In Irish pubs, tradition's on tap Holiday: Custom dictates that the Irish, and those who wish they were, hoist a pint on St. Paddy's Day.

March 17, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Joseph Patrick Byrne, as Irish as the green hills of County Wicklow, where his people came from, will celebrate this St. Patrick's Day just as he has all the others for more than a decade.

"We'll be pulling pints as fast as we can," says Byrne, who is 67 and bears himself with the warm, comfortable and firm mien befitting a proper Irish pub owner.

Even though he uses just the name J. Patrick's for his pub in Baltimore's Locust Point, he says Byrne is the second most prevalent name among the Irish. On St. Paddy's Day, the most popular surely has got to be "Guinness."

"It's a good business day," says Byrne. "But it's bad for the customers." They'll be shoulder to shoulder and packed tighter than the Joycean wordsmithery of "Finnegan's Wake" today at J. Patrick's.

The Irish and the once-a-year Irish swarm to the Irish bars today, pub-crawling in limousines and buses, in cars and on foot, and perhaps later weaving along with the help of some friends, from Fells Point to Locust Point to Canton to Belair Road.

"People start to come in at 10 a.m. to make a nest for themselves," Byrne says. "They stake a claim and some of them never leave until closing time."

J. Patrick's Pub is at 1371 Andre St., not more than a couple of hundred yards from where Irish immigrants landed during the years of The Great Hunger, the "potato famine" that drove close to 2 million men, women and children from their homeland between 1845 to 1852.

In 1847, at the height of the Hunger years, Baltimore probably received more Irish immigrants than any other port in America.

Some of those families stayed in Locust Point for generations. They worked the docks they arrived on. But only about 200 Irish-Americans now live on the Point. About 20,000 live in the city, and more than 400,000 have dispersed into the metropolitan area.

The Irish have always been with us in Maryland, like the Biblical poor, and often they were the poor. There's a good chance that Irishmen were aboard the Ark and the Dove in 1634 when Maryland's first settlers landed -- not among the "20 gentlemen" whose names we know, but among the anonymous "300 laboring men" who would do the work of establishing the colony. Cecil Calvert, the British lord, recruited Irish farmers from around Connaught and his County Longford estates for his venture in the New World.

So when you raise the question of Irish pubs these days, you're talking about a long history.

Up on Charles Street is Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub. The bartenders there will be pulling a few pints today, too.

Managing partner Colin McClure, 27, thinks they may sell 40 kegs or so of Guinness and Harp lager and Murphy's stout. And you get 100 to 108 20-ounce "Imperial" pints from a keg. Twenty bartenders will be pulling eight taps each of Harp and Guinness from about 9 a.m. until closing.

Then O'Shea's will be closed all day tomorrow: They call in carpenters and rug cleaners.

"It takes a while to wash the lake of Guinness up off the floor," McClure says.

O'Shea's is somewhat more upscale and yuppified than J. Patrick's, which still retains a lot of its corner-bar-in-Locust Point charm. But the real difference is the music.

"We have only traditional Irish music down here," says Byrne. Today he'll have Rigadoo, the house band that's played for a decade of St. Patrick's Days at his pub.

At Mick O'Shea's, where the sounds are often more Irish contemporary, The Flying Cows of Ventry will play this afternoon and O'Malley's March this evening.

Joe Byrne quips that Martin O'Malley, the city councilman from the Third District who leads the March, is "the Mick Jagger of Irish rock."

His pub also has a political edge missing at O'Shea's. Among the multitude of Irish emblems and memorabilia on the wall are posters of two martyrs to the Irish Republican cause, Bobby Sands, who died in 1981 in a Belfast prison during a hunger strike, and Michael Collins, the assassinated Sinn Fein leader of the 1920s, in full military dress as a general in the I.R.A.

Out at his bar on Belair Road, Mike Fahey, a genuine Irishman from Galway, says it's a wonderful thing for pub owners when St. Paddy's falls on Tuesday.

"You don't want St. Paddy's Day to fall on a weekend," he says. Weekends are already busy.

Irish Mike, as people call him in the neighborhood, bought Flanagan's old bar, at Parkside Avenue, and renamed it the European Union. Along with pictures of the great Irish authors Joyce and Yeats and Wilde and Beckett lined up like villains in a wanted poster, the 15-star E.U. flag hangs across from his bar.

"I can do all the holidays of all the European countries," says Fahey. "We'll even let the limeys in on St. Patrick's Day."

He'll serve ham and cabbage today and boiled potatoes.

"We don't do the corned beef," he says. "Corned beef is not Irish." But even if it was invented in America, corned beef is Irish enough for J. Patrick's and Mick O'Shea's to serve.

None of them will serve green beer.

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