Saturday, February 24, 2007

Unlikely Entrepreneur Creates Macedonia’s First Authentic Irish Pub

At first, Mark Murphy’s story might seem common enough; Western peacekeeper stationed in the Balkans falls in love with local girl whom he meets on the job. However, what happened after for this Irish soldier and resident of Kumanovo, a city of 100,000 in Macedonia’s northeast, is much more remarkable. For rather than returning home with the emigrant native daughter, a scenario witnessed countless times since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s, Murphy stayed on to create a business, becoming an improbable investor in a small country by bringing a bit of his own culture to it- appropriately enough, in the form of an Irish pub, The Harp.

Although it has only been operating for about two months, The Harp has become a popular place. While Macedonia already has several Irish pubs, the new one of Kumanovo is the most authentic. Murphy spent loving attention to details, decking out the spacious, two-floor bar with clan insignia, Celtic symbols, Irish flags and, of course, Irish music. Unlike the many Macedonian cafés with their bland décor and identical pop or techno music, the Harp has a warmth to it reminiscent of what you might find in Cork or Galway or Dublin- with the exception, of course, of the Macedonian language that prevails in it.

irishpubkumanovointerior.JPG The pub has been full quite often during its opening run and has started to attract ‘regulars.’ What’s most unusual, considering the average Macedonian eating habits, is that some of these regulars are coming in for the famed full Irish breakfasts. The Harp also offers an extensive menu of local and international food for lunch and dinner as well. Murphy makes a perhaps embarrassing but ultimately positive revelation: he recently ran out of Guinness. “Have you ever heard of an Irish pub without Guinness?” he laughs. Fortunately the problem has been rectified.

While Murphy’s is a story of love and adventure, it is also a cautionary tale for any individual foreign investor interested in coming to Macedonia. The encounters that Murphy has had over the past year since deciding to open the bar have run the gamut from petty officials fishing for bribes to racketeering from armed thugs. However, by standing his ground, Murphy has been far braver than could be expected from the average foreigner.

Of course, the 29-year-old Irishman is not just any foreigner. A member of the Irish Special Forces and specialist sniper, Murphy has patrolled the volatile front lines in East Timor, disarmed a Hezbollah fighter in hand-to-hand combat on the Lebanese-Israeli border and served in always interesting Kosovo before coming to Macedonia. Compared to these experiences, Kumanovo thuggery was almost a joke.

Macedonian officialdom has been known for bribery and the new pub was not excluded. The usual array of inspectors, most of them not even sure what they were inspecting and without the proper qualifications, bore down on the bar to measure the ceilings, check the ventilation and even, following a tip from confused locals, hunted for a non-existent bathroom shower. Indeed, many of the complaints were fairly petty. “Some people in the building even protested when I wanted to paint my stretch of the outside walls green,” he laughs. “The old people were shocked, saying ‘who does he think he is, to come in here and paint the walls green?’”

irishpubkumanovocouch.jpgMore seriously was the intimidation from a local security company that was angered when Murphy agreed to hire a different one. The former sent a gang of heavies down to smash up the place and then, late in the night, toss a petrol bomb in the window. Murphy wasn’t fazed. “I yelled down the street after the fellow who threw it: ‘so what! this is a normal day in Belfast for us, you know.”

Indeed, the racketeers were consternated by the nonchalant reaction of the Irishman. They could not have known much about Murphy’s prior military training (he comes from a military family and served in the armed forces since the age of 17). Later, it turned out, the security company boss came and informed the Irishman that his display of strength was akin to leaving a calling card. “He said he wanted us to hire his company,” recalls Murphy. “I said, ‘well why didn’t you just come and talk to us?’ It was like a foreign concept to them.”

Murphy is adamant that small foreign investors in conspicuous industries such as his cannot operate in Macedonia without local support. “Unless you are a huge international company that can count on support from the government and foreign embassies,” he says, “it’s just too risky. Without the protection from my girlfriend’s family, it would have been impossible.” As James Joyce once said of Ireland itself, Macedonia is a nation of begrudgers, where people are often more interested in damaging the personal or business success of their neighbors than in doing something constructive for themselves. This hard truth is only really apparent, Murphy believes, when you get below the surface level of society. “The local people are very nice and hospitable- until they feel like you could be a threat to them.”

irishpubkumanovosymbols.jpg Yet after making the first hard steps, he has expanded the necessary local support base from his new family through his hiring practice. The Harp employs 16 people, “which means that when you add in their families and close relations, it’s about 200 people who are being looked after.” And, unlike many employers in Macedonia, Murphy pays the health insurance for his staff. In the early days he had to get rid of a couple of young workers for petty theft and sluggish service, but those who hung in and proved themselves are happy with their work, and the tips.

In light of the more serious issues, distribution problems with beer suppliers have been just an annoyance, though an expensive one. The main problem is that for the large European breweries, such as the all-important Guinness, Macedonia is a tiny dot on the map and supply thus has to be re-routed from middlemen outside of the country. Murphy had to cajole a regional distributor who was dubious about supplying his little bar into working with him. However, having done so much business so fast, he proved that the bar would be a worthwhile distribution point.

One of the notable elements of The Harp is its extensive menu- making it a competitor on the Kumanovo restaurant scene as well as a bar. The soldier proudly points out that he instructed his cooks on how to prepare all the dishes in advance, and he is adamant about the freshness of the rations: in what is probably the only such example in the country, the menu contains a note informing customers that all of the meat served has been inspected by a government-certified vet.

But there is another element of Kumanovo’s new Irish pub that is perhaps even more important than the quality of its food and drink. The brutal truth is that, aside from some nightlife, this small, ethnically-mixed city is coarse and almost bereft of attractions. The Harp is important, therefore, in that it has added to the city’s sense of community and entertainment scene in a novel way. “We get the best people in Kumanovo here, the nicest people,” the owner attests. “People who are friendly and understand what we’re about.”

That said, the unusual success story of The Harp could even serve as an example for the country in the big picture. “Everyone is welcome in my bar, no matter where they’re from, no matter what their nationality,” says Murphy- “so long as they abide by the rules of the bar. That’s all we ask.”

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