WHAT are the chances of that?” William said with a laugh, pointing at the Donnellan’s Irish Pub van ahead of us on the road after leaving Southlands Riding Club.
Donnellan’s presence is everywhere. “We have 153 full-time employees at the moment between construction and pubs. It took 10 years but we have a great foundation in place and the plan is to expand and grow our operations.”
Vancouver’s high-rise buildings skyline is on the horizon en-route to the IRL Group headquarters on Granville Island. “There’s about a million people downtown, three million in the suburbs. People are attracted to Vancouver with the good standard of living, fresh air, mountains you can hike in.”
Ranked in one poll last year as the greenest city in the world, changes are afoot though in the North Shore Mountains overlooking Vancouver.
“It’s going to be 27 degrees here this weekend and we’re in the middle of October. And it’s not typically like that. There’s people complaining because they want to be skiing and snowboarding and if you look at the mountains now, there’s no snow on them. Typically, they’d be covered in snow by now.”
Included, with winter sports fans, amongst Vancouver’s eight million visitors each year are many Irish, visiting family members.
Seamus and Anne Lehane, who had travelled over to visit their son Conrad, now in Vancouver for nearly 12 years, tipped me off about seeing the ‘Flower and Thor’ mare and foal landmark statue in the city’s West End area. “I think four of the family have sat on that poor foal!” ‘Tripadvisor Seamus’ recalled.
Another Rebel County visitor to Vancouver this summer was Kristene Hunter whose daughter Emma was there for several months working for Racing Forensics. Now back in Ireland, the icing on the cake for the Mallow family, who bred this year’s Randox Aintree Grand National winner Noble Yeats, was Emma’s acceptance for Irish National Stud’s management course in 2023.
And Jimmy Ryan, who breeds his Kilnamac horses near Clonmel, and wife Catherine are more Irish parents with Vancouver pencilled in for a future visit to son Emmet.
Eddie Macken connection
The Donnellan and Newell families too are frequent visitors since William and Laura moved here in 2009 (See Pony Tales, page 107), including Laura’s father Mike Newell who enjoys seeing the Craughwell export Brilliant Lulu Lemon out hunting.
“Mike bred Lulu. We were getting married at home on December 20th, 2014 and Laura brought me to one of her father’s field where there was a mare and a beautiful foal, the foal being Lulu, and she said to me ‘This is our wedding present’.”
Four years later, Lulu was second in the Dublin middleweight hunter mare class with Maria McNamara on board and then made the journey to Canada where she’s now William’s main hunt horse.
It turns out that Eddie Macken is responsible for William’s route to becoming master of the local Fraser Valley Hunt drag hunt.
“Eddie, what can I say about Eddie? He’s an absolute legend. He’s done so much here and given so much to the local community in Vancouver and in particular, Langley.
“I first met Eddie at the Thunderbird Show Park six or seven years ago. When he heard I was missing hunting, he said ‘Actually there’s a vet here, Dr. Ray Wise, and I should connect you with him. He hunts with the Fraser Valley Hunt.’
“So Eddie and myself went walkabout at Thunderbird and we found Ray. Ray is local there as well, he and his wife Judy have Fairway Farms. They’ve been very successful in the show jumping world and their daughter Samantha Buirs has show jumped for Canada.
“I brought Ray to Ireland, he hunted with the Galway Blazers and North Galway Hunt, stayed at my home house with my family in Craughwell and we had the trip of our lifetime. Hopefully we’ll do it all over again next year, all going well.
“The Wises are very well respected and have been great friends with Eddie for years. That connection from Eddie changed my life here in Canada.
"I’m still trying to get Eddie back in the saddle, I haven’t had him out with the Fraser Valley Hunt for a few years but never say never!”
Conor Swail (left) meets William Donnellan and two of his boys at the Nations Cup in Thunderbird
Hunting here and there
How does hunting in Canada differ from Ireland? “It’s very, very different to home.
We think nothing of driving four or five hours to go hunting, staying away for the weekend and hunting on Saturday and Sunday.
“The land owners here invite us on to their property and these are huge, huge properties, thousands of acres sometimes and they welcome us with open arms. We also have a lot of crown land [Commonwealth countries’ public land] to choose from. It’s open to all, often no good for tillage but ideal for hunting.
“They call it “Beautiful BC’ here and it [British Columbia] is beautiful. You never know whether you’re going to run into a bear or a bison, we see eagles all the time. It’s just breathtaking.
“Differences? The packs are much bigger in Ireland, no doubt about that, we hunt with a lot more hounds. The farms, however, are a lot bigger in Canada. In Ireland you have smaller farms, smaller fields but this is a bonus too because you have more obstacles and more jumping, which I never complain about, I love the jumping!”
Recently the Fraser Valley Hunt crossed over the US border to go hunting in Ferndale in Washington state.
“It was great to be back there after three years. The people there are so sound and friendly. The hunt breakfast they put on for us afterwards and terrain was fantastic and the views are spectacular with Mount Baker in the background. You’ve never seen anything as beautiful in your life.”
Waiting in the wings is another Mike Newell-bred: Judes Sunny Day. “Born and bred in Craughwell! She’s by Young Carrabawn, he stands at Tommy McMahon’s Parkroe Stud and she’s been brought along and broken by the McNamaras, also in Craughwell. That’s Tom and Maria McNamara from Horses In Ireland, very renowned and respected in the Irish Draught scene in Ireland.
“I must give them a lot of credit for Lulu. Having her up in the RDS, that was a very special day for us all, in particular, Laura’s dad Mike. That was always his dream and he had a tear in his eye when she was in the arena.
“Jude is only a three-year-old but she’s doing everything right. Tom really likes her. We’ve had her up at hound exercise with the great Oliver Walsh in Flowerhill and she’s jumped the cross-country course there a couple of times. I think the next stop for her is Canada.”
The next stop for us is the IRL Group headquarters. “Our door is open at IRL. A good attitude is the main requirement we ask for in job applicants. After that, the sky is the limit.”
Not only is IRL a nod to Donnellan’s Irish roots but stands for its logo of Integrity, Reliability and Loyalty. Repeat business stands at 95% and while it’s CEO was far too modest to mention it that day, some further research revealed he has won a barrowload of young entrepreneur and business awards, plus more for his work for the Irish community.
The majority of the company’s employees are from Ireland and while chatting earlier, about what else but Galway hurling, it turned out one was Alan Finnerty, one of cousin Pete’s sons.
“Alan worked with us for two years. A great guy, tough as nails. Just like his father!” William said about five-time All Star Finnerty, who played on two All-Ireland winning teams (1987, 1988).
GAA fans abroad often went to great lengths to tune into matches back home, including Pete, when he lived in New York in the 1980s. Someone would ring home from a bar, the phone was then propped up against a radio to hear Michael O’Hehir and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s commentaries and the phone bill split by those listening in.
Satellite television and the internet were game changers and Donnellan’s group of five Irish bars cater for GAA fans. We’re in one of them: Smiths of Gastown, in Vancouver’s famous cobbled street district.
“Donnellans Irish Pub is more the younger crowd, it’s called the ‘Coppers of Canada’! Its going until three o’clock in the morning, live music, then a DJ. It would be jammers down there.
“Smiths is more traditional music, people going there for food. On [Canadian] Thanksgiving weekend last, we did hundreds of dinners. We bought Smiths at the beginning of Covid. It used to be a stable and forge, obviously it’s been renovated down through the years and we’ve a whiskey bar out the back.”
Not only is Smiths the most ‘horsey’ of his five pubs but there’s a special family link too.
“My uncle Michael Smith, my mum Marie’s only brother, had a Smiths pub in Dublin, so had my grandfather Thomas, so Smiths in Gastown is the third generation.”
“Michael and Mum used to come down from the ‘Big Smoke’ during the summers to visit their Craughwell relatives: the Connollys from Roo, just outside the village and that’s how my parents met!
“The Connollys were big into horses. Those summers riding ponies were the best days of Michael’s life and it was great to have him, Mum and Mike [Newell] in Dublin when Lulu was there. Its all a very, very special story.
“Katie’s Corner,” he said, pointing to a snug near the door, “that’s in memory of my aunt, my mother’s sister, a lovely lady. We put in these booths during Covid, I did a lot of the carpentry myself and those shelves are all recycled wood.”
At the rear of the property is the converted stable, with its stock of award-winning Writer’s Tears whiskey.
“Bernard Walsh and his wife Rosemary own the distillery in Carlow, they came over to visit us in 2018 and I asked if he would do a special cask for Smiths of Gastown. I told him I was in the process of buying the place and building it into Vancouver’s number one whiskey bar.
“He said ‘We’ve never done anything like that’ and of course that was music to my ears! So this cask arrived about six months ago with 273 bottles of Writers Tears special batch.”
Not only has he put the family stamp on the premises, horses have left their mark too with horseshoes set into the polished concrete bar counter. “Some are Lulu’s. Then it got a photo from the archives of a forge in Athenry where a neighbour used to shoe horses and had it made into a painting, so that’s a piece of Athenry here.
“When U2 had their last concert in Vancouver, [the first leg of their Joshua Tree Tour in 2017] this is where they had their afterparty,” he added as we leave Smiths. “Michael Buble’s manager is in there,” he said, pointing to a nearby office building.
The next area we pass through - ‘Tent City’ on Hastings Street - is a sobering real life reminder of Vancouver’s flip side. And the sad “but for the grace of God” reality that homelessness is sometimes all but one or two paycheques away.
One pre-Covid report, issued by data supplier IPSOS, reported that nearly half (48%) of Canadians were $200 away from financial insolvency. Vancouver’s spiralling rent and living costs, plus the closure of the city’s main mental health hospital, also contributed to the situation. And that was before Covid-19 job losses.
“Riverview was a mental health centre, they closed it 10 years ago and didn’t build another one so a lot of people went out on the streets. It’s very sad. Some of them never had a chance from the day they were born, they were born into it,” William said, as we drive along the street lined with groups of people living in tents and makeshift shelters.
He was lucky in Vancouver. And pays that good luck back through his company’s work with non-profit organisations and volunteering.
“We volunteer with our teams at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, something I really enjoy doing. The Food Bank was set up as a “temporary” relief to the hunger crisis in 1983, the year I was born, but imagine, the need still exists as strong today.
“I believe it’s important to give your time and energy to help those in need and those less fortunate than
ourselves. Volunteering at the food bank improves my own physical and mental health, it brings fulfilment to my life. It also helps our teams to bond and build confidence while learning.”
Another measure he was then planning to introduce is a four-day week. “I’m part of a group of CEOs here in the city, we meet in small groups - 12, 15 business owners for eight, 10 hours in a room - discussing business hot topics.
“None of us had implemented a four-day week or even had a pilot project but I brought the idea back to our team’s weekly committee meeting. The office staff were all in favour, so we’re going to start a pilot project in November.
“It’s not an option for our construction team. A lot of our construction sites downtown open at seven o’clock, they have to close down at 3pm, so that won’t work.”
Same as a four-day week would be difficult to introduce in farming or horse world? “Exactly, similar to the field site workers on construction sites or hospitality workers. The horse world is seven days of the week. It only works in certain areas but we’re going to give it a shot. If helps retain staff and they’re happier, why not try it?
“We’re passing through the business district downtown in of Vancouver now and a lot of these people live in the valley. It’s an hour in and an hour out commuting, if there’s no delays, so best case scenario, you’re spending 10-12 hours a week in traffic. They were told there’s no alternative, they can’t work from home. Then Covid happens and suddenly you can work from home and it’s fine. So I think we definitely have to change our ways.”
We’re at the end of a whistlestop, insightful tour of Vancouver. It’s Friday afternoon and this Craughwell dynamo, quiet philanthropist and family man had promised to take five-year-old Iarla swimming after school.
One thing is certain in that IRL stands for many things: Vancouver’s real life reality, a proud Irishman’s home country and most of all; living by the logo of his success story company.