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A wake for Finnigan's. Popular pub is closing, but its legacy will live on in downtown Winston-Salem.
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A wake for Finnigan's. Popular pub is closing, but its legacy will live on in downtown Winston-Salem.

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Philip “Opie” Kirby, despite a bad case of wanderlust and an accompanying penchant for traveling the globe – not to mention dropping trou in exotic locations – might not fit the classic definition of a pioneer.

And yet he is.

Kirby and his first business partner in 2006 plunged headlong into the unknown and uncharted when they opened an Irish pub on that end of Trade Street.

Finnigan’s Wake, named in honor of James Joyce’s last novel, flung its doors wide open that autumn next to a funky discount clothier, a literal stone’s throw from the Salvation Army men’s shelter and forgotten tobacco-auction houses years away from transformation into breweries and eateries.

So in that sense, Kirby was a pioneer. He was among the first individuals to put money (and sweat) in place of pie hole, take out a loan and place a large bet on the pendulum swinging back toward downtown renewal—and more importantly, profitability.

That’s why, for some of us, the news that Finnigan’s would be closing up shop hit so hard. An era was ending.

A harbinger

For newcomers, transplants and those youngsters barely old enough to remember 9/11, the downtown of the early aughts resembled a ghost town.

Tumbleweeds didn’t quite blow through downtown after 5 p.m. but there were enough fast-food wrappers and cigarette butts in certain places to make it seem so. Dining choices for those who worked non-traditional hours down here after dark – I was one – were, shall we say, limited.

Murphy’s and the Dill Pickle were the picks of the litter for breakfast and/or lunch, throwbacks to a time when workers from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. roamed freely downtown. The oddly named Tokyo Shapiro might do in a dinner pinch. Sweet Potatoes and 6th and Vine were nifty date spots, but not necessarily hang-outs.

And if one wanted to slake a mighty after-work thirst, an adventuresome tippler might roll into Recreation Billiards to buy a longneck from Pete Bambalis, God rest his soul. With relative few options downtown, Hanes Mall Boulevard felt more like the city’s main street than Fourth or Trade.

There were early rumors and rumblings about a coming revitalization. Remember Mayor Jack Cavanaugh’s talk of a Beale Street-type district similar to that in Memphis? Or the nonstop chat about Tim Duncan opening a restaurant?

Then came Finn’s.

Kirby, whether he’ll say so or not, supplied much of the elbow grease, know-how and spirit required to make a restaurant/pub live past the stereotypical 6-9 month shelf life of such establishments.

“I credit Sweet Potatoes and 6th and Vine,” Kirby said. “We wouldn’t have come down here without 6th and Vine.”

The modest beginning turned into a thing of beauty. The original Finn’s would expand into an adjacent space and set up outdoor tables long before COVID scared bejabbers out of everyone.

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“I’m not sure ‘false sense of confidence’ is the right description,” Kirby said. “I never thought it wouldn’t work.”

It wasn’t long before the always present streak of philanthropy that ran through Finnigan’s Wake morphed into a block party known to most as St. Baldrick’s Day where grown people would auction off their hair to raise money to fight childhood cancers.

I watched with no small measure of pride as the youngest, a student at East Carolina who worked summers and holidays at Finn’s, volunteered her shoulder length brown hair for a cause that raised tens of thousands over the years.

And some participants came back for seconds and thirds. Tom McLean, an oncologist at Brenner Children’s Hospital, had his head shaved several times as a way to connect with his young patients.

“I love to call patients up to have them help shave my head,” the doctor said in 2012. “A lot of them really get a kick out of seeing me bald since I’m the one who prescribes medicines that make them bald.”

Small things made a big difference

Another thing many remember is the enormous, daylong St. Patrick’s Day parties thrown at Finnigan’s.

At its peak, Finn’s would serve up some 400 pounds of cod, seven kegs of Guinness, 600 Scotch eggs, 1,000 pounds of steak fries, 120 pounds of bangers (Irish sausage) and 400 pounds of mash to satisfy as many as 2,000 guests who’d turn up as early as 7 a.m.

Those were the big-ticket name events that drew in crowds. But in many ways, it was the smaller, unpublicized things that was so endearing.

There were the holiday calendars Kirby sold in 2017 featuring photos of his bare posterior in exotic locales such as Antarctica and the Pacific Islands.

He started taking such photos as a joke while on vacation in Hawaii. “Me being me, I sent it to everybody in my phone book,” Kirby said. “Every single person in my phone, so it was the first thing they saw when they woke up or were in a meeting somewhere.”

From that, he paid $1,600 out of pocket for a stack of glossy calendars and sold them with every penny of the $3,000 raised sent to Cities With Dwellings, a nonprofit that works for the city’s homeless.

Then there was a small memorial in the back of the pub where Finnigan’s owners set aside space to remember Winston-Salem police officers who’d been killed in the line of duty.

Off-duty cops were among the first to regularly patronize the new establishment – public-safety HQ is around the corner – and Finnigan’s made sure the loyalty ran both ways, a gesture that was noted and appreciated.

“(Finnigan’s) has been our go-to celebration restaurant for the last 12 years,” wrote Beth Hutchens, the wife of Sgt. Mickey Hutchens, who died in October 2009 while responding to a domestic-violence call, on social media. “Of course it was also the only restaurant that had Mickey, Howard (Plouff) and Russ (Willingham) up on their wall in respect for their lives given in service.

“I understand why the owner is going in a new direction, owning a restaurant is 24/7 and he has done it graciously for 15 years. We will go in to say goodbye and to wish ‘Opie’ the absolute best future and to thank him for providing a place we always liked to go.”

She certainly won’t be alone. An early chapter in the book of downtown revitalization has come to a close.

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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