Women are not so much interested in actually drinking here as having the right to do so if they wish. After all, this is an ale house and it takes a certain amount of stamina to down pints all evening long.
—Daniel O’Connell Kirwan
McSorley’s Old Ale House, Lower Manhattan
The first female to enjoy the illicit and theretofore unfeminine pleasure of quaffing an ale at McSorley’s Old Ale House, Manhattan’s oldest tavern, was not, as many believe, a skirted member of Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women. True, it was on the heels of a much-publicized court battle that NOW successfully forced the admission of women to the pub in 1970. But in fact, the first woman ever to drink at McSorley’s was a guest willingly admitted to the tavern by the founding owner himself.
She was Mother Fresh-Roasted, a babbling old peanut-peddler who went from saloon to saloon on the Lower East Side hawking her wares direct from her apron, and who claimed her husband had died from the bite of a lizard in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Old John McSorley cherished her friendship and regularly served her an ale on hot days. Likewise, her admiration for him was unbounded; she embroidered a miniature American flag and gave it to him one Fourth of July as a memento of their friendship. He had it framed and hung on the wall above his brass-bound ale tap, and there it remains to this day, a reminder of Mother Fresh-Roasted’s special place in the 123-year history of McSorley’s.
Other women who chanced inside the bar received a different treatment from Old John, whose motto was “Good ale, raw onions and no ladies,” the latter a condition, he believed, of peaceful, satisfyingly uninterrupted drinking. He would rush forward to head them off and say, “Madam, I’m sorry, but we don’t serve ladies.” If she persisted, he took her gently by the arm and led her off the premises with the admonishment, “Make haste, or I’ll be obliged to forget you’re a lady.”
A writer once described Old John as a “rather puritanical man,” a teetotaler who insisted that “ale was strong enough spirits for any man.” As for women, well, suffice it to say that for Old John, who took his drinking seriously, they were already sufficiently spirited.
Old John’s taboo was broken on another occasion as well. On a winter night in 1924, a feminist from Greenwich Village donned trousers, a man’s topcoat, and a cap, propped a cigar midlips, and strode confidently into McSorley’s. She ordered an ale, drank it, and thereupon doffed her cap, letting her long brown locks fall down about her shoulders. Then she called the son of Old John, Bill McSorley, a chauvinist, proclaimed the equality of the sexes, and ran out. When Bill realized the utter gravity of what he’d done—he’d sold a drink to a woman—he let out a moan and a howl and began jumping up and down as if he’d been struck a blow with a shillelagh. “She was a woman!” he bellowed. “She was a goddamn woman!”
Needless to say, not even the ghost of Old John could hold back the forces of equality forever. Forty-six years after his son had been duped by the male-garbed feminist, the first brigade of dressed, skirted, pantsuited, and culotted patrons, representing the Syracuse Battalion of NOW, bellied up to the original mahogany bar to down a few cold ones and lay to rest Old John’s most steadfast legacy.
Galway-born Irishman John Coyne, now a McSorley’s waiter, remembers that day. He’d seen them coming from his guardpost at the door, and quickly threw the deadbolt in place. In a quiet but uncertain tone, he refused their soprano-voiced demands for entry, but to no avail. Moments later, brandishing a copy of a newly-enacted city law and flanked by a sheepish pair of New York’s finest, they burst through the front gates and swaggered across the sawdust-covered floor to down a few mugs of ale and gloat in their victory.
In recent years prior to this occurrence, the entry of a member of the fair sex into McSorley’s was heralded by the bartender’s ringing of a bell (the same bell once used to mark rounds at the original Madison Square Garden). Should this have failed to impress upon the lady her errant stepping upon sacred ground, the lights were extinguished and a rhythmic stamping of feet and pounding of steins ensued, accompanied by an equally boisterous chanting: “NO WOMEN, NO WOMEN, NO WOMEN….”
Actually, the admission of women has done little to change McSorley’s old world, Irish pub atmosphere. It still looks and feels much the same as it did when it was established in 1854 by John McSorley, an Irish immigrant who, fresh from County Tyrone, modeled his alehouse after a similar saloon back home. A pack rat when it came to memorabilia, Old John for years saved the wishbones of Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys and strung them on a rod connecting the pair of gas lamps above the bar (the dusty bones, hoary as tarantula legs, are usually the first thing a new customer asks about). Old John plastered the partition between the front barroom and the back room with autographs, starfish, photographs and lithographs of the city, theatre programs, campaign buttons, political posters, and worn-down shoes from the hooves of race and brewery horses. Over the entrance to the back room he affixed a shillelagh and a sign: “BE GOOD OR BE GONE.” On the barroom walls he hung pictures of steamboats, horses, Tammany politicos, jockeys, prizefighters, singers, actors, and U.S. presidents. Beneath an oak frame containing superb portraits of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley he attached a brass tag that reads, “THEY ASSASSINATED THESE GOOD MEN THE SKULKING DOGS.” Eventually every square inch of space from the floor to the paint-chipped ceiling was occupied by photos, paintings, and souvenirs.
Old John’s son, William, a gruff and surly sort, took over the day-to-day running of the bar about 1890. After his father’s death in 1910, Bill tirelessly refused to change anything about the bar’s customs or appearance unless absolutely forced to. One such necessity occurred in 1933, when Bill was informed by a carpenter that the bar suffered from a nasty sag and would collapse without warning one day if something wasn’t done to shore it up. Bill finally consented, but while the workmen hammered away at the tavern’s ancient timbers, he sat at a table in the back room, morose and immovable, and refused to eat for several days. When the smoke-stained and cobweb-encrusted paint on the ceiling began to flake off and fall to the floor, several customers complained lest they be choked to death by the flakes they found in their ale. Begrudgingly, Bill allowed the ceiling to be painted anew.
Bill was so stolid in his ways and so strongly attached to the tavern and its customs that when Prohibition came, he refused to allow even a single day’s interruption of business. Customers simply buzzed a door in the hall beside the tavern, knocked on a door in the back room, and were admitted. Bill paid no protection, nor was McSorley’s ever raided. Patronage by a regular caucus of Tammany politicos who drank their way through those austere years no doubt gave Bill’s establishment a certain immunity. With his ale supplier shut down, however, Bill was forced to make other adjustments as well. His homemade product was a brew so strong that he had to weaken it with near beer. It was produced mysteriously in a cluster of washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer from the Bronx. Bill was without heirs and had vowed that “when I go, this place goes with me,” but in 1931, old and tired, he sold the saloon—lock, stock, and traditions—to a patron, Daniel O’Connell, a retired policeman, with the understanding that nothing about the place be changed. O’Connell died eight years later, and willed the bar to his daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan, who put her husband, Harry, in charge. To her credit, for the 36 years she owned the bar, Mrs. Kirwan never set foot inside during business hours, except occasionally to venture in from the street to raise a glass signalling a round on the house.
The resoluteness with which McSorley’s has maintained its traditions has enabled it to attract much the same breed of patron as it did in the days when Old John was master of the saloon. Most venerable of its clientele, now as always, is a group of gruff and testy, predominantly Irish old men, who, studying their racing sheets and nursing their ales, sit in rickety armchairs around the big potbelly stove, motionless as barnacles.
But the McSorley’s tradition has attracted the famous as well as the unsung during its century and a quarter of existence. One of Old John’s closest friends was Peter Cooper, president of the North American Telegraph Company and founder of Cooper Union college a block away.
In addition, such illustrious types as Teddy Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey, Mayors O’Dwyer and Wagner, Jackie Gleason, Cassius Clay, and David Eisenhower have drunk here, to name a few. The list of writers to be found in the guest book reads like an anthology of American literature, including the names of Dylan Thomas (who scribbled poems, here), T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, Paul Blackburn, Eugene O’Neill, Norman Mailer, J.P. Donleavy, and, of course, Brendan Behan.
But for those seriously interested in McSorley’s—or just in saloons, period—it would behoove them to apply the empirical method, an approach which has the added benefit of enhancing the reasoning process via the consumption of a few mugs of ale. Located on the ground floor of a red brick tenement on Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues, McSorley’s is but a ten-minute cab ride from midtown Manhattan, and it goes without saying that the hack who doesn’t know the whereabouts of McSorley’s has yet to be licensed.
Except for a few experimental months at the turn of the century, no hard liquor has ever been sold here. Newcomers from out of town stroll into McSorley’s almost daily to order their usual Scotch and waters or bristol cream sherries, only to discover with much consternation that the tavern serves only ale. Ale by the glass stein (light or dark brewed by Rheingold) at two for a dollar, or by the bottle (Carling’s Red Cap, Guinness Stout, Ballantine’s India Pale), but ale only.
McSorley’s also serves food prepared in a closet-sized kitchen off the back room. The regular fare includes ham, turkey, and liverwurst sandwiches, accompanied by plates of crackers, cheddar, American or Liederkranz cheese, generous portions of raw onions, and the hottest mustard this side of Hong Kong. The daily businessman’s luncheons are McSorley’s own specialties: steaming bowls of chili, homemade goulash, knockwurst with sauerkraut, a hash that has elicited rave reviews from New York food critics, and the “Tuesday Special,” a corned beef and cabbage favorite that always draws a hungry crowd for lunch.
When McSorley’s habitues are not eating or drinking, they’re talking. Conversation isn’t merely the chief activity—it’s the only one. The bar is notably different from many of the neighborhood pubs in that no games are played here, no chessmen moved, no darts thrown, no pins knocked down. Nor are loud altercations or physically uncivil disturbances tolerated. In fact, the late John Smith, a McSorley’s bartender who celebrated his 30th anniversary behind the tap in 1972, kept a “little black book” filled with the names of blackballed brawlers. He once banished a drunken local painter “for life” (but later readmitted him) and on one occasion ejected a rowdy pair whom he knew to be Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan.
The atmosphere is decidedly gloomy, dark, and, especially during the afternoon, tranquil, much to the delight of those seeking sanctuary from the hustle and commotion of the city. Repose comes easy here amidst the thick, musty odors of tap drippings, pine sawdust, coal smoke, pipe tobacco, and onions. (Indeed, the rich compost of smells at McSorley’s was once described by a Bellevue intern as having more benefit to the mentally disturbed than psychotherapy.) By contrast, evenings, especially on weekends, are noisy. Crowds of young men and women pack the place. Many stand, consuming their mugs of ale while ogling the bits and pieces of history adorning the walls.
In the half-dozen years since women were admitted, they have become as much a part of the bar’s evening trade as men, and in fact make no protest about having to share its one-room privy—complete with three bathtub-sized urinals—with their male counterparts. On weekend nights the college boys who jam the back room get some pretty gamy ideas after downing a few ales, and often a waiter will stand guard at the door when a female customer is inside.
“If women want total equality, I don’t see why the concept shouldn’t extend to restrooms,” says McSorley’s current owner Danny Kirwan, who took over its management for his mother (now deceased).
Like her, and like Bill and Old John before him, Danny has kept the bar’s traditions intact for the benefit of present and future generations of ale drinkers.
Perhaps McSorley’s enduring place in the history of American saloons is most felicitously stated by the simple declaration lettered in white across its front window: “WE WERE HERE BEFORE YOU WERE BORN.”
McSorley’s will probably be here when we’re gone, too.
Douglas Bartholomew is a freelance journalist in Princeton, New Jersey.