Recently proclaimed the World's Best Irish Pub, The Irish Village is turning 20 years old. Holly Sands sits down with general manager Dave Cattanach to look back, with teary-eyed nostalgia, at the Dubai institution’s greatest moments
In a city as youthful as Dubai, a decade can feel like 100 years, and the term “institution” is bandied about all too liberally. But there are some instances that defy argument, and The Irish Village is one such local legend, with a charm that is still unrivalled – both within the emirate and far beyond.
“I honestly believe this is the best pub in Dubai,” says Dave Cattanach, The Irish Village complex’s general manager. And having run it for 15 of its 20 years in business, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. Just last month, the Garhoud venue fought off fierce competition from all over the globe to be crowned World’s Best Irish Pub at the Irish Pubs Global awards in Ireland.
To many punters, Cattanach himself is as symbolic of The Irish Village as its iconic old-Ireland high street façade, which even features signage for Ballinasloe post office, an homage to the County Galway town where Dubai Duty Free’s executive vice-chairman and CEO, Colm McLoughlin, grew up.
“I’m the longest regular! I used to come here as a customer, and I still come here on my day off,” Cattanach laughs.
Since the pub first opened in 1996, much has changed – from the launch of regular international music acts and the introduction of Hopfest (“a risk that African & Eastern and my owners took that massively paid off”) to the doubling of the venue’s capacity in 2013. But Cattanach believes the secret to the Village’s enduring success lies in the things that have stayed the same. “I don’t think we’ve changed our philosophy and our owners’ philosophy about pricing. I know it was Dhs12 a pint then, and it’s Dhs35 now, but market-wise, that’s massively cheap,” he explains. “If we have a concert here, we don’t put our prices up. And our concerts are cheaper than anywhere in Dubai. Dhs250 for Madness is a steal.” And the rapturous 4,000-strong crowd who turned out to dance along to Baggy Trousers at the beginning of October would certainly appear to agree.
The British ska band’s performance is the latest in a long line of incredible concerts The Irish Village and Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium have hosted over the years, taking in acts from James Brown, The Supremes and The Temptations in 1999 to Billy Ocean earlier this year, via almost annual appearances from Bob Geldof (he’s back this week for the venue’s 20th birthday celebrations) and five gigs by The Proclaimers.
“Geldof was a legendary one, because they were rained off. In the dressing room, the band were like, ‘We’re not going back on,’ and Geldof was like, ‘There are 2,000 people out there!’. He asked me how they could get back on, and after half an hour setting up, they only had 15 minutes to go,” he recalls. “Geldof got up and told the crowd, ‘Right, I’m going to do two songs, because I didn’t do I Don’t Like Mondays and you’re going to kill me.’ He did an hour and a half. He just carried on playing and playing. It was special.”
Throughout the pub’s 20-year history, Cattanach has had no shortage of highlights. He describes everyone from James Brown to Boyzone as “amazing”, as well as The Proclaimers “every time they come back”. Billy Ocean earlier this year? “He killed it.” Of course, it’s not always been entirely smooth sailing. One ’90s popstar “had a meltdown” about background music ruining her performance, before refusing to perform her best-known hit, while another ’00s former girl band member who sang at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium as a solo artist was simply “awful. Really bad. That wasn’t my gig, thank goodness”.
But while the gigs may draw in thousands intermittently throughout the year, the Village gets through hundreds of covers a day in any given week, drawn by the relaxed ambiance of a classic European pub, and a much-loved menu that has stayed largely the same for the past two decades. Cattanach is quick to reel off the numbers. “We do 25,000 fish and chips a year, 18,000 burgers… 3,500kg of chips. The Village salad gets 15,000! We’ve got good dessert too – we sell about 10,000 banoffee pies a year.” And perhaps unsurprisingly for the Irish pub, St. Patrick’s Day is its most popular night of the year – 2016’s was the biggest day the pub has seen. Ever. “And don’t forget, it wasn’t a weekend.”
From the food to the drinks festivals, concerts to Christmas Tree lightings (which will this year, for the first time, feature two choirs instead of one), it’s fair to say the team at Dubai Duty Free have nailed a winning formula, and so it’s little wonder they’ve waited so long to expand their presence beyond the Village’s Garhoud birthplace.
But Cattanach is not a man who’s afraid to take a leap of faith (“I went up the Burj Khalifa before they finalised building it and had to get them to take me down because I thought I was going to throw myself off”), and it could be said that The Irish Village’s new venture at Dubai Parks and Resorts, set to open before the end of the year, is just that.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect of the place, but I think it’s going to be great,” he says.
“And I’m not stupid, this is the gem, the old lady, and that’s the sister.” Nevertheless, it’s been a long road to a very carefully considered expansion. “We could have opened ten Irish Villages in the past 15 years, but we never wanted to do one that couldn’t have all of this,” he says, gesturing to the now pleasantly buzzing scene in the pub’s perennially popular garden.
Absent from the new Riverland outlet, no doubt, will be the Garhoud branch’s famous colony of cats. “We’ve got 12 now, all spayed and neutered. But we’ve got a massive problem with people thinking they can drop pets off here,” he explains. “We had one guy turn up with a monitor lizard in a cage, and he thought he was going to leave it here. People think this is Born Free! He was leaving Dubai, and I said ‘You’ve got to take it away’, and he said, ‘Why can’t I leave it here?’ Because it’s a MONITOR LIZARD!” he laughs, shaking his head in disbelief, before jokingly admitting he’s “always wanted to have a lion walking around”.
Once the second Irish Village finds its feet, Cattanach is keen to press on with plans for a third outlet, but is coy about where that might be. “I can’t tell you, it’s still bubbling… But if that happens, it will be right in the middle of the two.” He also has his heart set on opening up in another country. “Vietnam, Cambodia… Asia somewhere. I think to put an Irish Village in Europe wouldn’t quite work. Borneo, maybe.”
Before then, there’s a birthday to celebrate, and this week, on Thursday October 20, there’ll be a gig by Bob Geldof (who else?) and Dhs20 drinks between 7pm and 9pm.
“We’ve been working for 20 years to keep this one of the iconic brands of Dubai. You see it when it’s full, and you see, we’re just good at what we do.”
Having handed The Irish Village the award for Pub of the Year at Time Out Dubai’s Music and Nightlife Awards 2016, we’d say it’s a lot better than that.
Open Wed-Fri 11am-2am; Sat-Tue 11am-1am. Garhoud, www.theirishvillage.com (04 239 5000).