GERRY O’Brien was just 16 years old when he first came to London. The proud Clare man never imagined that, 50 years later, he would finally be moving back to Ireland.
This week, The Churchill Arms’ celebrity landlord bid farewell to the pub he has managed for 32 years.
“I’m leaving the Churchill,” he said with a tear in his eye to the assembled patrons on Thursday evening, “but the Churchill will never leave me.”
And it’s hard to imagine how the picturesque Kensington pub could ever leave Mr O’Brien, given the memories it holds for him.
In years gone by he has hosted everyone from former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to Winston Churchill’s daughter Lady Mary Soames, and he has even managed to get Prince Edward behind the bar to pull a pint.
Last year, he snagged a fiddle constructed from Winston Churchill’s cigar boxes at auction, which is displayed proudly above the bar when it isn’t being played live for customers.
The Churchill is that kind of place – one of a kind, in fact. Just like Gerry O’Brien.
Speak to the regulars and they will all tell you the same: “Things will never be the same.”
That isn’t to say that there isn’t universal confidence in James Keogh – the man tasked with carrying on Gerry’s legacy who has worked by his side for the last 25 years.
But people like Gerry O’Brien are truly irreplaceable. “You’d have to get Graham Norton in here to even get close to Gerry,” jokes one heartbroken regular.
Gerry, 66, first came to London to spend time with his sister Anne as a fresh-faced teenager in 1967.
Anne was working as a nurse in the capital and her little brother was only over for a visit, but after watching London's bar workers do what they do best something dawned on Gerry.
In his own words: “The pubs in London were like nothing I’d ever seen before coming from Clare.
“I just thought ‘gosh I’d like to work behind a bar’.”
It was quite the ambition when you consider that the strongest drink the Killaloe native had consumed up to that point was a pint of lemonade.
But it didn’t take Gerry long. His first job in London was working at The Prince Regent pub on Marylebone High Street, before moving to nearby The Coach Makers in the early 1970s.
He worked his way up to become deputy manager before taking a chance to run his own pub in the shape of The Churchill Arms in 1985.
He took the Churchill from an empty shell to the striking, flowery building seen in West London today – and was even the first pub landlord to switch to a (delicious) Thai menu, back in the 1980s when Thai food was as alien to your average Londoner as a trip to Mars.
Gerry’s never looked back. At least not until now, with the move back to his beloved Co. Clare just around the corner.
Ennis will be his new home, not exactly as rowdy as Kensington on a Friday night but with a quieter charm better suited to a man with knees and feet that, in his own words, aren’t exactly what they used to be.
“I’d love to do something in tourism promoting Clare to visitors from the UK and abroad. That would be an absolute dream come true,” Gerry says.
“It would be a brilliant way of keeping London in my heart. I will never lose my connection to this place.”
That’s what Gerry is all about – connections – with people, places and communities of every colour and creed.
Only at The Churchill Arms will you see both Ireland and Winston Churchill celebrated together so seamlessly, almost as if Churchill was an Irishman himself.
The pub has seen an influx of Australian bar staff in recent years and an Australian flag now flies above its iconic, floral-festooned exterior – just for them.
He’s a welcoming man is Gerry, that’s for sure. And he loves a chat. That’s what he will miss most, no doubt – the chatting.
So here’s to you Gerry O’Brien.
If Clare treats you half as well as that little corner of Kensington has for the past 32 years, then it will be a happy retirement.