Ann Arbor doesn’t lack much when it comes to sports. It is, after all, a football town before anything else– a town where shops post hours on their doors for “football Saturdays”, a town where people walking down the street smile a little more brightly the week after a Wolverines win. Football isn’t the only sport in Ann Arbor, of course. Anyone who was within a ten-mile radius of South University Avenue after the basketball team made it to the national championship game can tell you that. Summers in Ann Arbor are marked by drives to Comerica Park to watch the Tigers and walks to Vets Park to watch future Tigers put it all on the line for their Little League teams. If you’re a sports fan in Ann Arbor, you know you live in a bit of a haven.
If you’re a sports fan, though, you also know that alliances to certain teams are often formed when you’re young and impressionable, and can’t be broken even after decades living away from your team. Across the Atlantic, about 3600 miles from Ann Arbor, is a city called Manchester, England that boasts a soccer team called Manchester United Football Club. In England, fans breathe Manchester United the way Ann Arborites breathe Michigan football: with an all-consuming, undying love for the team.
On January 1st, 1993, Stuart Marley, who was born and raised in Wales by Irish parents, moved to Ann Arbor with his wife. “I didn’t know anything about Michigan at all, so my wife said we’re going to move to Ann Arbor, it’s the only place [in Michigan] we’re going to live,” he says.
Ann Arbor turned out to be the perfect place for Marley to build his life. He worked at Zingerman’s, played soccer at Fuller Park, and had two kids who would both go on to attend the University of Michigan. However, as crazy as Ann Arbor is about Michigan football, Marley never lost his love for the team he grew up rooting for. So when Manchester United had a game, Marley found himself cheering them on at an Irish pub on Main Street called Conor O’Neill’s.
“Now I can watch games on my phone, which is crazy,” Marley explains. “Twenty years ago, we would go to Conor O’Neill’s, because Conor O’Neill’s has got the games.”
“We’re probably one of the most popular pubs in Michigan for soccer,” says Tom Murray, the owner of Conor O’Neills. “The other day, we had Champions League and Liverpool was playing Bayern FC, and around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we probably had fifty or sixty people in here watching the game. People come from all over to watch soccer.”
Marley has stories about the connections he made at Conor O’Neills. Jon Wilson, for example, originally hails from Manchester, and he used to play soccer with Marley at Fuller Park. They’re about the same age, so when they realized they both grew up following Manchester United, they began to compare experiences.
“So I said, ‘For this game, where were you?’” Marley explains, “And he’d say, ‘I was there,’ and I said, ‘I was in that part of the crowd too, we could’ve been standing next to each other.’”
Sports or no sports, that’s the kind of place Ann Arbor is. It’s a place where you build connections; you could’ve stood next to someone in a crowd a million times, but it takes a place like Ann Arbor for you to finally say hello.
Tom Murray, the owner of Conor O’Neill’s, has the privilege of watching these connections form every day. “Last Saturday night, I was talking to a couple celebrating their anniversary, and they said they met fifteen years ago at the bar at Conor’s,” Murray shares. “About half an hour later ,somebody else came in, a gal with three of her girlfriends. She was telling her girlfriends, she met her husband twelve years ago at Conor’s too.”
This convivial atmosphere is exactly what Murray had in mind when he opened Conor O’Neill’s. “For pubs in Ireland, it’s not just drinking, it’s really a social experience,” he explains. “So that’s what we always try to do.”
Murray’s family owned a pub in Ireland, and he remembers visiting it during summer trips to Ireland. For some time, he lived in Ireland and worked at the pub, before working at some Irish pubs in Detroit. Murray understands the authentic Irish experience, and uses it to create an environment that caters to Ann Arbor’s diverse population.
“The stone is in the fireplace here is from Ireland,” he explains. “The bar itself came from Ireland. We had painters come out from Ireland and do all the special painting work. Then we have little themes throughout, Irish literature, Irish music, Irish sports. We have traditional Irish music every Sunday evening at around 7:30. That’s really common, if you were to go on vacation in Ireland, every town you go to you could find an Irish session. Musicians just come in, sit in a circle and play music.”
Meanwhile, after living in Ann Arbor for over twenty-five years, Stuart Marley has opened up his own little piece of Ireland: an Irish gift store on Fourth Avenue called Real Irish. For years, Marley has run various shops and kiosks that sell Irish goodies, but this is his first storefront in downtown Ann Arbor.
“We meet people from all over the world,” Marley says of downtown. “We’ve got two major hospitals, the university, the three motor companies. So we’ve got people living in Ann Arbor who are connected to all these. I’ve met people from Ireland, from Scotland, from England, from Wales, and from all over who live here.”
The cosmopolitan nature of downtown Ann Arbor means it’s incredibly receptive to businesses like Real Irish and Conor O’Neills that cater to an international culture. This quality of Ann Arbor is particularly important to Marley, who focuses the majority of his energy on running tours of Ireland.
“A lot of people [in Ann Arbor] have been to Ireland even if they’re not Irish, because Ireland is a place where people are friendly, they speak English, it’s very welcoming, and it’s beautiful,” Marley says. “Giving tours of Ireland is something that I am passionate about.”
Marley gives several tours each year, and his storefront on Fourth Avenue serves primarily as a physical presence to his tour business. He plans the tours himself, hires the tour guide, books the hotels, and ensures that each person on the tour is able to experience Ireland in an authentic manner. The population of Ann Arbor, he has found, is particularly receptive to these tours.
Not every town in Michigan, or in any other state for that matter, would be as eager to celebrate an authentic Irish experience. Ann Arbor is a great place for these cultural experiences, not necessarily because it has a particularly large Irish-American population, but because it’s home to a diverse group of people who are eager to find community and build connection, and who appreciate the role that culture plays in community. In the end, Ann Arbor is a place where people from all over the world come together and share their passions and experiences. Conor O’Neill’s and Real Irish came to life in a town that is excited to celebrate Irish culture, even if the majority of the population doesn’t have any Irish background.
After all, Manchester United is a team that’s based 3600 miles away, and yet if you want to a place to celebrate them, you need not look farther than our very own Main Street. Don’t believe me? Next time they play, let’s grab a drink at Conor O’Neill’s.