St. Patrick’s Day in Washington, Then & Now

Every St. Patrick’s Day, I get nostalgic. Some part of me wants to hear an Irish rebel song, down a stiff Irish whiskey, get begorrah drunk in a place where there’s already two feet of beer on the floor and admire an Irish lass with green eyes and flaming hair.

It passes. There are, if my fading old eyes don’t deceive me, more Irish bars than ever ‘round about here, so I imagine that at least today there is a market for the wee bit of Gaelic sound. Many of the newer bars I’ve never heard of, but the old standby pubs still standing, like Sinatra and Elvis, make you breathe with the slowed down breath of memory.

Some of the newer ones certainly sound like old sod pubs—Castlebay Irish Pub in Annapolis, Flanagan’s Harp and Fiddle in Bethesda, O’Faolain’s Irish Pub in Sterling, Virginia, Ned Devine’s and Ned Kelly’s in Herndon, Virginia, O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub in Arlington, Old Brogue Irish Pub in Great Falls, Sine Irish Pub in Arlington, Slainte Irish Pub in Bethesda, the Auld Shabeen in Fairfax—even the Fado downtown with its myriad beers and Irish bric a brac, not to mention the legendary Murphy’s in Alexandria, and the rising Ri Ras where the hold music sessions.

But for my money—and it’s not a lot, I’m a writer after all—its places like Kelly’s Irish Times, the Four Provinces, (now Ireland’s Four Fields) the Dubliner, Nanny O’Brien’s, and the long-defunct Matt Kane’s and Ellen’s which are and were the real thing. And you can throw in Billy Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, which has been around longer than anybody and anyone, serving up square and basic-good Irish food and spirits and conviviality as a matter of family tradition.

Of course, the heydays were probably during the 1970s and 1980s, when St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated a little bit like a hooligan’s holiday, with daylong, sometimes weekend-long celebrations. In those days, there was a steady and large supply of Irish bartenders to go with the Irish restaurants, not to mention Irish musicians who were splendid, played and sang reels and rebel songs and ballads that broke your heart, and got everybody in the spirit of things along with the spirits.

I suspect some of that atmosphere is missing now—I don’t see hundreds of hill staffers running around with “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pins for a whole day, although the funny looking big green hats remain ever popular.

St. Patrick’s Day was a day of wretched excess in those days, and, luckily and with good reason, I don’t remember much about them.

What I do remember is that this German writer loved most things Irish beyond reason. With my metabolism now rebellious of anything beyond a single glass of beer, I can look at this with measured focus, as opposed to through a glass darkly. I think it’s because friends I knew in Washington from the beginning were named Kelly and O’Brien and Murphy and McHugh and so on, and they were the types you could tell your worst secrets to, make the phone call in the middle of the middle of the night. They would take you in if you got kicked out of some other place for the night. They were the boon companions at the race track, the guy who’d spot you a bar bill and laughed at all of your jokes, except the Irish ones. I knew a few, let’s say, and here’s to Michael Kelly, and his brother Hugh, the publican and founder of Kelly’s Irish Times, the most democratic of Irish pubs in existence, if not the most elegant.

Kelly’s was a footstep or so away from The Dubliner, and was once a Hawaiian Luau Hut before Hugh Kelly bought it and once held a celebration in which patrons were encouraged to smash a plastic volcano rock to piece. The Dubliner—run by the estimable Danny Coleman—was also the best venue for some of the greatest Irish musicians around, notably Celtic Thunder and the Irish Tradition. That trio, which sometimes wandered into the Irish Times, filled the house like a rock band. They were Andy O’Brien, the lad the lassies dug, Billy McComiskey, a button accordionist of great gifts, and the vibrant Brendan Mulvihill, a fiddle player of Irish national championship quality, big of girth and afro-red hair, who could make a fiddle do anything—produce tears, sound like jazz, be bluesy and rangy, and tell musical stories as thick as novels. In the past he has been known to play at Nanny O’Brien’s on Connecticut Avenue, right across the street from the Uptown Theater and, lo and behold, another Irish pub, the Irish Four Fields.

But enough about pubs: that’s where all your friends are today if they have signs of life in them. The Irish connection runs deeper than a state of bold and wordy inebriation. I once had a discussion with another fine Irish person of note about the religious and philosophical symbolism of a certain scene from “Saturday Night Fever,” and it says a lot for Guinness and the Irish that this stuck in my mind.

The Irish love to talk, and when they’re not talking, they’re writing, composing, singing, putting on plays, making theater and persevering, in spite of anything, come famine or feuding. If you want to know the origin of St. Patrick’s Day and its consequences, check out Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (or four hours in a bar with some very eloquent and poetic drunks), in which a cop or two make an appearance and one of the denizen’s says “Why didn’t St. Patrick drive all the snakes out of Ireland, and didn’t they swim across the Atlantic and become New York policemen?” or words to that effect.

I love the Irish words, probably more than the Irish do: both the great playwright of the void, Samuel Beckett, and novelist James Joyce, moved to Paris and wrote in French.

A whole new generation of Irish playwright’s have emerged, but Wilde, Synge, Behan, Shaw and all the rest still rise up onto our stage with words, wit and wonder (“An Ideal Husband” at the Shakespeare Theatre right now and “Penelope” at the Studio right now). And Solas Nua, the Irish theater group, is handing out free books today.

And it’s St. Patrick Day. If things should go amiss, remember a few things along the way: there may have been Bette Davis eyes, but there is Maureen O’Hara hair as well. And remember that famous Irish saying: “May you be in heaven a half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” And may you recall with some caution that famous scene in “Fort Apache” when the Irish 7th Cavalry First Sergeant, played by Victor McLaglen, is ordered to destroy a roomful of rotgut whiskey by Henry Fonda. “Lads,” he said, “let us pull together. We have a fearful task ahead of us.”

Indeed all of you do. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. Celebrate as the Irish might and god help you on the way.


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