Friday, March 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
St. Patrick's Day
The last time you visited one of Las Vegas’ Irish pubs, did you ask your server if his or her accent was real? Shane Sice, a staff member at Ri Ra Irish Pub in Mandalay Place, says that question is asked all the time on the pub’s floor.
“Oh God, every second table. ‘You’re not really Irish,’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, I am Irish,’ ” says Sice, 25, in an undeniably Irish inflection. Sice arrived in Las Vegas last September from Galway, Ireland.
Sice is working in the U.S. on a J-1 visa, an exchange visitor program run by the U.S. State Department. The program allows international visitors to gain experience in a number of fields, ranging from scholarly research to summer camp counseling to training in an occupational field such as hospitality and tourism.
Sice is one of nine J-1 participants currently employed by Ri Ra Las Vegas, and all are here to gain experience in hospitality. In 2012, there were 1,160 J-1 participants in Nevada. The application processing fee for a J-1 visa, which is good for one year, is $160, plus, additional fees determined by the visa sponsor.
Ri Ra Assistant Manager Paula McKenna, who came to America with the J-1 visa, is quick to acknowledge that cultural learning is just as important to the program as the training the staff receives at the pub.
“It’s really to get to see how Americans do it, make American friends and get immersed in their lives, too,” says McKenna, 33, who lived in Atlanta under the J-1 program. She was able to extend her visa and progress into management with Ri Ra and has spent two of her four years in the U.S. with Ri Ra in Las Vegas.
“It’s a really nice thing to work with the Irish over here because you are abroad. You don’t have your family and friends around you, but there is a great community,” says McKenna, who believes that working in the pub helps to make Las Vegas feel a little more like the Emerald Isle.
Staff member and J-1 participant Bernadette O’Gorman agrees. “You do have a lot of Irish people here with you, so obviously it does feel home-y. I miss people; I don’t miss being at home,” says the Kerry, Ireland, resident. O’Gorman, 28, began her J-1 residency in December and says she hasn’t felt homesick yet.
Sice echoed O’Gorman, saying he has evaded homesickness by making friends with people in Las Vegas — Irish and American — who remind him of those back home.
McKenna says she has been homesick only a few times and that the occasional rainstorm and family events such as a nephew’s birthday and Christmas remind her of home. Her cure? “Probably come in and have a drink and chill out for a while,” she says, laughing. “And then I’m grand for another few months.”
While McKenna has worked her way up to management in extending her J-1 visa, Sice and O’Gorman are doing a bit of everything at the pub — tending bar, serving on the floor and learning about management and operational procedures. McKenna says all of this on-the-job training is something that looks good on a resume in Ireland because experience in U.S. hospitality is highly regarded.
When asked of the authenticity of the Ri Ra experience, all three say the pub feels just like home. “It reminds me of the pubs in Galway,” says Sice. “It’s small things; it’s the little details that make it sound or make it look more Irish, like at home.”
Ri Ra is furnished with materials direct from Ireland, from bar tops to furniture to knickknacks. Its dining room houses a bar salvaged from Dublin’s Olympia Theater, and the front room’s bar survived fires during the Irish Civil War when it stood in Foley’s, a pub in West Cork, Ireland.
While Ri Ra certainly looks like something on an Irish postcard, McKenna says it’s not just the surroundings that cultivate an authentic Irish pub experience — it’s also “the craic,” a Gaelic term she says is difficult to define.
“If you really want a true Irish experience, you have to be able to capture the craic. It’s all about having good times,” says McKenna. “It’s very hard to capture and describe what it is, but you throw in a few Irish staff, you throw in good beers, whiskey, Jameson, Guinness and some good food and music, and you have it.”
All three believe Ri Ra has accomplished creating the craic and say they often find themselves at the pub to socialize. Sice said he most enjoys serving on the floor so he can foster that atmosphere with customers. O’Gorman cites the music, as Ri Ra invites Irish bands to perform traditional pub music.
The craic doesn’t stop at work. The participants live together in nearby apartments, and Sice says the community is tight-knit. “We’re … very clan-ish and very family-like there,” he says, though he is quick to acknowledge that other participants and he also have made American friends.
Their extracurricular activities run the gamut. Sice says they frequent Strip establishments near their apartments, mostly due to convenience because they don’t have cars. He says some of their American friends have cars, and many have visited attractions like Lake Las Vegas and Red Rock Canyon.
“I’m still a tourist, as well, on my days off. So there’s still a lot for me to see, there’s a lot of things to do,” says O’Gorman. “It’s nice to have a lot of choices when you are off. Living at home, there’s only so many things you could do with your free time.”
Ri Ra’s staff won’t have too much free time this weekend, as they have a celebration planned to commemorate their second anniversary coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day.
“You will not see any Irish person here off. We’ll all be working. If you weren’t working, you’d want to be here anyway. We all get dressed up, we have a parade. You’re getting to chat with your customers, and everyone is relaxed having a good time. The music is flying, so it’s actually a great day to work.”
Although they have a busy weekend ahead of them, you might just catch them sitting on the other side of the bar once their shifts’ end — all three said they’re content grabbing a drink at Ri Ra after work.
If you want to join, McKenna says, “The craic will be going from 2 o’clock on Saturday right through.”
Mark Adams is associate web editor of Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of Las Vegas Sun.