5 January 2024

How the life and times of a Canberra founding father inspired its most famous Irish pub

| Ryan Bourke
interior of pub

A colourful portrait of King O’Malley by artist Christopher Toth hangs in the popular Irish pub dedicated to one of Canberra’s founding fathers. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Despite being one of the most famous pubs in Canberra, few know the full story behind King O’Malley’s on City Walk.

While owner and bar manager Peter Barclay says he decided to open the bar after visiting a Shanghai Irish pub in 1998 named after a female pirate called O’Malley, Peter opted to name his venue after The Hon King O’Malley MP, a founding father of the national capital and the Federal Minister for Home Affairs from 1910 to 1916.

Asked why he chose O’Malley as the pub’s ­­­­­­namesake, Peter says it was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a lesser-known member of our first Parliament who shaped the future of Canberra.

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“It could only be King O’Malley’s because Canberra exists for the government, so the name had to have relevance to politics,” he says.

“O’Malley is also a nice Irish name, and it was his idea to establish the capital where we are today.”

In addition to its name, O’Malley inspired the pub’s traditional Irish design, complemented by a wide range of objects commemorating the city’s history and his life, times and legacy.

Among the pub’s artefacts is a sign from San Francisco that commemorates the port from which American-born O’Malley departed for Australia.

As you walk through the pub, you’ll also notice an image of a vintage teapot in a framed portrait that symbolises O’Malley’s reputation as the teetotaller responsible for Canberra’s two decades of prohibition between 1911 and 1928.

Asked about the pub’s impressive collection of Irish and O’Malley-related knick-knacks, Peter says it didn’t happen overnight.

“The collection has built up slowly over time,” he says.

“I’m always introducing something new to the pub, including artwork by Canberrans.”

Quizzed about the latest additions to his collection, Peter pointed to a recently commissioned digital portrait of O’Malley by Canberra artist Mick Ashley and a photograph of this year’s beard-growing competition winners.

There’s also a large photograph of Anthony Albanese raising a toast with the bar staff.

Taken in 2015, the photo commemorates the launch of the limited-edition Albo Corn Ale. Peter says the now-Prime Minister (and amateur DJ) hopped on the stage and performed an impromptu set for a packed pub of patrons.

PM Anthony Albanese raising a glass with pub staff

King O’Malley’s hosted the launch of a beer named after Anthony Albanese, now PM, in 2015. Photo: Peter Barclay.

Giving back to the community has been a central tenet of the pub’s mission since the watering hole’s beginning in 2000.

“I grew up in Canberra and so the involvement of the community is very important to me,” Peter says.

“Our team gets behind it because we really feel it gives back to the Canberra community. I think that’s a real privilege to be able to do that.

“The charities that are particularly important to us are those around men’s mental and physical health.”

O’Malley’s has also facilitated free skin checks in the pub, which Peter says saw several of his customers referred for biopsies.

“We had about 25 of them come through for a free check that aligned with our competition and our support of skincare champions.”

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The pub has also been ground zero for the annual Movember movement in Canberra for more than 18 years.

“We initially had some amazing galas and that was fabulous,” Peter says.

“It’s just a great opportunity for men to come together and talk not only about prostate cancer but also mental health as well.”

The pub also hosts an annual beard-growing competition that raises additional funds for charity.

man being awarded a small trophy

Federal MP Dan Repacholi receives this year’s prize for Best Beard on Capital Hill. Photo: Peter Barclay.

“O’Malley himself left most of his money to charity when he passed away at the age of 99, so I would like to think that despite his teetotalling, he’d be pretty happy to see a pub in his name that gives back to the community,” Peter says.

Asked why he thinks people have always been drawn to the traditional Irish pub, he believes it is because they are welcoming and unpretentious.

“It’s like a comfortable pair of old slippers: you can come in and instantly you’ll feel at home. Everyone feels welcome no matter what age or what country they come from.”

Original Article published by Ryan Bourke on Riotact.

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