The people of Limerick owe a lot to James Lennon as the innovator of Limerick’s beloved Smyths Bar and Icon Nightclub.
Having been with the company since day one back in 2001, James definitely knows everything there is to know when it comes to Limerick and its nightlife. We sit down with James to find out what it’s like to run Limerick’s most successful bar and nightclub, what makes them so successful and just what he loves so much about Limerick.
James, who is originally from Waterford, tells us that he started out back in the day working in his uncle’s pub, before beginning his degree in marketing.
“I worked in Dungarven, Waterford. It was a country pub, but it had a big function room with that could hold five hundred people. The likes of Louise Morrissey and the big bands would play there, so that’s where I actually first got involved with entertainment. I did that up until I finished my Leaving Cert. I then went on to study marketing in Cork, and I got a job in Rearden’s.”
As a hard worker James ensured that he knew the ins and outs of the industry. This also clearly gave him the drive and ambition to move up in his career as quickly as possible as he explains, “While I was in Rearden’s I was asked to be a manager – I was still in college so that was a great buzz.”
This soon paid off as working in Rearden’s Bar is now one of the reasons he is involved in Smyths Bar and Icon, as this is where he met the owners.“When I finished college, one of the owners of the pub was coming back to Limerick to open up Smyths Bar and Icon and asked me would I come up. I had been out in Limerick while I was in college a few times, so I knew the scene was vibrant and there was a love for music. I came up five months before we opened up and I helped out in the building, and I’ve been here ever since. I love it.”
Of course, running a successful bar and nightclub is not as easy as James makes it look. Especially with so much competition appearing everywhere around the city, the job can be challenging at times. James explains that the most difficult thing is “taking a step back [and] trying not to get caught up in the small things… When you get stuck into it you can miss what’s happening, whereas you need to have time to give it an overview. You need to be able to plan out for the next six months. Sometimes you can get so busy during the year and all of a sudden you’re into the Summer… you have to be prepared. That’s the hardest part.”
In any industry you have to be aware of what other businesses are doing, not only locally but all around the world. This is why James, along with the other owners, travels to mainland Europe as well as America twice a year to look for new concepts, ideas and inspiration. “Generally what happens with America is that the trends usually take a few years for things to kick off here. Craft beers were huge in America six years ago and whiskeys and gins were huge there four years ago, so now you can see them taking off here. I’ll be going to New York in June with Red Bull to see what’s coming up and what’s happening down the line.”
However, you don’t always have to travel outside of Ireland to find great new things. One of the reasons why Smyths Bar is so popular is due to their live entertainment and James puts a lot of effort into trying to find the best bands to play at their venue. “We are constantly travelling around to places from Galway as far as Donegal, we don’t care what it takes we are always looking for new bands. We have live music seven nights a week and we’re always trying to keep it going. We’ve kind of moved away from the rock bands and now have big sounding 10 and 11 piece bands, with brass sections and female singers with more of a soul entertainment, so it’s always growing.”
The ever-changing music and nightlife scene in Limerick really keeps James and his colleagues on their toes in order to compete with other venues. “What I like is that it’s always evolving and changing. I We’ve revamped Icon three times and have done up the bar a couple of times as well. I’ve seen an explosion in the last four or five years of hen parties coming to Limerick because of the offerings in the hotels, racecourses and stuff like that. I really believe that in the next five years Limerick is going to be explosive. We need to make use of the city and we need young people. That’s how we can build the city. I think in the next few years we’re going to see big changes in the landscape of Limerick.”
Of course there is more to Limerick than just our nightlife and music venues. Since moving here, James has grown to love everything that the city has to offer its residents and visitors. One of his favourite places in the city is a close neighbour of Smyths Bar, the Milk Market. “I think the change in the Milk Market is brilliant. People love going on a Saturday morning. I think we need to work on it though, it’s great but we can still work to build it up. Walking around with your coffee on a Saturday morning and having a chat with everyone is great.”
With so much to do and see in the city now, we had to ask James about his ideal day in Limerick, “I’d take my two dogs out for a walk in the University of Limerick with my beautiful wife Yuliya. I’d turn off my phone too. I love bank holiday Mondays because nobody can ring me. I can get up, cook breakfast, walk the dogs and just relax. When the sun is shining that’s just gorgeous.”
As a successful business in the heart of Limerick City, James is more than happy to see the growth of businesses in recent years. “We need business in the city. I hate hearing of places closing down and seeing buildings empty. In the last three years O’Connell Street has grown. You have Pandora, The Body Shop, Compu b so it’s good to be recognised. Even with Starbucks, some people might not like it but at least we’re getting recognised in the city. It’s all onwards and upwards.”
With people like James Lennon continuing to grow and develop successful businesses the future of the city is looking brighter than ever. For anyone looking to start up a business in Limerick, he simply has this to say, “Just do it, go for it!”
Interview with: Michelle Costello
Photography by: Tarmo Tulit
Read more from The Limerick Magazine here.