It’s April 1, 1894 and you’re reading the New York World, or I have been. And a sizeable column greets you on McSorley’s Ale House in the East Village, The Old House at Home as it was also known. The occasion? The stolid New York tavern’s 40th anniversary. Evidently word had spread about a special something there.
The founder was still living, Irish immigrant and eccentric John McSorley (he died in 1900). There is an interesting tension in the piece about the foreign character of the pub. It is described simultaneously as English and Irish, so H.M.’s English seamen think they are back in “Lunnun”, yet the walls feature “prints of Irish Parliaments, Irish scenes, Irish statesmen, and Irish orators”. Indeed McSorley proudly asserted his adherence to “Home Rule”.
Questioned on the apparent contradiction he states “the Irish sense of justice” requires recognition that “its ale houses constitute the best thing about England”. Sounds good, win-win you might say.
What it shows too though is once you establish an institution far away, it becomes a different animal. It’s no different today for our downtown English and Irish pubs, they can be one or the other, it’s all of a piece.
Already, at 40, the place is a legend. So much was still to come: the survival during 13 years of Prohibition; the visits by international celebrities (1933-1970s); Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 New Yorker encomium, which launched the pub into higher orbit; the lawsuit to admit women (c. 1970); finally its discovery by early craft beer writers. Yet in 1894 its place in U.S. bibulous history is assured, the rest was just icing.
Not a bad achievement for a modest, eccentric bar, and it did it just by being itself and not changing (too much) with the times.
The age fixation is a big part of the appeal, gilded a bit in the early years: the bartender points out the age of some of the fittings, 70 years old say, but the bar was established only 40 years earlier. It doesn’t matter, mythos has a way of building an impregnable case, and we all share in the effort, it makes it fun and life interesting.
An old-new, Irish-American, Lunnun, male-only, then mixed, pipe-smoking, then tobacco-free, Manhattan bar. It all makes sense, once you go and see it. I need to get back.