The air is electric—buzzing with energy. People are huddled in groups, sharing stories, laughing with their heads thrown back. Flowing underneath the chatter is the cheerful melody of a fiddle, accompanied by soft beats of the bodhran, an Irish drum.
Here, you will find wooden furnishings with some wear and tear, an old fireplace, and trinkets from Ireland strewn about. This is a proper Irish pub: a place for conversation and exchanging artistic ideas, with alcohol only as an occasional social lubricant.
“It’s a community or social center, a gathering and meeting point. It’s why culture and the arts are so important in them,” said Danny McDonald, the owner of several Irish pubs in New York City, including Ulysses, Swift Hibernian Lounge, and Puck Fair. He spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Ireland, before returning to America to spread Irish pub culture here.
McDonald explained that pubs in Ireland are not just evening hangouts—they’re places where you can hold work meetings during the day, or drop in for a cup of tea or coffee. “It’s a very accessible space to the community,” he said. Books are written, theater productions rehearsed, poetry recited.
At Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar in Manhattan, aspiring musicians hone their craft and established artists find a welcoming audience. Owner Steve Duggan opened the pub in 1986 as a platform for Irish music. Iconic Celtic rock band Black 47 got its start there (and Duggan was its manager during the ’90s), and many Irish celebrities have stopped by for a pint over the years.
Every Thursday, Paddy Reilly’s partakes in the Irish tradition of the seisiun, a jam session typically held inside a public house.
At a recent seisiun, the internationally acclaimed Irish tenor Anthony Kearns was hanging out at the bar, while in town for an upcoming performance. Kearns had some insight on what makes a good Irish pub.
“Good people, good music, good atmosphere. If you line all these up, you’re on the way,” he said. Back home in Ireland, people go to the pub not to get wasted, but to catch up with friends—”talk about all the good and bad things that happened that week”—and learn about the latest happenings in town. Some go to vent their troubles to an empathetic bartender.
“A good barman is like a good shrink,” he joked. “[After talking] for a couple of hours, you feel better.”
A Neighborhood Joint
In Woodside, Queens, one of the old Irish immigrant enclaves in the city, Donovan’s Pub still stands after more than four decades, serving as the community’s gathering place. Although the neighborhood is no longer predominantly Irish, the spirit of conviviality remains.
Locals stop here for a bite before a Mets game, or to learn how to paint (every other Wednesday is Paint Nite), or to celebrate the big events in their lives: christenings, communions, engagement parties.
“It is like a small town where everybody knows everybody, but it’s in the heart of the biggest city in the world,” said Dan Connor, who took over the bar about three years ago, together with his brother-in-law, James Jacobson, after its original publican, Joe Donovan, put it up for sale.
Connor and Jacobson have many stories to share from their time growing up in the neighborhood and frequenting the pub. Jacobson started working there as a busboy 25 years ago (eventually becoming a bartender), while Connor often DJ’ed there.
They recall one elderly couple who would buy a drink for whomever sat at the table where they got engaged, or the two childhood friends who were honored at the pub for fighting in the Vietnam War and winning the Medal of Honor. And after 9/11, the whole neighborhood convened to commemorate the many local firemen and police who had perished.
It’s an oft-said cliche that everyone is treated like family, but it seems to really hold true at Donovan’s. The staff are either relatives and good friends of Connor’s and Jacobson’s, or Irish immigrants like Ann Marie Markey from Belfast, who has found her second home here. She attests that in Ireland, the idea of the pub as community holds so strongly that she wouldn’t even cross to the other side of the street, which belonged to another part of the district, to visit the pub there.
That Irish brand of warmth extends to strangers too; Connor said new patrons regularly become part of Donovan’s family. So the next time you visit a pub, try greeting the first person you meet with, “What’s the craic?” You’re likely to hear all about the latest news, gossip, and fun to be had around town. That’s exactly what a pub is for.
Click here to read our Q&A with Irish transplants about their favorite St. Patrick’s Day food and drinks.
Click here to learn how to cook an Irish feast, courtesy of cookbook author Imen McDonnell.