Pedestrians walk past the old Brian Boru building on Center Street in Portland on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Though closed for nearly two years, Portland’s Brian Boru pub still stands out like an oasis amid the asphalt and dirt parking lots at the western edge of the Old Port. But like a desert mirage, the bright red brick building that once teemed with laughter, libations and live music may soon become a memory.

The mutual insurance company MEMIC, which bought the property through a wholly owned subsidiary in 2019, is planning to demolish the iconic building, one side of which features a giant mural of a soaring toucan balancing two pints of Guinness on its beak. The company applied for a demolition permit on June 2, but the application was deemed incomplete. City officials say they are awaiting additional information before approving the permit.

It’s not clear what could be next for the property. Tony Payne, a spokesman for MEMIC, did not respond to phone messages or an email asking to discuss the company’s plans.

MEMIC, through its subsidiary, Casco View Holdings, began buying property in the block surrounded by Spring, Center, Fore and Cotton streets in 2013, when it purchased parking lots there for $2.1 million, city records show. The following year, it bought 8 Cotton St., a mixed-use building and home of Rivalries sports bar, for $3.7 million. And it purchased Brian Boru in 2019 for $2.1 million, records show.

At the time, Payne said the company had no plans for those properties. But those lots and others nearby are prime development sites in the Old Port.

“Inasmuch as we own the balance of that block, it seemed to be a smart decision to secure it for anything we choose to do in the future,” Payne told the Press Herald in 2019.

A development company called North River IV in May pitched a master plan to redevelop two large surface parking lots directly next to MEMIC’s parcel into apartments, a hotel, offices and retail space. The same company recently submitted plans for a six-story parking garage on Cotton Street.

Daniel Steele, who owned Brian Boru before closing it and selling it in 2019, said he had hoped that the building would remain intact – or even moved to a new location – and be reopened as a pub, rather than be demolished. Steele said he knew of several attempts by individuals to lease the building from MEMIC, but they could not come to an agreement.

Steele knew demolition was possible, especially with the ongoing gentrification of the city. And he said that MEMIC, as the new owner, has the right to do what it wants with the building.

But that doesn’t make it any easier for him to accept, especially after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into it over the years, including a renovation of the second floor.

“It’s hard to see something you put your heart, your mind and your money into – and done well – just torn down,” Steele said. “It would be heartbreaking to see.”

Dustin Day of Westbrook said he reached out to MEMIC shortly after the sale in an effort to lease the space and reopen the pub where he had been a bouncer and bartender for two years. Although he’s always wanted to own a bar, he was more motivated by maintaining the Boru community and the building that has enchanted him since he was a kid.

Day said he remained in contact with MEMIC for several months, and even conducted a building inspection. But in the end, he doesn’t believe MEMIC was interested in allowing any new business to go in there.

“The building was still strong,” he said.

He hopes that MEMIC will reconsider its plan.

“I wish they would find a creative solution to this. There are a lot of people interested in seeing this building stand,” he said. “It would be a shame and a giant loss to Portland to let that building fall.”

Rose Mahoney, a South Portland resident and former Boru happy hour regular, said it would be “heart-breaking” to see the building torn down. Regulars would show up in the winter and summer alike, to celebrate births and marriages, and to mourn deaths. Once Boru announced its closure, she said other bars actively tried to recruit the pub’s regulars, who named two trees at the bar the Jims after two regulars passed away, but the crew has yet to find a suitable replacement.

“I think there will actually be some heartbreak,” she said. “It feels silly, but I made lifelong friendships there. And people still miss it.”

The building does not have any historic protections, even though it dates back to the 1800s and its more than 25-year use as a pub speaks to the history of Gorham Corner’s once vibrant Irish community, dating back to 1823. It’s located in between the Old Port and West End historic districts, but not included in either. And it has not been designated as a landmark.

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation manager, did not respond to an interview request Friday.

Julie Larry, advocacy director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said she was not sure why it was not included in a historic district. But she noted that many of the other buildings that once surrounded it had been demolished and it is primarily surrounded by parking lots. She also noted that the building has been altered over the years, including the removal of the top two floors of the once four-story building.

“I suspect that it wasn’t included in a district because there was so much loss of historic context around it,” Larry said. “General preservation practice when creating a historic district is not to ‘jump over’ large vacant lots or areas of new construction to pick up a historic building to be in a district’s boundaries.”

While the building currently lacks historical protections, the demolition application must still be reviewed by the city’s historic preservation staff, according to Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director.

“When there’s a demo permit application in the City outside of a historic district, one of the steps the applicant needs to take is to check in with the Historic Preservation program first, so that we have an opportunity to evaluate its eligibility for historic designation,” Grimando said in an email, adding that staff is currently compiling historic information about the building.

The Maine Irish Heritage Trail includes a description of the nearby Gorham Corner, which is the intersection of Danforth, York, Pleasant, Union and Fore streets. “It was known for its Irish saloons, tenements, clandestine activities, and nefarious goings-on right through the 1950s. It was a poor, working-class neighborhood that often unfairly, sometimes fairly, received negative treatment from the local press. Many insisted nothing good ever came out of ol’ Gorham’s Corner. But as we shall see, much did.”

According to the Maine Irish Heritage Trail, the Boru building has had Irish-owned businesses and inhabitants since at least the 1880s, when Irish emigrant James Barry operated a saloon and restaurant there. Throughout the years, the building was used mostly as restaurants and cigar shops. After a stint as a paint shop, the building was used as The Unicorn nightclub in the 1990s, but it was open for only a few years before becoming Brian Boru in the mid-1990s.

Steele, the former pub owner, said he always thought the building could be moved and preserved, but no concrete plans or proposals ever came forward. And he understands that such a project could not be done cheaply. But he described the building as a piece of Portland’s long history, which is being eaten away by new offices, condominiums and hotels.

“Moving it had always been one of those outlier options – crazier things have happened,” he said. “It would be a great story and a great thing to see it moved; then all sides would win. But you need to have an economic motivation, too.”

Mahoney, the regular, also hopes that MEMIC reconsiders or moves the building to a new location. If not, she and other regulars have joked about forming a human chain to prevent its demolition.

“If someone wants to organize it, I’m in,” she joked.

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