This month New York’s oldest Irish bar celebrates its 162nd birthday and the many famous names and heroes who drank there.
McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village has entertained some of the nation’s great presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, so it was fitting they celebrated their birthday on President’s Day (Feb 15). They also commemorated the 1916 Easter Rising on Monday evening and recalled John McSorley’s financial backing of the Fenian Brotherhood in the 1860s and the current owners' support of the opera "Hazel: Made in Belfast," which will premiere in Carnegie Hall on Oct 16. The new show tells the tale of Lady Hazel Lavery, who had a pivotal role in shaping the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty.
The old pub is a New York institution, a neighborhood bar for generations. One gets the feeling that they will continue to serve their ale (light or dark – the only choice customers are given) long after we’re all dead. This spot is nothing fancy, but it’s certainly something special.
The busy bar has two mottos, “Be Good or Be Gone", and "We were here before you were born." You can get a sense of what this bar is about from these two sayings, you get the vibe: this place is no nonsense, good fun, and great stories.
The walls are covered with old artwork and newspaper articles, the floors covered with sawdust, and the seriously professional bar staff, many Irish, do give it a feeling of being “Old New York.” Apparently no piece of memorabilia has been removed from the establishment since 1910 and, based on the jumble that confronts you when you enter, that’s entirely believable.
Each piece is a treasure – from Houdini’s handcuffs, which remain on the rail, to the priceless turkey wishbones hanging from the dirty oil lamp above the bar. The story goes that some local boys being shipped out to France during World War I celebrated their final meal with their families, a turkey dinner, and each brought the wishbone to the bar. The plan was that they would return and claim their wishbones. The wishbones that remain are those of the young men who never returned.
When I last visited, the barman told the me the story, with great earnestness, and made no attempt to conceal his contempt for the city health inspectors who recently suggested that it be removed from the bar. They wouldn’t dream of it.
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The history of the bar seems to be somewhat contested. McSorley’s proudly declares it has been open since 1854, however records show no building on the site from 1860 to 1861. What’s certain is that John McSorley arrived from Ireland on Jan 23, 1851 at the age of 18, accompanied by Mary McSorley, who was 16. The first mention of McSorley in the New York City directories was in 1862 and it’s believed the bar was built no earlier than 1858, but there may have been another, smaller, structure on the site previously.
Over the years the pub has been made famous by its renowned visitors from Ulysses S. Grant, to Woody Guthrie, Brendan Behan to LeRoi Jones. In fact, in 1994, famously, the Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers brought the Cup to McSorley’s to drink from it. The team had to return the cup to the NHL after that night for several days' worth of repairs.
e. e. cummings also made the bar famous with his poem, “i was sitting in mcsorley’s,” which brilliantly describes the bar as “snug and evil.”
More recently The Dubliners called the bar “the original Irish Embassy of New York.” When you consider the people and conversations that have passed through the bar over the past 162 years in the Bowery what’s certain is that McSorley’s is still a 'must visit' for anyone coming to New York.
Here’s a great short movie on the history of the Irish bar:
* Originally published in February 2016.