February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
Now you can lift a glass to the President’s memory in his ancestral shebeen—but, alas, there will be only water in it
Visitors to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, are treated to many tableaux from the President’s long, varied life: a re-creation of the kitchen in his childhood home in Illinois, the booth at Chasen’s (the Los Angeles restaurant) where he proposed to Nancy Davis, an exact replica of the Oval Office—and, now, an authentic Irish pub where he hoisted a pint of ale more than 20 years ago.
Visitors to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, are treated to many tableaux from the President’s long, varied life: a re-creation of the kitchen in his childhood home in Illinois, the booth at Chasen’s (the Los Angeles restaurant) where he proposed to Nancy Davis, an exact replica of the Oval Office—and, now, an authentic Irish pub where he hoisted a pint of ale more than 20 years ago. Shortly after Reagan’s death, the Ronald Reagan Pub was transplanted all the way from Ballyporeen, County Tipperary, and rebuilt as part of the new Air Force One Pavilion. Opened last October, the pub honors the fortieth President’s Irish roots. It is also a time machine back to 1984, when he and Nancy made an election-year journey to the Emerald Isle.
Before that trip Reagan’s advance team scouted around Ireland, seeking interesting places for the presidential couple to visit on their four-day trip. When they came across O’Farrell’s Pub in Ballyporeen, ancestral home of the Reagan clan, they knew they’d hit the jackpot. The proprietors, John and Mary O’Farrell had actually named a room in their hundred-year-old operation the Ronald Reagan Salon and were honored to play host (they later renamed the whole establishment for Ronald Reagan). The visit was a smash hit, complete with a ceremony and several now-famous photographs taken of the President and First Lady having a drink and toasting each other. It is the very picture of Irish hospitality and good cheer.
Now move forward 20 years to June 2004. Shortly after Reagan’s death Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., chairman of the board of trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation, made a sentimental trip to Ballyporeen to visit the pub. He found it boarded up. The O’Farrells had just closed and were planning to sell off the fixtures piece by piece. Ryan offered to buy the whole thing for a reported sum of $100,000. When he called Nancy Reagan to tell her about the acquisition, she assumed he’d been drinking a bit too much but quickly warmed to the idea when she realized he was both sober and serious. The O’Farrells packed up every Guinness advertisement and beer tap and shipped them to Southern California.
When the museum staff started unpacking the treasure, they were overwhelmed by the pungent aroma of old beer that escaped from the crates and had permeated every object inside them. “You could smell a hundred years of Irish history in there,” said one employee. Though the facade is new, the signage is original, as is most of the interior. Highlights include the worn mahogany bar, complete with the original barstools, and the glasses used by the presidential couple in their 1984 toast. Hanging above the pub’s cash register is a touching letter Reagan wrote the couple 10 years after his visit. He referred to the good time had by all and claimed he’d never quite recovered. Obviously the visit had meant a great deal to him, and one can imagine he would be very pleased with the way the story ended.
The O’Farrell family was there at the opening of the new pavilion to draw the first pint of Smithwick’s Ale, the beer Reagan quaffed on his trip. (Nancy drank Carolan’s Irish liqueur.) “I believe that Ronald Reagan is looking down on us now, with a smile on his lips and that Irish twinkle in his eye,” said Chairman Ryan of the event.
The story of the pub’s journey makes for a good yarn, but what’s noticeably missing is the coziness factor. This is in part due to its location inside the 87,000-square-foot airplane hangar that houses the Boeing 707 presidential plane, a Marine helicopter, and part of Reagan’s motorcade. The fact that the pub functions mainly as a snack bar, selling prepackaged sandwiches and “Presidential Blend” coffee doesn’t help. Guests can buy a bottle of water emblazoned with the Reagan family crest, but they can’t have a pint. The pub really becomes a pub only at private after-hours events. All in all, though charming, the Ronald Reagan Pub feels a bit like one of the other displays at the museum: behind glass, firmly in the past. You can’t smell the beer any more.