For over 160 years McSorley’s Old Ale House in Manhattan has stood sentry over all. A democratic haven for locals, tourists, working men, artists, poets, politicians, writers and dreamers, it’s seen out the Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and September 11.
A glance at the walls tells the story of the rise and rise of the Irish here in the American century, from the teeming immigrant hordes to the White House. The Kennedys have all been though its doors, and allegedly so has Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. McSorley’s a storied bar, but its stories have rarely been this well told.
Author Rafe Bartholomew learned his craft early on, paying close attention to the gifted storytellers who frequented the place, people as skilled at an anecdote as they are at a good-natured insult.
Two and Two is his love song to the place that has represented much of the best of New York City life to him since his childhood. His father Geoffrey – known to one and all as Bart – has worked there continuously since 1972 and later introduced Rafe to men with unforgettable nicknames like Frank the Slob, Fat Sal, Johnny Wadd, Dead Eddie and the Buggerman.
Taken to the bar because he was too young to be home alone, his Saturday mornings were spent listening to the banter that helped shape his writer’s life. Some people find their home after a lifetime and a long journey, but Bartholomew was born into his, he writes.
We were here before you were born, the legend has it at McSorley’s, and for once it’s true. Bartholomew tells the story of the current owner, the legendary Mattie Maher, and how an act of kindness long ago in Co. Kilkenny changed the course of his life.
It’s another true story. Maher gave a lift to one of the Kirwans who then owned the bar during a trip back to Ireland in 1964.
“If you ever make it to New York I’ll give you a job at the bar,” the man told Maher.
In a matter of months the enterprising Maher presented himself at the front door, and within a decade and a half he owned the place (and still does).
To read about McSorley’s now is to read about New York and the Irish who have made their homes here for the last three centuries. As the bar resists change so too does it stand alone, bearing witness to all changes.
In Bartholomew’s book he reminds us of its greatness, and in a real sense, our own.
Little Brown, $27.