New Orleans has a long list of storied music venues known the world over for their timeless performances that connect musicians with the spirit of their audience members. And yet there is an even longer list of music venues perhaps lesser known, yet equally important for their role in serving as central hubs for local communities of music and musicians. This year, the OffBeat Music & Cultural Arts Foundation honors Doris Bastiansen with the Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Business and her French Quarter bar and music venue, the Kerry Irish Pub, now in its 25th year of business, for its role in maintaining tradition, offering space for songwriters, and serving as a community space for the French Quarter and far beyond.
Born and raised in Lakeview, Doris Bastiansen grew up surrounded by music. Her grandmother and sister were singers; another brother played flute and was in a band. Another brother was an opera singer and performed for many years in Austria and beyond. Her parents always played records, from swing to jazz to Pete Fountain, and her mother and grandmother listened to the Irish and Irish-American music so dear to their ancestry. Doris’s mother’s family originally came from County Westmeath in the middle of Ireland, from where they were forced to leave during the Famine. Doris’s ancestor, Catherine Lynch, traveled with her own mother, who died in the ship voyage, which left from Cork with a stop in Liverpool before journeying directly to the Port of New Orleans.
During the early ’90s, one of Doris’ best friends, Kay Harris, owned a small Irish imports shop called the Wild Irish Rose on Toulouse Street. Miss Harris decided she wanted to open an Irish pub in the quarter, so the two friends set out to look for locations. Eventually they decided upon the current home of the bar, and Kerry Irish Pub opened on 331 Decatur Street in 1993. When Kay Harris died of cancer in 2000, Doris bought the Kerry from Harris’s estate. “I probably bought the bar for all the wrong reasons,” Doris says. “I approached it from a sentimental, emotional point of view, which is also what music does for people.”
“I never had a desire to open a bar,” she continues, “but with Kay’s passing I wanted to honor her and create a space for music and musicians, a traditional Irish pub that would continue on in her memory.”
Kerry Irish Pub has live music every night, seven nights a week, with a traditional Irish session once a month on Sunday afternoons. There’s something different every night, with Irish music, blues, country, honky-tonk, and roots music of all kinds represented. In time, the Kerry made a name for itself as a spot that was supportive of songwriters. All performers are paid 20 percent of the bar, plus tips, with guarantees on top of that on the weekends. Today, local songwriters and touring musicians alike stop in at the Kerry to perform, from Lynn Drury and Kim Carson all the way to touring Irish musicians of all varieties. “The highest compliment the musicians who play here give me,” Doris says, “is that they feel like they’re playing in their own living rooms. At the end, we always try to stay true to the music first.”
It was also important to Doris to help people understand the beauty of Irish culture and the importance of Irish identity to the story of New Orleans. She serves as a sponsor for several Irish community festivals and celebrations, including a large festival in September put on by the Muggivan School of Irish Dance, which commemorates the Famine. “If the walls could talk here at the Kerry, they would sing,” Doris says. “We do many things, but first and foremost we’re dedicated to the music. It’s a traditional Irish pub and we want to keep it that way.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Kerry became a hub for first responders. They were open less than a month after the storm, and the inside of the bar had no visible damage. The first responders working to assist in New Orleans’s recovery would gather there in the evening to talk, drink and heal. Regulars made a point to come to the Kerry during this time, since the inside looked as if nothing had occurred and it was a small space of normalcy within a city recovering from disaster. Today, policemen and firemen who have come through the Kerry from all over the country still send in their patches, which the bar displays proudly.
Kerry Irish Pub also prides itself in showcasing songwriters and supporting original songwriting for musicians who may have day jobs, or families, or other obligations that keep them from performing more frequently or touring. “While some of our musicians are lucky enough to play the larger venues like House of Blues and Tipitina’s or tour nationally or internationally,” she says, “I feel dedicated to helping musicians of all kind find a stage, from well-known to lesser-known to not known at all. At the end of the day, we support songwriting and songwriters,” Doris concludes. “I wish there were more than seven nights a week so we could program more musicians, but we give everyone a shot. We do our best to support live, local music in New Orleans and we’ll continue to serve our community long into the future.”