McSorley’s Old Ale House
By Geoffrey Cobb, Contributor
October / November 2019
Sawdust on the floor, two kinds of beer – light or dark – what’s not to love about this timeless New York landmark pub?
It might not be New York’s oldest bar – the Ear Inn and Queen’s Neir’s claim to be older – but no bar in New York can match the historic ambiance of McSorley’s Old Ale House on Seventh Street in the East Village. A wall sign in the bar states what is obvious from your first step into McSorley’s, “We were here before you were born.” Miraculously, McSorley’s seems frozen in time – a bar that has changed very little in over a century and a half.
John McSorley, an immigrant from Dungannon, County Tyrone, first opened his pub in 1854 and ran the place until his death in 1910. He only served light and dark ale, and still today no other alcohol is served. Suspicious of cash registers, McSorley never used one, and that tradition also still holds today. Many of McSorley’s first customers were Irish butchers, and to keep any spatters from their bloody aprons from messing up his floor, he spread sawdust, and sawdust still covers the floor. Even McSorley’s original gas lamps still hang in the bar, although the place is now lit by electric light.
McSorley’s greatest contribution to the pub was his stunning collection of historic memorabilia, much of which has survived unblemished. A plethora of antique campaign posters, photographs, and drawings cover the walls, including an original Teddy Roosevelt for President poster. Book covers, images of bygone boxers and racehorses, rifles, and artifacts from Irish history make McSorley’s a virtual museum. Perhaps my favorite item is a pair of manacles from the notorious Civil War prison in Andersonville, which was a gift from an early customer who had been imprisoned there.
John McSorley was tough, he tolerated no nonsense. His famous “Be good or be gone” notice still hangs in the bar and is strictly enforced. Tough but affable, McSorley hosted some of the greatest celebrities of his day, including President Ulysses S. Grant, world-champion heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan, and the infamous Tammany Hall politician “Boss Tweed.” His favorite customer was the millionaire inventor, railroad tycoon, philanthropist, and presidential candidate Peter Cooper, whose institute is just around the corner from the pub. Cooper got his own table, which still survives.
Perhaps the most famous customer ever to enter McSorley’s was Abraham Lincoln. Legend has it that Lincoln came to the ale house after making a speech at nearby Cooper Union. The seat where Lincoln supposedly sat rests behind the bar near a horseshoe worn by one of the horses that carried Lincoln’s funeral cortege through New York.
When “Old John” passed away in 1910 his son, Bill, took over. Bill was obsessed with keeping the bar exactly as he had inherited it and even the thought of minor changes or repairs caused him great anguish. He resisted such modern business practices as bookkeeping, bank accounts, and checks. He even grew wary of making too much money. When the bar grew crowded he would call out in torment that he was getting too much trade and clear the place. Just like his father, he would only keep the bar open until he grew tired. He would then announce last call and buy the regulars a final free round, just as his father had done.
The more McSorley’s grew successful, the grumpier and more sullen Bill became. He would often read a newspaper behind the bar, ignoring the empty glasses of his thirsty customers. If they complained, he would angrily silence them and continue reading. Despite his curmudgeonly ways, the customers grew fond of Bill and laughed about his bouts of bad humor and eccentricities.
When America entered the First World War, a number of patrons were drafted. Before leaving, many future doughboys hung wishbones from the gas lamps, promising to break them off when they returned from the war. Sadly, some of those customers never made it back and the wishbones still hang there more than a century later, a grim tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
One night, the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini arrived for a drink. Bill proclaimed him a fraud and wagered he could drink for free if he could escape from being handcuffed to the bar rail. A few minutes later, Houdini extricated himself from the cuffs, which still remain locked to the rail today, a tribute to Houdini’s unique talents.
Amazingly, McSorley’s did not even close during Prohibition. Bill simply decided he would ignore the dry laws and his place stayed open. Though officially serving non-alcoholic beer, three times a week, a retired brewer quietly brewed beer in the basement. The fact that so many high-ranking police officers and Tammany Hall politicians drank at McSorley’s assured that Bill had little trouble from the authorities.
In 1936, Bill, now grown old and tired, shocked one of the regular patrons, a police officer named Daniel O’Connell, by offering to sell him the bar on the strict condition that he change nothing. Bill soon died, but O’Connell kept his word and little changed. In 1939, O’Connell died, leaving the ale house to his daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan.
Patrons feared the worst, but Dorothy didn’t change a thing. She made her husband, Harry, the manager, and stayed out of the place.
In 1964, Harry Kirwan was visiting Ireland when his car broke down on a country road. A passing stranger stopped to help. In gratitude Kirwan offered him a job if he came to New York. Matthew Maher took him up on his offer and after first working as a waiter and bartender at McSorley’s, he eventually became the night manager.
Kirwan died in 1975, and his son Danny sold the bar to Maher in 1977.
McSorley’s has appeared in countless television shows and movies. Many writers and artists have also created works of art inspired by the ale house. The great Ashcan School painter John Sloan captured the essence of the bar in his iconic 1912 painting McSorley’s Bar. The great poet E.E. Cummings celebrated the bar in his 1925 poem “I Was Sitting in McSorley’s,” describing McSorley’s’ as “the ale which never lets you grow old.” In 1943, a columnist for the New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, wrote a brilliant piece of prose that perfectly captures the spirit of the place, called “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.” More recently, Rafe Bartholomew wrote a memoir, Two and Two, about following his dad into bartending at McSorley’s.
Long gone now are the days when McSorley’s was a male bastion. In 1969, the establishment was sued to allow women to enter, and in 1970 the old ale house bowed to the pressure. (Women didn’t get their own bathroom until 1986). However, when a health inspector tried to force Matthew Maher to remove the WWI-era dust-covered wishbones, the Irishman, knowing their history, steadfastly refused, and thanks to his refusal they still hang in their place of honor today.
In 1994, McSorley’s changed with the times by employing its first female bartender, Matthew’s daughter, Teresa Maher. Teresa is the boss nowadays and runs the day-to-day operation of the bar. Matty, now 83, spends most of his time at his home in the Catskills.
This year, in fact, marks the 25th anniversary of Teresa working behind the bar. It’s a milestone year, too, in that Teresa’s 17-year-old son, Matthew, named for his grandfather, is stepping in behind the bar.
McSorley’s is a family affair, for sure. As Teresa told me: “McSorley’s for me was always about being about my father’s business. Keeping an eye on it for him, keeping the customers happy, and keeping those front doors open. And now, after 25 years behind the bar, it’s time my sons start to do the same.”
McSorley’s was recently chosen by the Irish Times as the best Irish pub outside of Ireland, making McSorley’s even more famous. Its fame means that many nights there are long lines outside the bar and the packed interior prevents a visitor from enjoying its historic memorabilia. Weekday afternoons are often the perfect time to have a quiet ale and enjoy the historic memorabilia and timeless ambiance that always makes visiting McSorley’s such a pleasant journey back in time. ♦