From his perch at the end of the bar, a pint of Smithwick's in hand, Ray O'Flaherty surveyed his fief at O'Flaherty's Irish Pub in downtown San Jose.

Sure, he was quick to intervene if his staff neglected a customer. When all was said, he was a dutiful proprietor. But he was there because it was the center of his social and historical world.

"He was the magnet that made it happen,'' said his friend, ex-police Sgt. Dan McTeague. "You walked into O'Flaherty's pub for a jar, and there was the guy who looked like O'Flaherty.''

Entrepreneur, hotelier, peacemaker, and promoter once dubbed "The Irish Cowboy,'' the ruddy-faced, white-haired 80-year-old died Saturday of complications from a stroke and long illness. He went the way he preferred, surrounded by his family.

O'Flaherty was quintessentially Irish -- he never gave up his Irish citizenship -- but American in his egalitarianism and appetite for risk.

"He treated everyone equally,'' said ex-Mayor Tom McEnery, his landlord. "Who people were didn't impress him. The quality of their conversation impressed him more than any title.''

Irish native

Born in Birr, Ireland, on Nov. 17, 1932, O'Flaherty was the last of the six children of John and Marjorie O'Flaherty. His father, who became a sergeant in the Irish police, had been a right-hand man to Irish leader Michael Collins. Until it was stolen, his father's obituary hung inside the pub.


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The young O'Flaherty, an accomplished athlete, grew up knowing the Irish leaders of his generation -- peacemaker John Hume, later Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and American president John F. Kennedy, whose 1963 visit to Ireland he helped manage.

Later on, when Mayor Tom McEnery forged a sister city relationship with Dublin, he relied on O'Flaherty to help make connections.

"Ray was probably the most influential Irishman in Northern California,'' McTeague said. "For a lot of people, he was the direct liaison between Dublin and San Jose.''

With a background in running hotels, O'Flaherty came to California in 1972 to work for a cousin who ran a promotions company that put on circuses and rodeos for police and firefighters. It was intended as a yearlong gig. But O'Flaherty liked California and stayed. He and his wife Marie settled with their five kids in Santa Clara.

Irish cowboy

When the rodeo appeared at the Cow Palace, he would tumble from a Wells Fargo stagecoach, introduced as "the Irish Cowboy,'' a title of merriment to his family because O'Flaherty knew little about riding horses (horse racing was another matter).

At heart, the new immigrant was a gambler, literally and philosophically. O'Flaherty was an acknowledged expert at liar's dice. And over his four decades in the valley, he founded "Rent-an-oldie'' car rental and in 2002 opened O'Flaherty's pub.

"He felt generally speaking, 'What's the worst that can happen?' '' said his son Brendan. "Take a chance on something. Some things will work, some won't work. Unless you take that chance, you won't know.''

You can lift a glass to that.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.