In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, County Antrim native Neville Gardner sought to bring a little taste of home to America. The result is Donegal Square shop and McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub and Whiskey Bar.
Across the country, local Irish and Celtic shops represent the heartbeat of Irish culture in their communities, a place for Irish Americans to connect with their roots and for those in the larger community to learn more about everything Ireland has to offer. During this unprecedented time, IrishCentral is shining a light on local Irish stores and the dedicated shop owners who pour their hearts and souls into providing the best possible experiences for their customers.
One of them is Donegal Square in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, along with its nextdoor neighbor McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub and Whiskey Bar. Donegal Square was founded in March 1985 by Neville Gardner, originally of Lisburn, County Antrim in Northern Ireland.
Neville came to the United States to marry Linda (Shay) Gardner, whom he met at a field hockey tournament in Canada. As a newlywed, Neville travelled back and forth to his native homeland to visit his parents but when his father took ill, he realized his difficulty in getting extra time off from his engineering job, so he left that career behind. His travel invited loads of requests from friends for things from Ireland, which in turn led to the opening of Donegal Square, which he named after the center square in downtown Belfast where he was employed before coming to America.
Bethlehem Pennsylvania, a beautiful historic town founded by the Moravians in 1741, is probably not at the top of the list if you were searching for large Irish, Scottish or Welsh communities, Neville acknowledges. “Moravians were rich in “hands on” by building and producing their own workshops and mills and whatever else they needed to thrive,” Neville explained to IrishCentral.
“By the 1850s, with more industry coming to Bethlehem, and with Bethlehem Steel Corporation in early 1900’s becoming the world’s largest shipbuilder, Bethlehem drew immigrants from all over Europe to work in the manufacturing plants, coal mines and quarries. It became a true melting pot of various cultures including Ireland and the British Isles. However, as with most of Pennsylvania, the first immigrants to the Lehigh Valley were Scots Irish [from the same part of N.Ireland where Neville grew up] who participated heavily in writing the Declaration of Independence and actually provided 12 US presidents.”
The opening of Donegal Square with its handmade crafts and goods was openly received as a way for those, some from Bethlehem but many from the surrounding area, to learn more about their heritage. Still going strong 35 years later, Bethlehem turned out to be a truly fitting place to have a Celtic shop.
“Our customer base has been constantly growing and building with our local community and beyond,” Neville shared. Bethlehem is known as “The Christmas City”- founded on Christmas Day – the town not only attracts people from all over the state but neighbors in New Jersey and New York. Bethlehem hosts all kinds of festivals and events, and is also home to North America’s Largest Highland Games and Festival, thanks in part to Neville assisting with its start in 1988.
In 1997, right next door to Donegal Square, they opened Granny McCarthy’s Tea Room, which was converted into McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub and Whiskey Bar in 2013, transforming their Main Street shop location into a true Celtic destination and a local hub of Irish culture. They host events in the store and pub including wedding fairs, music, book authors, dog parade contests (they are dog/pet friendly), a “best legs in a kilt contest” every St. Patrick’s week, whiskey tastings, cooking classes, and more. “Our local downtown association (which we are a big part of ) hosts events year-round, season to season, to assist in helping to bring people from near and far into downtown Historic Bethlehem,” Neville said. “It truly is a unique and wonderful place to visit, many shops, restaurants, museums, a destination that won’t disappoint.”
Generally, Neville travels to Ireland at least twice a year, once for business in January and second time usually in July on his customer tour. “We have been traveling to Ireland even before the shop opened and all over the British Isles including Scotland and Wales in search of unique products,” Neville said. “Many craftspeople from across the Atlantic also come to us and enjoy lunch or dinner in our pub and restaurant.”
Some of Donegal Square’s most popular items include their exclusive Bethlehem Midnight Star Swarovski Pendant from Shanore Jewelers in Dublin, their very own Brown Bread Mix from Neville’s family recipe, men’s caps from Mucros Weavers and Hanna Hats, Branigan Weavers ladies capes, hats and accessories, Inis Cologne from Fragrances of Ireland, and Heraldic Family Names Keyrings and Pinbadges.
“Knitwear tweeds and tartans have always been key in our business and have become especially important since we did a huge renovation in our building last summer, Neville shared. Since Neville’s Grandfather came from Ayrshire in Scotland there’s always been a strong Scottish flavor to their range of products. “We designed our own City of Bethlehem Tartan 20 years ago with all the colors of the Celtic immigrants to our area represented, and recently we designed the Hope For Life – Cancer Awareness Tartan as a fundraiser for Cancer Research.”
And the tastes from Ireland and the UK are an also important part of the story. “The Cadbury chocolates and the McVities biscuits would certainly be at the top list. Also- all the wonderful teas, Irish, Scottish and English Blends, we carry most of them,” Neville added.
Things are typically busiest for Donegal Square during the last quarter of the year, but Neville said that it kicks off at the end of September when they host their huge Celtic Festival in town. “It has become for us one of the busiest weekends of our year. Fortunately for us since we are in “The Christmas City” we draw not only our own customers but so many people visiting from Thanksgiving until the New Year. If the weather is good the streets are lined with shoppers daily especially on the weekends.”
Of course, the current global pandemic has changed things. “In this unfortunate situation, our retail business is down about 95% although our online business has been stronger as we have taken this time to get more products online,” Neville shared. “The PPP loan has helped us to keep moving forward and the shop is working on changing to a new point of sale system. Not only have we been doing more social media by adding virtual shopping and live Facebook posting, we have begun to offer a series of workshops ‘live’ that will not only be educational but a chance for our customers old and new to connect with us which we realize is so important during these unprecedented times.”
You can visit Donegal Square at 534 Main Street in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 18018, online at DonegalSquare.com, and keep in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or via social media on Facebook @DonegalSq, Instagram @DonegalSq, and Twitter @DonegalSq.