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Hennessy’s has a new mission: helping charities help others

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Sean Hennessy. Photo: Abraham Bojórquez

Hennessy’s Irish Pub is what you would expect, with the classic wooden and golden finishes, the beer signs, the bottle wall at the bar. However, the arches, tall ceilings, and tiled floor of the old casona remind you that this is Yucatán, not Dublin. Oddly enough, both styles coexist seamlessly. 

“Probably the biggest export out of Ireland is the Irish pub,” says Sean Hennessy. He’s a tall man, with a kind gaze and a deep voice filtered by a strong Irish accent. 

When he and his husband moved to Mérida, they wanted to set up a boutique hotel. This plan quickly morphed into a profitable real estate business through which they would buy, remodel, and sell old houses in Centro. In 2009, the market collapsed, and they were forced to regroup. 

“I remember walking down Montejo and thinking, ‘this town needs a good Irish pub.’ Every good city I’ve ever lived in had one. The interesting thing is, putting a pub here was a huge risk. People would tell me, ‘you’re crazy. Montejo is dead.’ And it was dead.” 

Back in 2010, when Hennessy’s opened, Montejo had long lost its reputation as the city’s grand corridor. Businesses would often open and close in the same year. Nightlife was non-existent. Buildings were neglected. As Sean recalls, most tourism in the city happened in the first few blocks around the Plaza Grande, and locals didn’t hang around much downtown. 

Hennessy’s Irish Pub in Merida, Yucatán. Photo: Facebook

“The problem with an Irish pub is, you need the tourists, the expats, and the locals, all three of them. If you only have the locals, it’s just a themed bar. The other two groups give it that international feel, but by themselves aren’t enough to sustain it. I knew after a year this place was successful because a friend said to me: ‘every time I come to your pub, I feel like I need a passport. Like I’ve traveled somewhere.’ What gives it that feel is the mix of people.” 

Fast forward 12 years and Montejo is alive again, a transformation in which Hennessy’s undoubtedly played a part. The bar has become a hub of sorts for both foreigners and Mexicans, the latter of whom Sean says are about 70% of his business. 

“Now, a lot of the malls are dead. The locals have returned to Centro. The gringos helped revive it, but now it’s the Mexicans running it. Montejo still has a lot of room to grow, and I think it will.”

Sean speaks unapologetically of Hennessy’s success. He believes the main reason for it has been the ability to keep it simple and stay true to the concept.   

“Do one thing and do it well.” In his experience, chasing trends doesn’t work. “A lot of restaurants and bars make this mistake, trying to be this thing now and then this other thing next weekend. You can’t be everything!”

This may be true for his business, but Sean hasn’t necessarily applied this advice throughout his life. He’s been a social worker, a wedding officiant, a model, a director for commercial photo shoots, and an entrepreneur. 

His life story would make for a decent movie, with adventures that include working with refugees in Bangladesh, traveling around the world, buying and remodeling a castle, and splitting every month between Japan and Ireland for 15 years.

During that period, he ran a commercial photography firm in Japan that worked with studios and brands around the globe. After the owner’s health deteriorated, it was decided that the business would fold.

Sean went back to live full-time in Ireland with Colm, his husband, but they soon found themselves out of reasons to remain there. They decided that they would travel for a while to look for a place that they both wanted to take root in. 

“At a friend’s wedding in Miami, something popped up about Mérida, which I’d never heard of.” Curiosity turned into an open ticket, which turned into an unhesitant decision to move for good. “Day One, I loved it.” 

After wandering for a while in his stories, we finally get to talk about the Hennessy Foundation, which was launched on St. Patrick’s Day 2022. “It’s our busiest day of the year, and we donated 100% of the sales to the foundation.” 

Throughout the years Hennessy’s has been open, Sean has made several donations to numerous charities from its profits. “I’ve liked doing that, but I was always of the opinion that I could do it in a better, more formal way, that would be more advantageous to both the business and to the people I give the money to.”

That’s where the foundation comes in. How it works is, he takes the money that he is prepared to give, and he uses it to buy crafts, souvenirs, and clothing, which he then sells through the foundation for double the money spent and donates all of the proceeds to charity. He is also leveraging the bar’s popularity to get the word out about the foundation and involve more people. “Our clients are telling tourists and friends that if they want a souvenir, they should get it at Hennessy’s because we donate the money.”

Currently, the Hennessy Foundation supports 10 different charities. Among them are Yucatán Giving Outreach (YGO), an umbrella charity with many initiatives; Sueños de Angel, an organization that provides support for impoverished kids with cancer; and two different street-animal neutering programs.

“I invited three people who I respected, with qualifications in business, to be part of the foundation’s board.” The goal of the board is to ensure transparency. “People are giving you a lot of trust, and it’s very easy to abuse that trust. Ultimately, anyone will be able to access the foundation’s website and trace the money. Who donated it, how much, who received it, what they did with it, so there’s no question. You will even be able to see the actual invoices.”

In the future, he wants to use his training as a social worker to build his own project and fund it through the foundation. He believes something could be done about the kids who arrive from other states, looking for better opportunities. “I’d like to have a center with social workers that could back them up. They’re very vulnerable; most of them don’t have family here.” 

As he gives me a full tour of the pub, Sean talks about the future. He has recently remodeled an entire wing to expand its capacity. He shows no signs of slowing down. 

There is a plaque behind the bar that is an exact copy of one installed in Mexico City to commemorate Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a unit of mostly Irish soldiers who switched sides to defend Mexican soil during the Mexican-American war of the 19th century.

“There’s this lovely, historic connection between Mexico and Ireland,” Sean says, mentioning Catholicism and drinking as two things that unite both countries. “Like a lot of Mexicans, we’re religious, but not really. We like the fun part of it.” 

The pandemic stalled Sean’s process of obtaining his Mexican citizenship, but since he has no plans of going anywhere, he is in no rush. After all, Hennessy’s is doing even better than before the pandemic and his work with the foundation is only starting.

“You know how some people have their honeymoon period and then the novelty wears off? Not me,” he says about living in Mérida. And it sure looks like, after a lifetime of moving around, he’s found a home for good.

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