One day in September 2019, I sat down and wrote about Irie Bar in a piece which started as a travel article and ended up so personal that I felt unable to share it at the time. Over a few difficult years, Irie Andy became my friend and Irie Bar my happy place, where I sat alone or with friends at different times on different days, chatting about nothing or everything, enjoying the reggae beat, or silently observing the ever-fascinating backdrop to my favourite corner of the planet.
In February 2020, on a barstool watching the sunset, I overheard some visitors asking Andy how it was to live in paradise and what he worried about. My eyebrows shot up when instead of his usual ‘Jah provide’ wisdom, he replied ‘dat new coronavirus ting’. From that moment I kept a closer eye on dat ting and the rest, of course, is history. The arrival of the pandemic in 2020 shook Irie Bar and many popular kabaways in Saint Lucia by removing their source of income indefinitely.
Deprived of irie vybes due to travelling for the past eight months, my soul now cries for that humble corner of Church Street, Gros Islet, so please indulge this nostalgic account of the good old days (and nights) of Irie Bar. Better days soon come…
One Friday in Saint Lucia, September 2019. As the sun starts to set, he potters around behind the bar with a damp rag, fills the cooler with ice and checks on beer stocks in the chiller, gives his special-recipe spiced rum a swirl in its flagon, then steps out to unlatch the wooden sun-blasted red-painted shutter that tells people the name of this humble haunt when it’s closed.
On Fridays though, Irie Bar is very much open, judging from the number of patrons already lounging around outside on the signature ice-green-gold picnic benches, beer in hand, watching golden fire slip below the horizon and counting down the minutes until irie time. As the biggest night of the week hauls into action, Andy Dupal – known to most as ‘Irie Andy’ – flicks on the twinkling lights, cranks up the reggae beat, throws open the fridge and kicks off the weekly vibe that has become a must-do in Saint Lucia’s northernmost fishing village every Friday.
For more than ten years on this quiet corner of Gros Islet, my friend and life coach Irie Andy has been surveying it all from behind the slightly battered, bamboo-fronted bar, just steps from Bay Street’s white sand beach, off which his fishing boat is tied to a solid almond tree that happens to have a gorgeous view of Pigeon Island to the right and Mount Pimard on the left.
The view from the streetside barstools at Irie Bar isn’t too shabby either, particularly when graced by one of Saint Lucia’s dramatic offshore sky shows as the sun goes down, and the fading light etches in inky detail the silhouette of that almond tree and its neighbouring coconut palm sentinels.
On other days of the week, from dusk or thereabouts, Andy and his partner, Vanessa, welcome all-comers to their door, which at Irie Bar can mean everyone from the local Church Street community stopping for a restoring Piton beer on the way home, to friendly freelancing tourists charmed by the authentic rum shop facade on a village walkabout, and vernacular VIPs deep in lively conversation about matters that matter.
He’s a busy Rastaman and dedicated to his irie life, which he’ll happily rap about in those moments when you can catch him for a chat. Over seven years of unobtrusive friendship, I discovered the shyness behind that dazzling Insta-famous smile, and a deep-rooted humility in his attitude to serving people in an industry that has plenty of social hazards to navigate.
Ever the peace-loving diplomat, when asked about his philosophy by visitors to the island, Irie Andy always reminded me of the real-life Jamaican movie star ‘Countryman’ in what we discovered early on was our mutual all-time favourite movie of the same name:
“I just live I life. Nothing can harm me”
Included in that busy, irie life are the simultaneous joys and pains of lobster-fishing, family-rearing, running a community bar that often opens seven days a week, and worshipping at church on Sundays while praising Jah daily for providing it all.
Taking the pirogue out to lay a kilometer of narrow net along the floor of the lobster grounds of Saint Lucia’s northwest coast is just step one in Andy’s traditional hands-on fishing process. Step two is returning some twelve hours later to drag up the seemingly endless lobster-laden net, peeling the spiny variety and other edible crustaceans from the swathe of mesh, as he and his first mate pull everything back into the boat. All sorts of fish get entangled in the net melée; some are released back into the sea and others are thrown on the floor of the pirogue as catch-of-the-day for Irie Bar’s lucky customers.
This process is repeated up to five times a week in lobster season (August to end of February), so come Friday night you’d think Andy would need a break, right? But at sunset, his big wide smile and freshly coiffed dreadlocks confirm that everything is indeed “Irie” as he selects the first thumping roots track of the evening, switches on the red-gold-green twinkling lights, and greets his guests, serving up drinks with a lithe choreography that says this host knows every inch and crevice of his bar.
So what, the uninitiated may ask, makes Irie Bar irie?
This is a favourite topic of conversation among repeat guests who agree there’s no other place in the world like it, so perhaps the definition of ‘irie’ will help as a start.
According to Rachael Russell M IDM, Dip DM on Irie.co.uk, irie means “the ultimate positive… a powerful, pleasing, all encompassing quality” that has its etymological roots in Jamaican patois and Rastafari religion. At JamaicanPatwah.com they interpret it “Rasta slang used to describe when one is feeling good; everything is alright.”
From my ongoing poll of patrons, Irie Bar’s top irie component — after the host himself — is his musical taste and the soundtrack that drives the vibe every Friday night. Andy is a musical ‘old soul’, a reggae encyclopaedia-on-legs, whose tastes hark much further back than his earth years, so you can expect to hear authentic roots classics from masters like Gregory Isaacs, Culture and Black Uhuru interspersed with sets from young crowd favourites like Chronixx, Popcaan and Saint Lucia’s effervescent ‘Dennery Segment’.
There’s Lovers’ Rock from Barrington Levy and Beres Hammond, dancehall sets and dub diamonds-in-the-rough, blending every week into a crowd-pleasing, dance-inducing irie vybe that’s the real deal in Gros Islet on a Friday night. And of course there’s Bob Marley, the man who inspires it all for Irie Andy. From sundown until 2am, Irie Bar’s street-skanking party relies on a solid playlist from the original embodiment of irie and its principles.
Spontaneous singalongs can happen depending on the crowd, which morphs from hour to hour as the Gros Islet street party swells into the corners of the village. Whether it’s ‘One Love’, ‘Three Little Birds’ or ‘Natural Mystic’, your favourite Bob Marley song is likely to turn up at Irie Bar on a Friday night.
Levelling up the irie vibe, follow your nose to the shack-next-door and the source of mouthwatering barbecued seafood aromas where you’ll meet Andy’s mum Frances and her partner Deirdre at ‘Irie Eats’. Expertly grilling whatever bounty of the sea has been hauled back on the boat that day, these ladies have mastered homestyle Saint Lucian flavours and seasonings. For around US$10 you can eat a heaving plateful of delicious kingfish, mahi mahi, barracuda or conch with local sides like macaroni cheese, rice and peas or green fig salad – to have or to go! Lobster is also perfectly grilled with garlic butter in true boat-to-barbecue style.
As evening turns to late night, many visitors return to their taxis and hotels, while the local scene looks towards Gros Islet — and Irie Bar — to step up the start of the weekend. From around 11pm, the party gets dense in the street around the bar, as Andy’s DJing skills keep the revellers “skankin’ sweet” until the early hours.
You never know who you’ll bump into, but who cares? At Irie Bar every Friday night, the “irie vybz” are the star of the show and, as Bob said, “who feels it knows it…”
Here’s an Irie Bar playlist for your listening pleasure.
Irie Bar Gallery