“You work your ass off,” he says, “because you’re afraid tomorrow might not be as good as today. But you also do it because you love it. Live what you love. We have brought a piece of Ireland here — that was our goal from day one. I think we’ve caught what we were looking for, and that’s what makes it fun. It’s been a fun 25 years.”