WILLIAM Donnellan’s name first surfaced after researching the St Patrick’s Day feature and finding his ‘leprechaun on horseback’ escapade on Vancouver’s West End beach.

“Last year I dressed up as a leprechaun and rode through downtown Vancouver on Paddy’s Day for a bit of fun,” he said in March. “The reception I got was phenomenal. I wasn’t sure if I’d be arrested or applauded but thankfully it was the latter.

“People cheered and clapped and were just so happy to see someone doing something fun amidst the doom and gloom we were all experiencing with the lockdowns across the world at the time.”

His is a fascinating success story. A Galway-born carpenter who planned to stay in Vancouver for six months and instead, he and wife Laura put down roots in their new home, built up a thriving business with 150-plus employees and is now regarded as a leading light in the Irish community.

As an example, both the then-incumbent mayor Kennedy Stewart and other candidate Ken Sim had meetings with Donnellan to hear his views ahead of that week’s upcoming mayoral election. And a love of horses and hunting from his early Craughwell years led to him now being a hunt master on both sides of the Atlantic.

William’s IRL Group, where at its Granville Island head office a large ‘Mindset is what separates the best from the rest’ logo is emblazoned on the meeting room wall, is regarded as a good workplace. Unemployment rates are at their lowest in Canada since the 1970s and attracting the Generation Z workforce, particularly to Vancouver’s hospitality trades, is proving tricky in post-Covid times.

Not so for this Irish company.

An administration role advertised the previous day has already attracted 40 applicants, whereas other business owners tell Donnellan they struggle to match that typical response to similar adverts. Why so popular?

“I guess it’s because we’re like a family and a team, word gets out it’s a good place to work. And we like to give back, for example we’d work with a lot of the non-profit organisations.”

Raising the bar

Family is big for him. The Craughwell native and Laura first moved to Vancouver for six months. That was the plan. “We came in 2009 with a one-year working visa with no intention to stay on and here we are almost 14 years later!

“I think it was the beauty: the mountains, the outdoor life, the hiking and that particular year, the weather was fantastic, no more than it is now,” he remarked about October’s Indian summer spell. “There’s a milder climate in Vancouver so it’s easy to acclimatise to, very similar to back home in Galway. That’s why we stayed on.

“I’m a carpenter by trade so I worked here for a couple of years as a carpenter, then got into management and construction. I set up the IRL Group in 2011 when we were predominantly in construction, then we got into pubs in 2016.

“We took over our first location on Granville Street downtown and that was Donnellan’s Irish Pub. It was a huge success, I’d say a massive risk but also a great opportunity. I had a lease on a pub - the Green Briar - from the age of 20 to 25 back in Ireland and Laura and myself said we’d never do that again!”

Why the change of heart? “I’m very passionate about construction but after being here six, seven years, I’d seen there was so much opportunity here for a real Irish bar. There were Irish bars here, they were wearing kilts and pulling pints of Guinness in one go, it wasn’t authentic. And we said, ‘If we can do this and do it really right, it could go well’ and, thankfully, it did.

“We opened up Donnellan’s, we put in Irish staff, we have an Irish menu and the ‘Siopa’, where you can buy Irish goods like Barry’s Tea and Lucozade. It really makes us stand out from the rest as most of the Irish bars here are owned by US conglomerates. We’re owner-operated.”

Donnellan’s Irish Pub was the first of three William Donnellan and his wife Laura opened in Vancouver and a ‘fourth’ is the Donnellan’s Irish Pub-sponsored bar at Southlands Riding Club


With three pubs - the original Donnellan’s Irish Bar, the Shamrock Bar & Grill and the latest, Smiths Irish Pub - already in the portfolio, more are in the pipeline, including the opening of Hynes Bar & Grill planned in Kitslano “where there’s so many Irish, they call it Kitslarney!”

We’re passing through this southern suburb now on the way to Southlands. “It’s an equestrian show park in Vancouver, very close to Richmond where the airport is and we’re going to meet Margot Vilvang, a very interesting lady. They call her the ‘Mayor of Southlands.”

Across the bay from Kitslano is the West End beach and the iconic Inukshuk monument where William and his horse McGregor were photographed on St Patrick’s Day, in his bid to brighten up post-lockdown Vancouver.

Another of his hunters is the Irish import Lululemon. “The name goes back to Brilliant Lad who’s by Lemon,” William said about the Swedish-bred sire with a King of Diamonds dam. Brilliant Lad stood with John Geoghegan in Ardrahan and among his progeny is the 2016 Hickstead Derby winner Glenavadra Brilliant, bred by Frank Fahy.

“Lulu is rising eight now and she has been absolutely incredible. It took about a month to fly her over from Ireland including quarantine. She went from Galway to Belgium, flew from Belgium to Calgary and then by trailer down to Vancouver. It was right before Covid happened.”

William Donnellan and McGregor beside the Inushuk Monument in Vancouver in March 2022

What was it like in the city during Covid? “It seriously affected us, the pubs in particular, as you can imagine, very similar to Ireland. Even small things.

“Like, we import the ‘Siopa’ stock from Ireland and with the Covid delays, by the time you’d get a delivery of Taytos, they were out of date.

“Construction never stopped here, it was a lifesaver. If anything, it probably got busier but got harder too. At one point, you had to be six foot away from every worker so, for example, if you wanted somebody to help you carry a piece of equipment, it was a big task. It was challenging but at least construction continued, unlike, unfortunately, in Ireland where it closed down for a while.”

Although St. John’s in New Brunswick is regarded as ‘Canada’s most Irish city’, the laid-back West Coast lifestyle and milder Canadian climate has attracted thousands of Irish to Vancouver. So much so that a second Irish consulate, (in addition to the Irish Embassy in Ottawa) was opened there four years ago.

“You hear a lot about Irish-Americans. 15% of people here in Canada have Irish heritage. Ireland is the only English-speaking country in the EU now with the UK not being in the EU anymore, so it gives Ireland a great opportunity to do a lot more trade and business with Canada. We’re really trying to capitalise on that.”

A sense of purpose

Did the Vancouver Irish hunker down during the pandemic? “A lot went home at the start of Covid. Their families were calling them and saying we don’t know what’s going to happen here, is it the end of the world? And they were saying the best place to be was at home with your family. Rent in Vancouver is expensive, the cost of living is expensive and if you lose your job, what are you going to do? So a lot of Irish went home, but they’re back again, stronger than ever.”

Networking and job hunting for newly arrived Irish emigrants in North America often revolved around Irish bars and GAA clubs, two more items ticked off on William Donnellan’s Vancouver list. I’d noticed a hurley and sliotar stashed in his truck so the keen fan is evidently carrying on the sport?

“I play with JP Ryans. He was a Tipp man and one of the founders of the GAA, who emigrated here to northern BC [British Columbia], so we named our club after JP Ryan. I hurled for Craughwell and underage with Galway all the way up to minor and under 21 level. Craughwell was my club and I’m a hurling and GAA fanatic. When I came over here in 2009, we didn’t even have enough players for a hurling session, we just had about 13 players.

“Now we have seven clubs here, number eight is happening this year and we’ve maybe 20 teams, so that will give you an idea of how the GAA scene here has just exploded and the number of Irish that have come here.

“Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and New York were where the Irish went to work and played GAA back in the 1980s. Vancouver is like that now.”

GAA and horses were this easy-going character’s hobbies growing up in Craughwell. “Laura’s dad in Craughwell breeds horses, Irish Draughts in particular, but we didn’t have horses. My mum had 10 kids and I was the only one that was into horses and hounds! My dad tells me his dad - my grandfather, who was also William Donnellan - was crazy about horses.

The horse-lover recessive gene? “Yeah, that must be where it came from!” he replied.

“There was a stable not far from where I lived, Jennifer Dunlops over in a place called Castleturvin in Athenry. Anytime I could get a pound or two, I’d go over there to get a ride on one of their horses or ponies.

“I think that getting kids into a hobby is very important in the early days. We all need a purpose. I see our two-year-old Tiernan loves helping out at home, even with bottles for the baby. It’s a bit of responsibility, a bit of purpose, he loves that. He’s also obsessed with horses so I think he’s a mini-me! Tiernan doesn’t want to do anything but horses, horses, horses.

“Iarla, our five-year-old, likes horse riding but he’s as happy to be at other sports. He does Taekwondo, he loves to swim, a bit of hockey and he’s just started school. Then there’s Shay, who’s three months old.”

A young city

“Actually we’re coming up now to Thistle Riding Stables, that’s where my son Iarla learned to ride. You cannot get in there now for lessons the demand is so high. I think Covid created a bit more demand for outdoor hobbies and it probably did speed things up because during Covid, parents were happy to have their kids outdoors.”

Outdoors comes at a price in this costly neck of the Vancouver woods. “This area is very high-end, homes here start from about seven million to 30 million dollars. There’s a huge developer here; Francesco Aquilini, he owns the local hockey team, the Canucks. Some of those players are getting big, big money, millions a year. He lives just over there and that house is in excess of 30 million dollars. You wouldn’t get an acre here for less than five million,” William says as he points out luxury homes.

Silicon Valley has its high-tech industries, Florida and Texas their tourism and oil industries, where does Vancouver’s wealth come from? “Anything and everything. Yes, a lot of IT jobs, a lot of foreign investment through China and Hong Kong.

“Canada is clean, it’s safe, you’ve got a good standard of living, great opportunities when it comes to real estate, so a lot of people are attracted here. 300,000 people are moving here a year, I believe.

“Vancouver is a very young city, imagine 150 years ago this was woodland. You asked will the boom last? I think so, yes. Real estate goes up and down, the economy goes up and down. That’s been happening since the time of dot but in Vancouver, it will rebound a little bit quicker with the standard of living and the demand is there. People want to live here.”

Although he clearly loves life in Vancouver, getting back to Ireland for a days hunting is important too. “I’m a homebird! I’m going back next week, I’ll fly to Calgary first to get the flight, otherwise it’s a 10-12 hour drive to Calgary.

“They invited me to be a Master of the North Galway Hunt and these opportunities don’t come along too often, so I jumped on it and said yes. I’ve been a Master there now for four, coming five years.

“And... this is Southlands,” he said, turning into the carpark, “There’s Margot sitting on the bench.”

Next week - Part 2: Southlands.