From Kerry to Bratislava pouring shots in a time of war – It's been a different experience to say the least for Oscar Brophy from Ballyheigue
Running a bar in eastern Europe while war rages in a neighbouring country certainly adds a sense of atmosphere to The International.
Located in Bratislava, The International is run by Kerry man Oscar Brophy and his business partner Mitch Leffler from Vermont in the US.
Oscar found himself in Bratislava after a friend with links to a bar called ‘Goblins’ told him it was worth checking out.
That was in 2016 when the Ballyheigue-native took his advice and picked up a job in Goblins after leaving IT Tralee. He hasn’t looked back since.
“He just told me how cool this place is. I was looking to do something off the wall after college, so I said, ‘I’ll move to Bratislava.’”
Oscar planned to spend a month in Slovakia. Six years later he finds himself settled with a partner, a child, and his own business.
“I just liked it and decided to stick around. That was six years ago, and I haven’t had time to look back since, nor would I want to. It’s exciting. It’s thought me to be a lot more organised and focused about life; it’s given me a new sense of direction,” he said.
Oscar and Mitch sought a vacant premises previously used as an Iranian-run shisha bar. Prior to that, the building housed a busy Nepalese café.
It’s latest function - a bar run by an Irish man and an American – made ‘The International’ a clear choice given its history.
“It just felt like the natural name for the bar. Europe definitely feels more integrated and international these days. That’s the feel within the bar: young Europeans, mixed marriages, mixed backgrounds,” said Oscar.
The International opened in late February just as the Russians began their invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. The bar became a focal point for Europe’s newest generation to debate the war and its consequences.
“When the war first broke out, yeah, we were s***ing ourselves. We didn’t know what to expect. It was noticeable there was suddenly a lot of refugees in the area. I think 200,000 in the last few months have arrived here,” he said.
"We could see military planes flying overhead everyday going from Italy to Poland. We could really feel it. To think all this is happening in 2022 just beyond our border is surreal.”
Selling a Ukraine-themed drink in The International might sound gimmicky in the wider scheme of things. But it’s part of a welcoming strategy for Ukrainians, a way of making them feel at home.
Oscar tells me a staff member, Tamara, is from Poltava in Ukraine. Tamara helped to ensure the donated funds from the sale of the drink were directed to humanitarian relief work in Lviv and eastern Ukraine.
It’s a small gesture, one that helps the morale of displaced Ukrainians. The International is also involved in hosting Ukrainian-themed events for refugees, mostly women and children.
“Tamara and the Ukrainian community here have organised the Ukrainian events themselves. It feels good that our pub, and staff, can play some part in normalising life for them,” said Oscar.
“We recently held a night in the bar for Ukrainian people. They watched some documentary about the Ukrainian language and footage about the war. They are not forgetting about it. I even spoke with Ukrainians when I was home in Kerry last week, they seem happy there, their minds are free of what’s happening.”
It’s a long way from Ballyheigue to Bratislava for sure. Culture differs on many levels, least of all in the pub trade. But what are some of the main differences between a bar in Bratislava and one in Kerry?
“The price of drink, definitely. Our most expensive beer here is €2.20. Not sure what you could get for that in a bar back home!
"I think Slovaks tend to take to drinking spirits more than we do. They would drink spirits over a longer period. Irish people also get drunk faster; drinking is more like a sprint in Ireland, it’s a marathon here,” said Oscar.
Oscar’s other passion is being a stand-up comedian. He has performed in Tralee, Limerick, and Dublin. He feels running a bar is a good way of sourcing material.
“You meet a lot of interesting people behind the bar and get into a lot of interesting situations. It’s [the bar] handy in that sense. I do plan to stick with the stand-up comedy. It would be nice to make a career out of that,” he said.
“But right now I’ve got a child so I’m staying in Bratislava for the foreseeable future. Anyone thinking of travelling out here should, just say you’re from Kerry and I’ll have a special discount.”