Raleigh, N.C. — On a cold, rainy Monday, Annie Britton-Nice is sitting at Tir na Nog on Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh.
She's prepared two Reuben sandwiches and a hot pot of tea.
"I hope your sandwich isn't cold," Britton-Nice said after greeting me with a warm hug. "And don't forget to take your Irish soda bread home with you when you leave."
When you go to interview Britton-Nice, expect Irish and Southern hospitality. The Tir na Nog owner and heart of the local Irish community seems at home sitting in the pub. It's her relentless determination to not let the spirit of the pub die that is the reason why it has a new home and renewed spirit.
But that is Britton-Nice. She is as much an Irish mother as she is a fighter.
Britton-Nice and her now-ex husband moved to the United States in 1988. Her ex's job brought the family, which included two young sons and a baby girl on the way, to Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a rough transition at first, because going home wasn't so easy then.
"It's only a puddle jump now," Britton-Nice said.
Britton-Nice said her homesickness was relieved by a network of neighbors who also missed their roots. The family would host dinner parties where everyone would bring a dish from their native country. People would bring over instruments and start playing music. The events just kept growing, and so did Britton-Nice 's connection to the Irish community. Soon, she was offered a gig hosting an Irish radio show. It's a gig that would connect her with bands from around the globe.
In 2001, Britton-Nice 's husband had accepted another job, and the family was uprooted to Raleigh. After working so much in Michigan, Britton-Nice took a few years off from event planning. That would soon change in 2005, when she met Pete Pagano, then owner of Tir na Nog.
"I knew he was smart just by looking at him," Britton-Nice said.
Pagano had purchased the bar the year prior from a group that included Michael Doherty (who went on to create Doherty's Irish Pub).
Britton-Nice started frequenting the Irish pub, which was then located on South Blount Street. Without the original Irish owners, Tir na Nog "had lost its soul," she said. The Irish community was leery of the the bar, and Britton-Nice set out on a mission to bring them back.
Walking outside with Pagano, Britton-Nice said she pointed to Moore Square and said that she would help him put on an Irish festival with authentic bands. She called her contacts from her radio days and got the festival booked with notable Irish talent. The community took notice.
"She is a force of nature. Whatever she puts her mind to no matter what it is, she is going to get it done," Pagano said of Britton-Nice.
As general manager of Tir na Nog, Britton-Nice helped turn the business into a haven for the Irish community. Customers were greeted with a smile and hug. Britton-Nice had found a second home.
"You make family as you go along," Britton-Nice said.
That family is what helped her survive the deaths of both of her sons and mother during a two year period.
"This community picked me up, wrapped me in a blanket and carried me (after the losses)," she said.
Ireland is calling
Britton-Nice was born in Camlough, a small village in Northern Ireland, to Gerry Britton and Eunice O' Hanlon. She was one of four children in the very religious household.
"I used to think the Virgin Mary was related to me," Britton-Nice joked, noting the house was always filled with religious images.
If you did anything wrong, you were sent to pray at the nearby Catholic chapel.
Britton-Nice 's father was a storyteller who loved to spin tales that would have just a grain of truth to them. Britton-Nice thinks her son Andrew got his creative writing chops from his grandfather.
Andrew Britton pushed his first novel, The American, at 23. The UNC graduate was a New York Times best selling author died in 2008 of an undiagnosed heart condition. He was 27.
In February, Britton-Nice 's mother, Eunice, passed away. Four months later, Britton-Nice 's second son, Christopher, took his own life after a battle with grief and depression. He was 26 years old.
To deal with the deaths, Britton-Nice went home to Ireland. She decided to stay at a home on the Irish coast, where she knew no one. She didn't have to talk about her grief and face the people in her life who didn't know what to say to her in the face of such loss. While it would have been very easy to become a recluse, Britton-Nice would buy just enough groceries to last the day, forcing herself to at least go to the market and be around people.
When Pagano asked her to come back to help at Tir na Nog around the holidays, Britton-Nice jumped at the chance to return home. She spent time back and forth between Raleigh and Ireland before returning for good in 2011 and being the event's coordinator for Tir na Nog.
Gone but not forgotten
When Pagano decided to close Tir na Nog in November 2015, Britton-Nice wanted to keep the Irish community together.
"She is the most caring person I've ever met. She loves to give back to the community. It's a mission for her," Pagano said of Britton-Nice.
After a brief stint at Hibernian Pub (owned by fellow Irishman Niall Hanley), Britton-Nice was in the midst of starting her event planning business when she was mugged near her downtown Raleigh home. The January 2016 assault left her battered and bruised.
“I think they hit me on the back of the head with something because there’s a huge lump,” she told WRAL after the attack. “Everything was knocked out of me. It was a total black-out shock. I didn’t know if I’d been hit by a car or what had happened.”
Britton-Nice said she had just returned home from a meeting when three men attacked her in a parking lot near her apartment. She said they took everything, including her debit card, phone, and family pictures and mementos of both of her deceased sons. The assailants were never caught.
The community rallied to Britton-Nice's aid through fundraisers and events to help pay for medical costs.
After her recovery, Britton-Nice said she knew Tir na Nog's spirit needed to be kept alive. She brought it back through various pop-up events in the city, but never quite found the hospitality that the original location offered.
In October 2016, Britton-Nice was looking for a place to host a pop-up event and came across an extension of London Bridge Pub on Hargett Street. Britton-Nice sat down with Darren Bridges, one of the partners at London Bridge, and the idea was hatched to reopen Tir na Nog in the space.
She contacted Pagano and asked his permission to reopen the pub. Pagano said he agreed as long as Britton-Nice was involved in the project.
"We created something very beautiful and she was the face and the heartbeat for many years," Pagano said. "With her being involved, I knew that what we created - the brand - was protected."
Britton-Nice and friends helped paint the space and hang the original Tir na Nog logo on the wall and in less than a month the doors opened at 108 Hargett St.
"I love it. It feels like home," Britton-Nice said.
Britton-Nice runs the pub with her daughter, Roxanne, by her side.
On Saturday, Britton-Nice was the grand marshal in Raleigh's St. Patrick's Day parade. Following the event, Tir na Nog and London Bridge Pub teamed up to host an Irish village and party. Pagano and his family were in attendance.
Tir na Nog will show the movie "Patrick," the life story of St. Patrick, on Thursday night. Admission is free. There will be Irish dinner specials fro 6 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. The fun will continue on Friday (St. Patrick's Day) with live Irish music, food and fun.