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McSorley’s Old Ale House

A humble green façade bears the name ‘McSorley’s Old Ale House, Established 1854’ in white paint, and only a handful of things have changed about this East Village bar in the last 158 years. McSorley’s was the only beer license to remain operational during Prohibition. Women were not permitted to enter McSorley’s until the Supreme Court forced them to allow it in 1970 – a fact that still causes grumbling among some of the old regulars. The name changed from its original moniker, This Old House at Home, in 1908. But besides that, time – like the broken clock on the wall – has literally stopped inside this place. To hoist a pint here is to literally drink in history.

“I’ll give ya $20 to swallow a spoonful of that mustard!”

The uttered dare is so thick with Irish Brogue, one might swear we were drinking in Dublin. We are not. It’s 3 p.m. in New York, on a Monday. This mustard challenge is not presented to me, but to the portly, gentleman in a suit and tie sitting directly behind me. His chair is so close to my own that our backs are actually touching, and we are effectively leaning on one another. The back room of the bar is jam-packed. We’ve nowhere else to scoot.

“Twenty dollars?” my leaning companion booms. “Well, Christ yes! I’ll take that bet.” Beer mugs are hoisted, a cheer goes up and thick palms pound the table.
“Wait!” my companion yells, suddenly wary. The rowdy table-slapping halts. “How big’s the spoon?”

This is hilarious to everyone. Spoon size is, indeed, a lasso-sized loophole to consider. The freakish heat of McSorley’s Old Ale House mustard is no joke. Neither is the rest of the bar, for that matter. Welcome to the oldest bar in New York City.

“Spoon size is, indeed, a lasso-sized loophole to consider. The freakish heat of McSorley’s Old Ale House mustard is no joke.”

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“McSorley’s Bar” (1912) oil on canvas by John Sloan

John McSorley was born in County Tyrone, Ireland in 1827. It was an unfortunate time to come of age in Ireland. As the potato blight wormed its way north, he joined millions of his poor peers and set sail for America. He found work as a blacksmith in a forge on East 7th Street. Just three years later, he hung up his leather apron for a cotton one, rolled in beer kegs, scattered sawdust on the floor and placed a sign out front: The Old House at Home. He married Honora Henley in 1855, and the two started a family. John created another kind of home inside the alehouse for the Bowery neighborhood’s tired and thirsty immigrants. According to McSorley’s New York, a half-hour, Emmy-winning documentary made about the bar in 1987, tenement slums in the 1850s contained more than half of the city’s population. This meant booming and repeat business at McSorley’s. He served pints of beer – light and dark only – chopped onions and cheese, and kept a strict “no ladies” policy.

“The men that drank inside The Old House at Home would have been working class. The same could be said of many that drink here today,” offers Matthew Maher, the bar’s current owner. Maher is 70 years young, a rotund, jovial type who is likewise quintessentially Irish. Originally from Kilkenny, he’s quick with a joke, and I’d estimate, not someone to take lightly in a drinking contest.

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“It was an honest place for the honest working man,” Maher continues. “But there were famous people that came in here too. John Lennon drank here. Babe Ruth drank here. Abraham Lincoln too.” Arguably the bar’s most famous patron, that soon-to-be-president concluded a speech at the 7th Regiment Armory and walked across the street to McSorley’s. Behind the bar today you can read an original wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth.

In 1856, the McSorley’s welcomed their first son Peter, and then their second son William (Billy) in 1861. They moved above the bar in 1865. The upstairs windows offered a view of a city – and a nation – writhing with growing pains. In the neighborhood, the Astor Library and the Opera House opened. Peter Cooper built Cooper Union, which offered free technical education for working classes. Besides designing and building the first steam locomotive in the U.S., Cooper drank so often at McSorley’s that his favorite chair remains perched on a high shelf, eternal decor.

“John Lennon drank here. Babe Ruth drank here. Abraham Lincoln too.”

“In 1863, the Civil War draft riots broke out in front of the bar,” continues Maher. “There’s been a lot of fighting and a lot of change on the streets outside through the years.”

In 1878, the railroads came to those very streets of New York. It was also the decade when John McSorley – now remarried to Catherine Donovan after Honora’s passing – began to teach Billy to tend bar. In 1904, The Old House at Home turned 50.
“The name changed to McSorley’s Old Time Ale House when a storm blew down the original sign in 1908,” says Maher. “The word “Time” was eventually dropped.”

Billy became owner when his father passed in 1910. Where John was gregarious, he was silent, a bit moody but forward thinking. He began to bolt the framed photos to the wall. Today you can read a London Times newspaper from 1815, look at the signatures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Babe Ruth and – perhaps most importantly – see sepia-toned photos of turn-of-the-century McSorley’s regulars who were not famous outside, but legends within. It was Billy who granted them immortality.

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Although time etched the world outside – replacing carriages with cars, outhouses with indoor plumbing – the only signs of change inside were the additions of framed photos and newspaper clippings added to the walls. Cats – at one point 18 in total – kept watch for rats, blinking lazily in the front windows and stretching on the laps of calmer patrons. When a dozen of the younger patrons were called to fight in World War I, they hung wishbones on the gas lamp chandelier for luck. Billy refused to dust the bones until they came home. Many never returned, and the skeletons became a ceiling-high shrine of dirt. Sadly, the health department outlawed the cats around 2002 and insisted the wishbones be wiped clean in 2004.

In 1936, Billy McSorley sold the bar to Daniel O’Connell, who then passed it down to his daughter Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan in 1939. It was ironic given that the slogan was still “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies.” She dutifully never set foot in the place.

“When a dozen of the younger patrons were called to fight in World War I, they hung wishbones on the gas lamp chandelier for luck.”

“When they came after us to change the “no ladies” policy in 1970, there were more than pissed off regulars,” sighs Maher. He began tending bar there in 1964 and eventually bought the place from Kirwan. “The courts here couldn’t decide what to do, and the bloody argument went all the way to the Supreme Court. There wasn’t a ladies bathroom for a long time. I used to tell ’em, ‘ya wanna drink with us, ya gotta piss with us.'”

A women’s restroom was eventually added, but the men’s room remains unisex. The urinals are something of an artifact themselves. They are but one symbol of the saloon’s indomitable spirit where change is concerned. The customers are another, no matter their race, age or sex.

“We live in Pennsylvania, but when we come to the city, we always come here,” Tom Pinkasavage says. He and his wife Judy joined me that Monday at the busted wood table, a preferred spot where Tom and his McSorley’s buddies have been meeting for nearly 20 years.

“There was this one guy,” laughs Judy, “who used to hide a brush up behind that framed American Flag over the doorway. He would take the brush down and brush the cats.” Maher later tells me, the flag referenced is from Custer’s Regiment and more than 100 years old.

“Oh, my favorite part of McSorley’s is the large gentleman who always wears the hat,” counters Tom. “Every time he heads to the bathroom, he stops and tips his hat to the picture of the firefighters who died in 9/11. I’m not sure if he was a firefighter, but probably. A lot of them drink in here.”

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For me, the best part of McSorley’s is the quality of the light spilling through the front windows. It bathes everything in sepia, fading the same spots, leaving the others in beautiful shadow. During the Christmas season, it’s appropriately Dickensian and cozy. Long ropes of fresh garland drape outward from a ceiling fan sporting two busted blades, and tinsel hangs from FDR’s letter like garish Spanish moss. The sound of glass mugs clinking is crystal bells to weary ears, as the noise level rises and falls like a living, breathing thing. It’s McSorley’s – just as it has been for the past century. And if we are so lucky and so blessed, just as it will be for a century more.

 

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