Little Pub on the Prairie: A Saskatchewan Tavern Tries to Pull Ahead on St. Patrick’s Day

Commentary, Immigration, Frontier Centre

Niall O'Hanlon believes this may be the day he finally enjoys the luck of the Irish.

His Saskatchewan pub, O'Hanlon's, is Canada's No. 3 vendor of Guinness stout. But the Limerick native feels well-positioned to emerge as Canada's busiest pourer this year, boosted by a big St. Patrick's Day.

That's because he's expecting reinforcements from the auld sod. Canada's prairie province of Saskatchewan is seeing an influx of Irish immigrants who come for the jobs and stay for the rugby and rolling hills.

Mr. O'Hanlon, 39 years old, feels he's a definite contender. Guinness's parent corporation says Mr. O'Hanlon's tavern is already Western Canada's No. 1 vendor of its stout. But his place has long trailed two Toronto bars for top honors.

"We can catch them both now for sure," he says. Mr. O'Hanlon, who reaches out to a broad base of customers, recently demolished walls so his growing throng of patrons could spill into a former coffee shop, beauty salon and cinema.

The Irish influx Mr. O'Hanlon is counting on is part of Saskatchewan's plan to feed labor into its booming economy while capturing the English-speaking talent available in economically troubled Ireland.

Canada's front-runner pub isn't sweating. "We get a couple of thousand passing through here on St. Patrick's Day," says Chris Haslett, director of operations for Canada's No. 1 vendor of Guinness, the Madison Avenue Pub in Toronto, known as "The Mad," which opened in 1983.

Mr. Haslett says he has no worries about any upstart in Saskatchewan overtaking The Mad's lead in pouring stout. Asked about O'Hanlon's chances this year, Mr. Haslett said: "I've never heard of them."

Rory Kowdrysh, manager at the Toronto pub the Irish Embassy, says he'll pour at least 2,500 pints of Guinness Saturday. But he says he's heard O'Hanlon's has become a pub to be reckoned with, especially if it's now the biggest pourer in Canada's Western half. That means it's overtaken the Whistler, B.C., landmark the Dubh Linn Gate.

"My gut tells me we're bigger," says Brad Skerritt, the Whistler pub's manager, who backed down when he learned O'Hanlon's expects to go through nearly twice the 25 kegs Dubh Linn Gate anticipates selling Saturday. "Wow, sounds like they might have us," he says.

Guinness's parent company, Diageo DEO +0.22%PLC, is running a promotion Saturday aimed at setting a record for most pints poured world-wide on St. Patrick's Day. The company is relying on online pledges from fans promising to visit pubs.

Diageo spun off its Guinness World Record unit a decade ago, but says "GWR adjudicators will be stationed at Guinness events around the globe to painstakingly count the number of people celebrating this famous day, while verifying online pledges." Guinness says some 13 million of its pints are poured around the world on St. Patrick's Day, including 3.5 million in the U.S.

They won't match that in Saskatchewan, which has a population of about one million.

The province estimates it needs 90,000 immigrants over the next decade to fill jobs in industries like oil, potash mining and farming. There already are large contingents here from across the Pacific. Now the province is looking across the Atlantic.

Saskatchewan wants to inspire a bigger wave of Irish immigration by using those already here to woo more. This month, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall led a delegation to Dublin and Cork.

One delegate was Tim Young, whose farm-machinery business craves English speakers willing to travel to remote farmsteads to repair machinery. Mr. Young, whose ancestral village is in Ireland's County Tyrone, says he used several pitches to Irish prospects: "We have a store in Moose Jaw—which is in the Rural Municipality of Shamrock," he says. Another: "The rolling hills of Davin near Regina are green and would remind you of home."

There's the lentil-growing area near Limerick, Saskatchewan, and a thriving Irish-arts scene. And there's rugby. Snow Sevens, an annual February tournament in Regina, features ruggers in traditional striped shirts and white shorts grappling on a frozen pitch.

Indoor rugby pitches are open year-round. "Brilliant!," said 27-year-old Alan Black as he stepped out of the frigid night air into Moose Jaw's all-weather pitch for the first time since arriving from Ireland to drive a long-haul truck last year.

Lynda Daly pulled up stakes in Cork last year to launch a Regina job-placement service called Fáilte Saskatchewan. Fáilte is Gaelic for "welcome." She says she receives about four résumés a day from would-be émigrés. Iain MacDonald of the City of Regina Pipe Band has reached back to Ireland to alert unemployed workers who also play music. "These are skilled tradesmen looking to come here anyway," says Mr. MacDonald, a piper. "But the pipe band is one of the hooks."

Some employers explain they need workers with a wee bit of blarney. Alfie Kiernan, an Irishman with a new bedbug-abatement business in Regina, deploys a bug-sniffing dog to case apartments and hotels. He can't find enough English speakers to deal with customers.

Bedbug eradication, he says, "is a bit like being a social worker," dealing with clients distraught by infestations. That's where an Irish lilt helps, he says: "I don't know what it is with North Americans. But you hear an Irish accent, and you just seem to like us."

This year, Mr. O'Hanlon expects record participation in a St. Patrick's Day tradition at his pub: allowing any patron bearing an Irish passport to jump the line, inevitably to a chorus of catcalls from scores of Canadians shivering in line outside.

"Last year we had around 20 we brought to the head of the line," Mr. O'Hanlon says. This year, he estimates, "there'll be over a hundred."

He says his patrons will parade, too. The crowd usually follows a band of pipers into Victoria Park. Some revelers bring dogs dyed green for the occasion.

Green dogs?" asks Declan Wilders, after learning of this tradition. Laid off last year in Ireland, the 42-year-old arrived in Moose Jaw from County Cavan this month. "At home we'd call that animal cruelty."