Author Eamon Loingsigh knows his New York City watering holes. His great-grandfather, an immigrant from County Clare, was the proprietor of Lynch’s Tavern, a longshoreman’s saloon at 463 Hudson Street that stayed in (and occasionally out) of the family’s ownership for the first 70 years of the 20th century. Young Eamon, born around the time of the bar’s official change of hands (his father, a self-diagnosed alcoholic, wanted nothing to do with owning a bar) grew up consumed with the family’s history of saloon operating and its connection to both the history of old New York and his own family’s Irish ancestry.
This fascination with folklore and history and heritage is everywhere in Light of the Diddicoy and Exile on Bridge Street, the first installments of a trilogy set in the early 20th century in the area under the Manhattan Bridge — known then as Irish Town. Back then the waterfront was a war zone, and the novel’s narrator, Liam Garrity, a displaced and desperate Irish immigrant, falls in with a brutal gang known as The White Hand as a matter of survival. The setting-driven novel often reads like a walking tour of old Brooklyn, from Red Hook along the waterfront to the place they now call DUMBO. It’s with this in mind that we asked Loingsigh to take a pre-Saint Paddy’s Day walking, talking, and, yes, drinking tour of the area — to reveal history and weigh in on the state of Irish-American watering holes in Brooklyn.
We met on a frigid March afternoon at 25 Bridge Street, half a block from the East River and a real-life former saloon that doubled as the headquarters of The White Hand in the novel. This was a place laborers and longshoreman would come to drink after long days of loading and unloading ships along the waterfront. No longer. Twenty-five Bridge Street has been shuttered since prohibition and functions now as a machine shop. In fact, there are no old Irish bars to be found at all in “Auld Irishtown,” so we began at the closest bar, a few blocks away under the rattle of the Manhattan Bridge at 68 Jay St Bar (established in 2003 in an old cash-checking storefront). Inside exposed brick, paint-splattered columns, and muted light offered a hint of the industrial past.
“Bars in New York City have changed a lot in the last 100 years,” Loingsigh says. “With rent so high, most of the old stalwarts have been forced to close, like Rocky Sullivan’s in Red Hook [our intended first stop, recently shuttered as the owners seek new, more affordable space]. Now bars must come up with new and inventive ideas to bring in high-end customers to be profitable. In the old days the working class were the main customers, whereas now the rich and ultra-rich are often catered to.”
There definitely weren’t any “rich or ultra-rich” types being catered to at our next joint. Farrell’s Bar & Grill (all “bar” and no “grill”) in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, claims to be one of New York’s oldest legal drinking establishments, opening just after prohibition ended. The clientele seems to be cut from the same cloth as the first post-prohibition drinkers, beefy men in work clothes and off-duty cops and fireman out of uniform, lining the long bar, stabbing every sentence with fackin’ this and fackin’ that while drinking the daylights out of a Friday afternoon. “You know Farrell’s is a real New York Irish bar when you walk in at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday and everyone is singing along to the Irish rebel song playing on the jukebox and talking about the Mets’ roster,” says Loingsigh. The corner location, with windows on two sides, let in a little too much light for Loingsigh’s taste (he remembered his family’s bar intentionally had just enough light to make change and make out a face at close range), but the old-Irish ethos was in full effect at Farrell’s, from the garrulous, ruddy-faced barkeep to the open and sparsely decorated room, to the nearly non-existent presence of women. The beverage of choice here is Budweiser, served in giant Styrofoam cups (the decidedly non-pc cup being a particular point of pride to the establishment).
While Farrells’s might have been a reminder of the, let’s say exclusive, tendencies practiced at some traditional Irish-American watering holes, our final destination was a glorious, Erin-go-Bragh-in-America that has made Irish drinking establishments so beloved throughout the country and especially in New York. Irish Haven on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is packed on a Friday, drinkers crunched between walls packed with framed pictures of locals who have brought the neighborhood to this neighborhood bar since the ’60s. Ownership has been passed from patron to patron — dedicated folks who want to keep the place around. Within a few minutes here, it’s easy to imagine why: One septuagenarian Vietnam veteran from County Galway (who goes by “Fast Freddie Knuckles”) shows his gnarled right fist to an urbane woman of Indian descent, regaling her with a story from his days as a prize fighter as Loingsigh and the bar’s co-owner Matt Hogan sip pints of Smithwick’s and chat passionately about their studies of Irish literature. The near corner of the bar is occupied by old timers who want to drink among themselves, but the rest of the room mingles like the best of house parties, as the juke box kicks out songs from different generations, and people of all ages and backgrounds buy each other drinks and raise glasses.
“A few years ago while doing research for my book Light of Diddicoy, I walked into this place and heard the old-country brogue from one side of the bar. There was a guy who grew up with Frank and Malachy McCourt [the writers] in the lanes of Limerick,” says Loingsigh. “And as long as you buy them $6 draughts, they’ll tell you stories that are just as ingenious and embellished as the best shanachie (Irish storyteller) you’ll ever meet in the old country itself. Not to mention all of the smiling Irish girls looking around for available Yanks.”