American dream comes true for Donegal expat

Wild Geese: Oran McGonagle is savouring the feeling having opened a bar in Boston

Oran McGonagle had plenty of experience organising events while working as student union president in the University of Ulster. That experience, as well as working in a bar in his native Moville, Donegal, meant he had no problem later in getting stuck into the bar scene in the US.

But his degree in business and computers as well as his affable demeanour has likely helped him more on his path towards opening his own bar there, while also working as operations manager for the East Coast Tavern group of bars and restaurants.

Following graduation, McGonagle worked for IBM Marketing in Belfast selling mobile phone contracts through cold- calling. "I worked there for six months and learned a lot about respecting people who do that job," he says. "It was very tough, so if anyone calls me now I always give them the time of day."

McGonagle had worked a number of summers on the J1 visa programme in the US.


“I knew that there was a lot of opportunity out here,” he says. In 2009, he got the chance to work in the well-known Boston bar The Banshee.

Downward spiral

“I left home in 2009 when Ireland was in a bit of a downward spiral and there wasn’t much opportunity for graduates. I left with the intention of coming out for a year to earn some money, but I just fell in love with it,” he says.

Keeping on top of the visa situation has been vital.

“It’s tough for people without visas. Some crazy stuff goes on with members of people’s families passing away and so on. I’m fortunate to have a degree, which made me eligible to get a visa in the first place and have been lucky that I’ve had sponsorship for the H1-B visa over the years.”

Within three years of moving to Boston, McGonagle had begun working with the East Coast Tavern Group of restaurants and bars that includes Emmet's, which this month was awarded "Boston's Best Irish Pub" by Boston magazine in its highly anticipated Boston's Best awards.

“Being Irish is of huge benefit to me in this business in the US. I work right next to the State House in Boston. The tourists love the Irish thing – it brings authenticity to the bar,” he says. “I have a lot of Irish staff working in the group. They are hard workers. They get it. I meet lots of Irish people who are really going after things here.”

McGonagle himself is not behind in "going after things", and has just opened the Cottage Bar in Weymouth, Greater Boston, a place he says has become popular with Irish people looking to settle down and buy property.

“We saw that there was an opportunity to open an Irish bar there,” says McGonagle. “There was a barbers on the property and there were people working there for 20 years so we kept it on and are incorporating it into the business. You can get your haircut and then have a drink and a bite to eat!”

Opening his own place (with three silent Irish partners) is, he admits, a risky business, but he says “high risk, high reward is what I’m going for”.

“I’d set myself a goal to open my own bar by the time I turned 30. We opened the bar on June 28th and I turned 31 on July 1st. It took a while but I got it done. The guys in the East Coast Tavern group have been like mentors to me. They’ve allowed me to continue working for them as operations director. The support they have given me has been amazing.”

For the past three years, McGonagle has been treasurer and secretary of the Wolfe Tones GAA club in Boston.

“It’s all voluntary,” he says. “We do a lot of fundraising to pay for players to come out here for the summer. There is a core group of players – people who live and work here – and then we try to bring county players out here to play for the summer.”

Being part of the club keeps McGonagle in touch with his Irish heritage, and he’s not the only one. Weekly games see hundreds of spectators show up and it’s become the “go-to place for many Irish people when they move to Boston”.

Old traditions

“I am proud to be from Ireland and love the old traditions from Ireland so the Gaelic games give me a sense of home when I’m out here. I brought my old boss to the final last year. He was a guy from Wisconsin and was blown away by the whole thing. There were around 5,000 people watching it and he was amazed.”

McGonagle believes that, despite recent political unrest, the US offers a positive experience and great opportunity.

“The American dream that they talk about has definitely happened to me this year. I might have had the opportunity to lease a bar back home, but there is no way I’d have had the opportunity to buy a premises and open a bar and restaurant.

“You put all the work in and open the door and someone comes in and sits in your pub – it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”