The first thing you need to know about the new Thomas Meagher Bar downtown, if you already haven’t learned, is that it’s pronounced “Thomas Mar Bar.”
Still, manager Cory Champney promises that the bartenders and servers will take it easy on customers who get the true Irish pronunciation wrong.
Named after Montana’s first territorial governor, the new restaurant and pub opened at the site of the old Sean Kelly’s on West Pine Street this past December, and Champney said that while a few kinks needed to get worked out, everything else has gone relatively smoothly.
“Everything’s going really well right now,” he said. “It takes a while, at every restaurant that I’ve ever worked in, for everybody to learn the drinks and food and table numbers and everything. The tables got onto the floor the night we had our soft opening. But after the first month, it’s gone really well.”
The owners, a partnership between Sean Graves, Mike and Chris Schmechel and John Woods, hired Klein Construction to perform a complete remodel and renovation inside the building. Within three weeks, crews had exposed the historic brick walls and large timber beams and incorporated them into a stylish, spacious modern design.
“They did a great job,” Champney explained, gesturing to the ceiling. “There used to be a little cramped office up there, and once they got rid of that and peeled back that layer, there were these big giant beams here and it looks awesome.”
Graves, who has an ownership stake in two bars and a brewpub in Billings, is a graduate of the University of Montana.
“Sean is a friend of mine, and I had worked for them since high school,” Champney explained. “They wanted to bring somebody in that could institute the level of service that they have at the Montana Brewing Company and Hooligan's in Billings. I had just graduated and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and he asked me to come to Missoula. I said, 'OK, twist my arm.' ”
The Thomas Meagher Bar is a departure from Sean Kelly’s in many ways, most notably the atmosphere, but Champney said there are a few things that will stay the same, including pub trivia and bingo nights. Champney said there may be open-mic nights in the future, but he and his staff of 45 are focused on dialing in the restaurant and bar part of things first. Sean Kelly’s was an institution in Missoula, and Champney knows not everyone is always accepting of change.
“I think people who were skeptical were people who really liked the atmosphere in Sean Kelly’s, and I think what we did was something on a bigger scale and it’s better,” he explained. “It might not be that cozy little '90s bar feel, but I think it appeals to a lot more people than Sean Kelly’s did, and they did a great job with the remodel.”
The response from the community has been great, he noted.
“You know, I don’t think that everybody knows that we’re completely open, because we don’t have our sign in the front up yet, but that will be in the next day or two,” Champney said on Tuesday. “Everything has been mostly positive. Some people coming in looking for Indian food because they were used to having it at Sean Kelly’s. But our head chef Dan (Brasington) has been doing a curry special every day, because Indian food has become a big part of European, British and Irish culture, and Dan does a great curry so he’s excited.”
The restaurant also offers traditional Irish fare with unique twists, like cottage pie with Guinness-braised beef or fish and chips battered with Coldsmoke beer from Kettlehouse Brewing. They also have a wide variety of gourmet macaroni and cheese dishes and a full lineup of Irish and European beers.
As for the story behind the bar’s namesake?
“That was always a story that really fascinated Sean,” Champney said. “We were tossing ideas around, and he thought it was perfect. There’s a statue of him in front of the capitol building in Helena, and there’s a county named after him in eastern Montana.”
During the potato famine in Ireland, Thomas Meagher (1823-1867) was one of nine Irish nationals who rebelled against the Queen of England and hatched a plot to try to assassinate her.
He was exiled to a penal colony in Tasmania, but he got loose.
“The story is he escaped on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean, and somehow he makes it over to the United States, and went on to become a lawyer and was commander in the Union Army during the Civil War,” Champney said. “He was the first territorial governor of Montana, and the story goes he was on a ferryboat in the Missouri River and either got pushed off or got drunk and fell off, and was never seen or heard from again.”
The memory of Meagher lives on in downtown Missoula now, as long as everyone pronounces it the right way.