Irish rover goes from big top to bar top
"Plastic Paddys" abound this time of year. The streets of Sarasota fill with amateurs clad in plastic green bowlers and ancient, moth-bitten emerald jackets. Innocent ears are assaulted by "Erin go Bragh" and sentences are punctuated by "faith and begorra."
Among the authentically Irish is Paul Duffy.
Duffy was born, literally, under the big tent. His parents were Irish circus folks; he was delivered by a midwife after a performance in North Donegal. Destiny eventually prevailed: Duffy now calls the winter quarters of legendary showman John Ringling his home.
Paul's distinction within Duffy's International Circus was eldest child and youngest person to walk the tightrope while playing the saxophone -- self-taught, of course.
He was 9 years old.
Duffy's journey from Dublin to Gulf Gate pub owner was lengthy and arduous.
At 17, he played sax for the immensely popular Irish band The Miami Showband. By the ripe old age of 21, he joined The Irishmen and gained a reputation around Dublin as a talented and reliable studio musician.
At 26, he started his own band, MPH, with his siblings. Noticed by a promoter while touring with MPH in Mexico and Texas -- commonly known as the "chicken wire circuit" -- Duffy received an invitation to tour internationally with The Commitments; he remained on tour for the next six years.
Duffy has performed with Ben E. King, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Brian Johnson, Suzi Quatro, Chris de Burgh, Paul Hazel, The Corrs and Hazel O'Connor.
A gifted musician, Duffy plays the saxophone, trumpet, flute, guitar, keyboards, drums, bass, tin whistle and bagpipes. He attended the Dublin Conservatory of Music to learn to read music; his prowess with wind instruments is self-taught.
"I practiced the sax with a John Coltrane record playing for hours on end," he said. "Mum would yell at me to go out and play, but until I discovered pints and women, all I wanted to do was practice me music."
It would be fairly accurate to presume that Duffy has performed at each and every Irish establishment between Sarasota and Boston, including seven years in Orlando at Disney World and Universal Studios.
Duffy's lilting accent mesmerizes. "I grew up traveling every other day; entertaining people.
"I don't know any other way," he said, offering an impish grin. "But me Da always told me, 'No matter what your business, go into the ring and make 'em think that you're the best they'll ever see; we're entertainers.'
"But I knew that the second I stepped outside the ring, I'd better take that ego off."
In the tumultuous world of entertainment, his father's philosophy has served Duffy well. It has also served him in the pub business -- Duffy and Bob Vesey, a second-generation Irishman born in New York City, own the The Irish Rover in Gulf Gate.
The Rover is a dream born on a golf course in New Milford, Conn., in 2003. The general idea, Duffy said, was: "Wouldn't it be great to settle somewhere warm and have a place for all of our friends to come and play music with us?" Duffy was living in Boston. "2003 was the coldest winter, insanely cold."
Vesey was a partner in a furniture business and partners with a music promoter and also played guitar, Celtic and bodhran drums in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island on weekends.
One job and warm weather sounded like an exquisite idea to him.
Duffy winced. "So, we had a drink or seven and came up with a plan," Duffy said. "After 25 years of touring I had played quite a bit in this area; I knew that John Ringling had a place here, so I thought if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me."
Duffy and Vesey considered downtown, Newtown and Port Charlotte, then settled on Gulf Gate.
"I had to reconfigure the entire space," Vesey said. "We opened on my Mom's 70th birthday," Nov. 17, 2005.
While the sign at the establishment across the street advertises a "St. Pattie's Day Party," March 17 will mark the third anniversary of Sarasota's most authentic Irish Pub celebration.
"This year, because St. Paddy's is on Monday, we'll be having a four-day celebration," Friday through Monday, Duffy said. The Drake School will bring its "best Irish dancers; Kevin Wiegand has won every piper award around, and he'll be playing the bagpipes for us."
To Duffy's horror, most parents will not keep their children out of school on Monday to celebrate, so Sunday will be the day for youngsters to celebrate St. Paddy's, with music and dancing starting at 4 p.m.
Duffy and Vesey strive to create a family atmosphere at the Rover; Duffy's wife, Sadi, and toddler Lexi are frequent visitors, and local Irish dance students perform. Young up-and-coming musicians are booked, and the Rover's menu is particularly kid friendly.
A big tent, homage to Duffy's circus background, goes up on Monday. The tent will house live music from noon "until," the charismatic Irishman says with a wink, "they shut us down."