An Ode to the Irish-American Pub

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
March 17, 2014

Photo credit: National Library of Ireland, Flickr

St. Patrick’s Day is here, and with it the requisite shamrock shakes and drunks drenched in head-to-toe green. And although my heritage is almost entirely Irish—the names Murphy and Fallon, Clynes and Kennedy dot my family tree—I don’t really do St. Patty’s. 

Yes, I was born in Boston, the most Irish part of America. Yes, I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic part of Massachusetts. But this time of year, I—like many urban residents—wait out the holiday safely esconced at home. 

What I’m always up for celebrating? The Irish pub itself, because I’ve been a pub-goer since I was a kid. 

I’m not able to adequately explain to friends the lure of a shamrock on the side of a building, or a sign reading Moran’s, Molly’s, or Foley’s. It’s not the lure of the drink (although I’m partial to both Guinness and a whiskey). 

It’s that a sunny bar on a Sunday afternoon can be one of the finer pleasures in life. And the grand Irish and American traditions of bringing families to pubs during the daytime might be on the wane. (One reads more and more stories about the turf wars between people with kids and those who want to drink without the sight of children running around.)

The “restaurants” of my hometown all had apostrophes: Slattery’s, Donnelly’s, and Mickey’s. They were bars and restaurants at once; at some, a swinging door connected the two. We didn’t have a ton of cash. My parents—both Irish-American—worked hard, and although my father worked as a lawyer, my mother vividly remembers the year he made $9,000. 

Photo credit: Slattery’s Restaurant and Bar

So a night at the pub was an event, whether it was Mickey’s (cheap and cheerful), Slattery’s (the best burger) or Donnelly’s (white tablecloths). To me, it was the most exciting thing in the world. My little brother Peter and I would order bacon cheeseburgers the size of our heads. My sister, a high schooler, would order a salad and look terribly bored. My mother would order the fish and Chardonnay, and mutter that the fish was overcooked. But everyone knew us when we walked in the door; it was a small enough town that my father seemed to spend most of the night shaking hands. It was a meal and a party at once. 

Pub as community center has a long history both stateside and in Ireland. Ron Ciavolino, the Emeritus Wine Director at the Institute of Culinary Education, remembers his Italian-American family drinking “Gallo by the gallon” at home, but recalls that in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s, “the Irish went to bars. After Mass, people went to the local bar with baby carriages.” It was the social centerpiece of the day. “The children played with coloring books. The mother and father drank beer at the bar. They were safer than the candy stores.” 

It’s a tradition that stretches right back to the old country. Caroline Tobin, 32, grew up in a little town in Wexford County, Ireland. “The pub was really where everybody met. If somebody was having a christening or some kind of family event or birthday you might go in the afternoon. There would be kids running around with soda.” Every aspect of the life cycle might be celebrated at the pub: “A wake would be in a funeral home usually, and then afterwards everyone would maybe go to a bar. People would pop along afterwards for sandwiches and pub grub. Everyone would relax. I really liked the way Irish people do funerals. People really spend time together afterwards.”

In Ireland, single people and married people and children “are all thrown together, and there’s the one weird drunk guy at the bar you stay away from.” 

Tobin recently moved to New York City to marry an American man, and remembers visiting The Shannon Pot, an Irish pub in Queens: “There was an Irish woman in there. She was so pleasant. That’s something that kind of carries over here, that really welcoming atmosphere. That’s something I very much associate with the pubs from home.” 

And, of course, the Irish haven’t cornered the market on hospitality.Today my brother lives in Westfield, Massachusetts, and is a regular at the Slovak Citizens Club, a dive he visits with his Polish-American father-in-law. “It’s a community place, with cheap beer, you’re gonna see people, hang out shoot a little pool, and have a good time.” 

Once, we went there together. When he walked in the door, people shouted his name as though he was Norm from “Cheers.” Billy Joel's “Piano Man” came on the stereo and the stout, plaid-shirted men at the bar began singing along, hoisting their Budweisers into the air, swaying gracelessly, and smiling. 

And it felt like home.