How this Seattle woman won her very own pub in Ireland

Mar 15, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day holds a special place in Erika Lee Bigelow’s heart. After all, the holiday once brought the Seattle woman a life-changing dose of Irish luck.

Bigelow was 27 and living in Portland when, on a whim, she entered a contest hosted by the beer company Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. The prize: the winner’s very own pub in Ireland.

“You had to write a 50-word essay finishing the sentence ‘The perfect pint of Guinness...’” she said. “I had been an English major in college and I thought, ‘I can do that.”’

Her essay won her a spot in the finals and a trip to Ireland. She and the ten other finalists gathered at the prize-to-be pub in the picturesque town of Newcastle West on the country's southern end.

Off to Ireland!

The finalists faced off in a fierce round of darts. Lee threw a mean game.

Then they swung behind the bar to show off their bartending skills, aiming to pour a perfect pint of Guinness while exchanging banter with patrons.

“All these people will be staring at you, and you need to talk about something,” she said, adding she served up a joke with her pint:

“Three guys go into a bar. There’s a German, an American and an Irishman.

“They all order a Guinness, and at the same moment, three flies land in each pint.

“The German scoops the fly out. The American gets a new pint.

“The Irishman, meanwhile, he picks up that fly. He looks at it closely, and he starts hitting it on the back, saying, ‘Give it back! Give it back!’ That fly drank some of his Guinness, and that’s not going to be OK.”

Bigelow says she didn’t let the joke distract from her pour. She paused, mid-pour, to let the bubbles rise and allow the beer’s signature foam top to properly form.

The defining moment

And what came next set Bigelow apart from the rest, according to Seamus Cleary, who lived in a neighboring town at the time. The contestants were each asked why they should win the pub.

“She didn’t know this question was going to be asked, yet she was able to answer in rhyme. She answered like a poem,” he said.

Bigelow still remembers:

“I set a publican’s portrait before you.

Ears listening to tales always new.

Eyes and smiles all about.

Feet step, fetching stout round Lee’s bar all the regulars’ queue. Hands draw Guinness, pluck harp.

Pour promises past dark.

Slowly savoring a sip or two.

At J O’Sullivan’s, my wish come true.”

'This is crazy!'

Her answer impressed the judges, and suddenly, it struck her: “I could win this. Like, it could happen.”

And it appeared the luck of the Irish was, in fact, on her side; Bigelow was declared the winner!

A moment later, she made a panicked call to her then-boyfriend back in Portland.

“She’s walking up the stairs, and she’s saying, ‘I won! I won! I won!’ And she’s crying, because she’s kind of sad, because she’s like, ‘I don’t want to leave you,’” said John Bigelow, her boyfriend at the time.

The two had only been dating for a short while, and they were to be suddenly separated by an ocean.

The memory remains vivid for Erika, who then found herself flooded with questions.

“(I thought,) ‘What does this mean? How is this going to change my life? This is crazy! I have no experience in this — none!”’

'It was always a pub that people had an affection for'

Without her beau and without any experience running a business on her own, Lee moved into the apartment above the pub and settled into her new life.

Cleary says a young woman running a pub was — and remains —unusual, and Lee’s presence energized locals.

“An attractive 27-year-old woman — she’s gonna be popular, isn’t she. So she was, and she just ran a good bar. It was always a pub that people had an affection for,” he said.

Bigelow  kept the same staff, and the regulars, in turn, stayed, too. But to Bigelow, almost everything was new. 

“You’d come down in the morning. It would be after 10:30. Somebody would have already opened for you.

“I’d just be getting the sleep seeds out of my eyes and I’ve already got six or seven or people here who had already been up, farming.

“They’ve milked their cows, and they're in the pub to have a pint before they go and do the next thing. They don’t say much; they lift their glass and grunt.

“But then after a while, after that first pint or two, it loosens up the tongue. Kind of like their coffee. Exactly, their coffee, yeah, black, the Guinness.”

Making friends with hamburgers and hot dogs

Bigelow lived in Newcastle West for about a year. She grew close with her customers, at dinner at their homes. She gave the local kids chores in the pub and paid them with Cadbury chocolate. Once in a while, she’d put on a free American-style barbecue, complete with hamburgers and hot dogs.

After Erika returned home, she and her beau eventually married. The two ran the pub, long-distance, for a few years before selling the place to Cleary, who still remains the proud owner.

The Bigelows have held on to some parts of the land of Guinness. They have an Irish terrier named Murphy, and their oldest of three children is named Aoefa, which means Eve.

“It’s impossible to read that, because it’s Gaelic,” said Erika.

'The perfect pint of Guinness is simple: dark, rich, cool' 

Even though years have passed since she first penned the 50-word essay that set her on her Irish adventure, Bigelow can still recite it from memory:

“The perfect pint of Guinness is simple: dark, rich, cool. A shamrock imbedded atop a creamy white pool. Guinness glides gracefully into glass, time woes, worries temporarily pass. ‘Finish the Guinness!’ shout friends at the door. I turn and ignore them, for I’m having one more.”

And if the story inspires you to write your own love note to Guinness, sorry, the company has stopped running the contest. But fret not — a pint of it is certainly nearby.

And if a fly lands in the creamy foam, trying to steal some of your stout just handle it like an Irishman by shouting: “Give it back! Give it back!”