I can measure my life in terms of bars. They stretch across two continents: The Wren’s Nest in Wexford, The Hideaway in Rathmines, Tomorrow’s Lounge in Bay Ridge, Dirty Nelly’s and The Village Pub in The Bronx, Paddy Reilly’s, Rocky Sullivan’s and Connolly’s in Manhattan.
I only have to hear these names and a host of smiling faces materializes, for we Irish treasure our pubs. When all else fails and the world doubts you, you’ll always find a welcome in your local.
In terms of longevity Mary’s Bar at the top of Wexford’s Cornmarket has a hold on me like no other. I was raised in nearby George’s Street and passed by its old style shop front most days of my youth.
My grandfather, usually a teetotaler, drank there so I witnessed its once mysterious interior through a child’s eyes, the walls hung with pictures of Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Padraig Pearse.
I didn’t realize it then, but I had stepped into a piece of history. The pub dates back to 1775; an “early house,” it opened at 7am for the Cornmarket workers, and those who unloaded the coal boats down on Wexford Quay. It closed at 3pm.
But then I walked amidst history every day while growing up in George’s Street. Nearby stood Selskar Abbey where Henry II did penance for the murder of Thomas a’Becket. While just down from Cornmarket, Cromwell’s roundheads slaughtered 300 women and children in the town square known as The Bull Ring.
If Mary’s Bar is festooned with rebel pictures there’s a reason. The Cornmarket area was a vital part of Wexford’s Free French Republic declared during the Uprising of 1798. Indeed the leaders of this rebellious secular state held a dinner to celebrate their declaration of independence in a “gentry house” on my own George’s Street.
Built at the same time, my grandfather’s old town house has long ago been converted into flats but the memories throb from within every time I pass by. The little houses on nearby Abbey Street have for the most part been demolished, but the far-flung residents and their children still return to Mary’s Bar.
I only go home now once a year and rarely stay more than a night. I do a concert in Wexford’s Arts Centre, formerly the Town Hall where I learned to play the guitar standing on one foot – the other was often needed to kick away Teddyboys as they fought in front of the bandstand.
I always go to Mary’s Bar after the gig and the smiles of welcome light up as I walk in the door. Catherine Kielty, the proprietor, will stop what she’s doing and give me a hug. It’s the welcome home that every emigrant craves.
I never know whom I’ll meet: a school friend returned from England, an old girlfriend and her grown children. But ghosts crowd the place too, including my grandfather perched unsmiling on a stool – he found little joy in falling off the wagon. Turn quickly and I might catch Catherine’s father, Joss Kielty, beaming a welcome home from his corner.
I usually have a busload or two of Americans with me. I try to show them the hidden Ireland, untouched by tourists and, often, locals. Through such visits Mary’s has become known in the nooks and crannies of the US and Canada, and few people who have raised a glass there forget its honest charms.
For they recognize the uniqueness of the place. It’s not just a pub; it’s a portal to the past. There’s still a spirit there that speaks of a forgotten Ireland.
I first heard “One Starry Night” sung on the pavement outside by an old traveler, and as a boy I followed Paddy “Pecker” Dunne into its smoky darkness, entranced by his songs and rugged independence.
Musicians always recognize the essence of the place, for you hear the same soulful echoes as in Tipitinas in New Orleans where Doctor John and Fats Domino presided.
Times have been tough on the old working-class pubs of Ireland. Customers move away or pass on. But Mary’s is more than a bar; it’s a site-specific, living museum that houses the old spirit of Wexford Town. Long may it prosper.