By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Twenty-one years after it opened in a cavernous space on Canal Street at a time when the city’s Irish population was still sizable if declining, the Claddagh Pub — which grew to become an Irish icon in the Merrimack Valley — is being sold.
Both buyers are Dominicans but plan to continue operating the Claddagh as an Irish restaurant, bar and catering hall, adding a twist to the ethnic shift from European to Latino that began transforming the city’s neighborhoods and downtown about 50 years ago.
The buyers, Abel Ceballo and Rolando Estrella, could not be reached, but the broker handling the sale said they plan to keep the name and are planning few changes.
“It’s going to stay the same way,” said the broker, Eddie Perez. “They have no interest in changing anything.”
Ceballo and Estrella also plan on continuing many of the fund-raisers and special events the Claddagh produced or hosted, Perez said, including the 4-mile road race it sponsored in the city every spring. The race this year drew 996 runners.
Perez said both Ceballo, 47, and Estrella, 25, live in Lawrence, but said he knew little of their background except that Ceballo has owned other businesses.
The two applied to the Lawrence Licensing Board in October to take over the Claddagh’s liquor license. The state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission would have a final say.
Ceballo and Estrella would pay $250,000 for the Claddagh and $66,000 a year in rent to occupy the ground floor restaurant and bar and the second floor catering hall, according to documents in their file with the Licensing Board. In all, the Claddagh is 18,000 square feet and has a capacity of 600 people.
If Ceballo and Estrella can get the liquor license and obtain financing, their lease would begin Jan. 1 and run to 2019.
Brian Farrell, one of four partners who own the Claddagh, said the decision to sell was economic. He called it “bittersweet.”
“You make an investment in a business and when it’s profitable, you stay with it,” Farrell said. “When it’s less profitable, you make a transition.”
He said he and his partners have no plans to sell or close the Irish Cottage restaurant in Methuen, which they opened four years ago.
The Caddagh — named for a traditional Irish ring that symbolizes love, loyalty and friendship — opened in the Truell Building on Essex Street in 1992. It moved to its current location in a former clothing store at 299 Canal St. about seven years later.
Since then, the Claddagh has grown into a cultural center for the Irish and their friends, regularly filling with sell-out weekend crowds of 600 who come to hear bands from back home such as the Dublin City Ramblers and Wolfe Tones.
The rendering of an over-sized frothy mug of Guinness on its north brick wall is a first sight for anyone entering downtown from South Lawrence over the Casey Bridge, as well as a monument to the city’s fading Irish heritage. The Irish were the first to settle Lawrence as it was being built in the 1840s, but by 2010 their numbers had dwindled to 3,356, or 4 percent of the 76,377 residents counted in the 2010 Census.
Raymond Neault, the New Hampshire man who owns the building the Claddagh occupies, which also includes a Rent-a-Center facing Essex Street, did not return a phone call. But in an interview in March just after the Claddagh went on the market, Neault explained how Lawrence’s shifting demographics drove the economic decision to sell the bar and hinted at the challenges Estrella and Ceballo face if they attempt to continue operating it as an Irish pub.
“It’s no secret that the Irish have definitely dwindled,” Neault said. “The Claddagh has long been a last refuge. It’s been a good ride. I’d feel bad to see it go, but all things must pass.”