South Dakota boasts the Black Hills and ‘America’s pinkest city’ - Sioux Falls - but surprisingly there’s also a ton of green to be found across the state.
The various communities of Irish expats and diaspora are well-documented across the United States. On mailboxes in Boston, it's as normal to see the last name Murphy as it is to see Smith or Stein. In Chicago, the assembly of Irish people is so prevalent that the river runs green once a year. Even in New York City, you would be hard pushed to meet a member of the public service that doesn’t claim some ties to Èire [Ireland].
However, in other areas of the country, the Irish influence is often less visible. Hence my surprise when I visited South Dakota, America’s least populous state, and noticed a distinct synergy between it and Ireland.
Read more: Ireland's oldest and most charming pubs
The Midwestern state is known for many things; 80-foot-high mountain carvings of past Presidents on the iconic Mount Rushmore; roaming prairies occupied by buffalo; and saloons in small towns full of low, wooden buildings with hand-painted signs.
Yet, in the mix, a noticeable smattering of green and gold. Even in areas across the state which boasted only slightly more than 10,000 inhabitants, it wasn’t unusual to see the familiar markings of an Irish pub.
Party like an outlaw in Deadwood
One of South Dakota’s most infamous attributes for tourists is the legendary town of Deadwood. Want to party like an outlaw, a gambler or a gunslinger? Look no further than this town. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills area and the subsequent gold rush led to the inception of this lawless place in the 1870s. Legendary real-life characters like Wild Bill Hillock, Calamity Jane, and Poker Alice all partied here, inspiring no shortage of books, movies and plays in the following century.
The community is now designated as an American National Historic Landmark - but it’s still filled with 24-hour casinos and no shortage of bars, many of which host live re-enactments of Western trials. Unsurprisingly, with partying being the most important thing on the agenda in Deadwood, the city hosts an annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, the largest of its kind in the region.
The annual pub crawl usually has over 3,500 registered attendants. If you feel up to the task of competing in events like the ‘Leprechaun Olympics’ and ‘Eggs and Kegs Breakfast’ at a bona fide saloon, you can already sign up for the green-hued party in 2020 here.
Beyond Deadwood, across the sprawling 77,000 square miles that make up South Dakota, one can’t venture far without seeing a shamrock, harp or a sign for Guinness.
After I began to see more Irish pubs than I would in a few-block radius in Manhattan, I wondered how these bars came to be, and who the people behind them were.
Flanagan’s Irish Pub
Flanagan’s Irish Pub, a cottage-style pub in Spearfish, is located in a small brick building. Brandon Flanagan, whose ancestral connection to Ireland is “many generations out”, opened up shop in March 2007.
The annual St. Patrick’s Day event brings together punters from Spearfish (population: 11,000) and all over South Dakota to the family-ran bar, but also from eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.
“I’ve been to Ireland two times, in 2009 and 2012,” Flanagan told IrishCentral.com. “After my first trip, I said I would not have changed a thing about the design of the pub if I had been there before I opened it.”
McNally’s Irish Pub
Nicki Ellerbroek (née O’Dwyer) is the owner of McNally’s Irish Pub in Sioux Falls. Since 2006, people have flocked to the bar, for dishes like Drunk’n Mussels (a pound of mollusks simmered in Guinness, butter, garlic, and herbs) and weekly Whiskey Wednesdays specials.
Ellerbroek is half-Irish, and she started the business with her step-father.
“We both have lineage to Ireland and have been there several times to visit over the years. We traveled there before opening the pub for lengths at a time to gather ideas and get our best understanding of their culture.”
Ellerbroek and her step-father found particular inspiration in Dublin’s famed bar, the Stag’s Head.
“McNally’s is decorated with an Irish theme and would be considered a Victorian-Irish Pub with hand-crafted wood, copper ceilings, and stained glass, which was built locally,” Ellerbroek explained.
Ellerbroek said that several of her staff are Irish American – and the others will claim that they want to be Irish.
McNally’s sells more Jameson and Guinness than any other bar in the state of South Dakota. One of their signature cocktails is the Irish Legend; raspberry preserves, Tullamore Dew whiskey, freshly squeezed lemon, and iced tea, shaken and strained over ice.
The whole month of March - not just the 17th - is dedicated to celebrating Ireland with Irish dancers, Celtic music and food. (“We look for any reason,” she laughed.)
“We kick off with our ‘St. Practice Day’ on February 17th. It’s our ‘wet/dry’ run to get ready for March,” she added. “We also do the ‘great Guinness toast’ a tribute to Guinness and Arthur Guinness himself.”
“On September 17th, it’s a celebration of being half-way to St. Patrick's Day. On Fridays, we celebrate ‘the craic’ with our Craic Power hour (like happy hour) with half-priced drinks and Irish Nacho specials.”
If Ellerbroek sounds like she knows how to pull out all the stops, it’s because she is part of an International Irish pub owner group, and serves as the chapter president for Irish Pub Global. Irish Pub Global has a gather session every year where Irish pub owners from all over the world gather to learn, trade ideas, try new products and enjoy the craic.
Dempsey’s Brewery Restaurant and Pub
In Watertown, population 12,000, Dempsey’s Brewery Restaurant and Pub is the go-to spot. The family is about to celebrate their 21st anniversary in business this year.
Sean Dempsey, an award-winning pizza maker, is the second generation of the family to be helming the bar.
“My parents, Bill and Lyne Dempsey, started the bar. My great grandfather Bill Dempsey the first, had his roots down in County Tipperary before immigrating to Prince Edward Island, Canada, in the late 1800s or early 1900s,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey’s aforementioned father Bill is the ‘official bagpiper of South Dakota’. His mother Lyne stops by on Mondays and Thursdays to bake, and his father comes around often too.
“He helps drink us out of Powers… I mean helps with administration tasks and brewing,” Dempsey joked.
Upon his father’s suggestion, Dempsey took up making pizza a few years ago.
“We ended up flying into Las Vegas for the International Pizza Expo to see what was going on. I took a few classes, went to seminars, and was hooked. I went to the International School of Pizza in San Francisco, graduated from there, and brought back some new ideas, and we bought a very, very nice brick oven (her name is Mjolner). It’s neat.”
While the locals can’t get enough of the various pizzas, the best-selling Irish-inspired dish is boxty (a traditional Irish potato pancake popular in Ulster).
“We only run it on the fall/winter menu, but we do a steak or chicken boxty that’s pretty decent. Not as good as the Bric’n Boxty House in Killarney, but we try. We met them years back, and the general manager told us they have a lady who grates the potatoes daily, and she’s very, very strong, so she’d be a bad person to arm-wrestle. I’ve always loved that quote.”
The bar, which sells a delicious Irish-dry stout called Black Bear, boasts many Irish American and Irish patrons.
“We’re a little different than most places around, but we generally run into a lot of tourism from Ireland. Most of them are surprised to find something like us in SoDak. Two different families nearby us are cattle ranchers and both directly from Ireland, and we see them weekly for our full Irish breakfasts.”
Like the other bars, for St. Patrick’s Day, the Dempseys go above and beyond.
“We usually find an Irish band to play the evening and have trad sessions during the afternoon. We also have a halfway to St. Patrick’s Day as well that’s always pretty crazy. It pretty much goes like this - people show up an hour early, camp by the doors, and do their best to drink us out of booze!”
Dempsey loves to visit Ireland; he’s even kissed the Blarney stone.
“In 2007, I brought my fiancé. In 2013, I went for an Irish Pubs Global Convention with my father, we rented a car and saw a lot of Dublin, the Rock of Cashel... found another Dempsey’s in Kilkenny! In 2015, we went for two weeks, over to Galway, did the southern ring of Kerry, spent some time at Gus O’Connor’s pub in Doolin, and were even able to briefly check out Belfast.”
He will also be back this fall, on his way home from a big pizza competition in London.
“One of my favorite things in the world is listening to buskers outside the Kings Head in Galway and enjoying one of their Galway Hooker red ales.”
The Blarney Stone
Jim Poolman, a resident of Sioux Falls, said he is “very proud” of his three bars, all called The Blarney Stone, and what they have brought to their respective areas.
The Blarney Stone in Sioux Falls has been open for just over a year.
“It has been a great addition for us, and we absolutely love downtown Sioux Falls,” Poolman said. “We are very proud of our three locations, and each of them has its own distinct character, but a very consistent standard of high-quality service, food and beverages.”
The venture was actually started by three friends in neighboring North Dakota in a bid to ‘revitalize downtown Bismarck’.
“We knew we could create something different that we needed. We wanted to create a place that we would love to eat and drink at ourselves; a fun, authentic Irish pub atmosphere. We had a desire to give customers a great experience and one of our partners, in particular, has spent time in Ireland, and loves to visit the Guinness brewery there.”
Poolman said the trio have worked hard to create an authentic rendition of an Irish pub.
“We have exposed brick, dark wood, and have created a cozy, comfortable atmosphere where you can enjoy some quality Irish fare, with a Guinness or another beer from our large tap beer selection.”
The South Dakota outpost is operated by one of the partner’s sons, Nick Wanner.
Among their most popular menu items is a piping hot Shepherd’s Pie.
“People love it! As you can imagine, there are a lot of Guinness fans too, and that certainly would be our best-selling beer. We also do wonderful ‘married pints’, where we will mix a Guinness with another type or flavor of beer to create delicious tasting concoctions.”
On the weekends, the Blarney Stone offers ‘dinner in Dublin’ - which is their take on brunch, as with the time difference it’s dinner time in Ireland: “A perfect time to get your bangers and mash with a Bloody Mary,” Poolman said.
Mrs. Murphy’s Irish Gifts
A mere few doors away from The Blarney Stone’s Sioux Falls location lies Mrs. Murphy’s Irish Gifts.
Established in 1997 as a pop-up in a small booth in conjunction with St. Patrick’s Day, the demand led to a permanent location in an 800 square foot shop at the Carpenter Hotel later that summer, where it still operates today.
“Sandy Murphy and I started it,” owner Dick Murphy said. “I have the most Irish heritage. The Murphy family were from County Down and they left Ireland in 1851 and upon arriving in the US they settled in southern Wisconsin. On my mother’s side the name is Hollaren and they were from County Mayo.”
“Sandy was born and raised in Banbury, England and had an Irish great grandfather, James Quinn. Therefore, she had always thought she was 1/8th Irish but according to the results of an Ancestry DNA test Sandy is 33% Irish …who knew,” he laughed.
“Almost everyone that works at Mrs. Murphy’s has some Irish heritage and two of our favorite staff members in the past and part-time present are Jo, who was born and raised in Malin Head, Donegal, and Jen, who was raised in Sioux Falls but whose mum is from Derry,” he added.
The best-selling items at the store, with its cozy fireplace and large Irish flag decorating the wall, are Claddagh rings. About 70% of the items for sale are imported directly from Ireland.
“The Claddagh story is told on the back of our business card and is retold to customers many times over,” Dick proudly said.
Other popular items are Hanna Hats from Donegal, sweaters from Aran Woolen Mills, West End Knitwear and capes from Jimmy Hourihan, hats, scarves and capes from Mucros Weavers, ruanas (ponchos) from Kerry Woolen Mills, jewelry from Fadoó and Innis perfume.
Dick and Sandy have been to Ireland several times.
“The last time we were there we rented a house in Killorglin and just down the road was Kerry Woolen Mills. One of the highlights of the trip was being shown around the Mill by the owner and watching the weaving process and how all of the beautiful products are made.”
Like all the bars, St. Patrick’s Day is a special day for the Murphys; with customers flooding the shop after the parade.
Despite South Dakota’s people making up just 0.25% of the American population, they sure now how to punch above their weight in warmth and hospitality.
While there’s no place like home, the atmosphere created by the welcoming folks of this Midwestern state would rival that inimitable feeling of walking into your hometown bar where everyone knows your name - and your order.
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