"THERE ARE NO STRANGERS HERE, only friends you haven’t met yet” — this famous quote, widely attributed to Irish poet William Butler Yeats, must have referred to an Irish pub. Over hundreds of years, the Irish pub has evolved into a global institution that’s synonymous with hospitality, camaraderie and, most of all, community. “The essence of a good Irish pub is conviviality and good conversation,” says Kevin Martin, author of “Have Ye No Homes to Go To? The History of the Irish Pub.” No matter what city you find yourself in, an Irish pub feels at once familiar and at the same time full of the promise of new friends and experiences.
“They’re everywhere. And that’s because the Irish, no matter where they are, retain a certain culture and spirit,” says Robert Meyers, who researched pubs across the U.S. while writing his book “Irish Pubs In America: History, Lore and Recipes” with Ron Wallace. “They have this gift. There’s the old saying that on St. Patrick’s Day, ‘Everybody’s Irish.’”
Irish pubs come in all shapes, sizes and styles, from those based on traditional Irish living rooms to Victorian salons. And each carries with its own distinctively Irish flavor.
Irish pubs gained prominence in America in the 19th century — between 1841 and 1850, an estimated 46 percent of all immigrants to the U.S. came from Ireland. Pubs were often the first stop for new arrivals fleeing the potato famine, and they served as grocery stores, banks, places for entertainment, lodging and more. Irish pubs became centers of community, a tradition that lives on today. Many of these pubs and bars have become historic landmarks, neighborhood hangouts and international destinations that bring people from all over the world together, if only for a few pints of Guinness.
Pubs Come to America
Today’s bars may owe their existence to the Ancient Romans, who set up taverns along roads frequented by travelers of all types. Traces of the earliest Irish taverns date to the 7th century, and there’s evidence of Ireland’s longest-running pub doing business as early as A.D. 900.
English and Dutch settlers founded the first taverns in America. In fact, it was English custom for a tavern to be established before churches or even forts. For the large numbers of thirsty Irish immigrants who arrived on the Eastern Seaboard in the 1800s, taverns — also called ordinaries — were often the first stop.
Pubs “just go hand-in-hand with immigration because they’re early points of contact to establish friendships and networks,” says Christine Sismondo, author of “America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.”
Pubs offered Irish immigrants — often derided and discriminated against at the time — a means to establish community and, for those founding their own pubs, the chance to prosper.
The Toucan was Guinness’ most famed mascot, created in the ’30s as a playful advertising character and phased out in the ’80s. Antique Toucan posters still decorate the walls of Irish pubs around the world, and the famous bird remains Guinness’ most iconic symbol.
“Essentially it was like an embassy,” Martin says. “It was a home away from home. If you had trouble, where could you turn? You could turn to the people that you knew in the Irish community through the pubs. It was where they developed a sense of belonging.”
By the second half of the 19th century, Irish immigrants, along with Germans, had established themselves as the predominant culture behind drinking establishments. In New York, pubs established in the mid-1800s are still in operation and have become landmarks in their own right. Each proudly carries its own tradition and folklore. For example, there’s the pub rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of a murdered Confederate soldier, an early Hollywood actor and a young girl who fell victim to tuberculosis. The tradition of an eclectic clientele in these historical pubs remains even today, from theatre-goers from Canada to local businessmen. Original features also remain — an impressive solid-oak bar, collections of ancient bottles or a creaky wooden-plank floor covered in sawdust to mop up spilled beer.
You’ll even find customers reciting family tales that go back generations (possibly getting taller with each telling), demonstrating the power of the pub to foster a sense of community even through its own history.
In an Irish pub, new acquaintances are made, old friendships are rekindled and family lore is passed on to new generations.
As the pubs were built on community, social movements began to spring up out of bars as well. They became places where everyone could have a voice.
“Everybody’s opinion is supposed to be sort of equal, so there’s this equalizing force as well that brings people from different parts together and from different viewpoints,” Sismondo says. “That helps reduce polarization, and helps people to understand each other in a different way.”
You can find neighborhood Irish pubs — or “locals,” as they are often referred to in Ireland — in cities across the world. In New York City, neighborhood pubs in each of the five boroughs are noted for their connection to the local community in myriad ways, be it as the meeting place for the local historical society, the venue for trivia night or even as the caterer of complimentary corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.
The experts from the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin say the perfect pour requires patience and a certain sense of artistry. The six steps to a perfect pint take just under two minutes, precisely 119.5 seconds.
Clientele at these local watering holes can go back generations, but in up-and-coming neighborhoods, pubs are also being frequented by a hip, younger crowd. And contrary to what you might expect, the decades-long regulars don’t seem to mind.
“I think everybody’s glad to see some new faces. It keeps the bar fresh, and it’s good for the neighborhood,” says Allan Hanson, 46, who says he chooses one of two pubs in his neighborhood depending on his mood: One is closer to home and one is for special occasions.
“I know guys who’ve been coming here for more than 40 years,” Hanson says. “It’s just the local neighborhood Irish bar.”
A New Generation
Recently, a new kind of Irish pub has emerged. With a cosmopolitan and international approach, these pubs are taking traditional Irish pub essentials and adding a twist.
In many cases, they have eschewed the typical shamrock in the window in favor of sleeker interiors to appeal to younger, more urban customers. Examples include a Victorian tearoom, a traditional Irish living room complete with iron stove and a saloon reminiscent of the film “Gangs of New York,” and their decor sets them apart from other nearby bars.
Irish pubs are as known for their often whimsical and quirky names as they are for pouring the perfect pint of Guinness. References to Irish language, culture and history are common. Meaning a public fight or quarrel, Donnybrook comes from a legendarily raucous fair that took place outside of Dublin. Other fun pub names include The Stagger Inn, The Randy Leprechaun and The Dying Cow.
“Times change,” Meyers says. “I think the younger generation is coming home from work. If they’re in Manhattan, they’ve got suits on. They’re young and often on dates. They’re more interested in what’s cool.”
This sense of cool may translate to a more upmarket feel, but even the most contemporary pubs haven’t abandoned Ireland’s famous tradition of hospitality. While each may be a 21st-century take on a thousands-year-old concept, the Irish roots are unmistakable. The history and community that pubs promise continue to draw customers even if the building’s appearance has changed.
“I love how there’s such a mix of people,” says Kelsey Fraser, 26, on a visit to New York City for the weekend. “Everyone’s just here for the same reason: for some good conversation and a good time.”