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Irish pubs: Stouts and craic

Coleman's Authentic Irish Pub in Syracuse, N.Y., has a beautifully appointed small door for leprechauns right beside its regular front door, fully trimmed and with a light above. A former Syracuse resident swears he once saw a patron who obviously had consumed much too much stout try to crawl through the door at closing time.

Coleman's PubStories like that go naturally with Irish pubs. Like the one about Doyle's Café in Jamaica Plain, Mass., in which a customer rode in on horseback one St. Patrick's Day (a day the pub is so crowded humans can barely maneuver, let alone horses), ordered a drink, rode around the inside of the bar and left.

Ireland itself is renowned for its pubs, and since there are 40 million Irish-Americans (compared to Ireland's population of 5 million), it's little wonder that the States abounds with Irish pubs. Actually, this affection for Irish pubs has become a worldwide phenomenon. Since Guinness established the Irish Pub Co. in 1992, it has opened about 1,700 Irish pub in 45 countries. Some are company owned, others aren't.

The company built the first of its pubs in Atlanta in 1996, in time for the Olympics. The Atlanta Fadó -- many since have opened in other cities -- is located in Buckhead. It has five theme areas -- Dublin Victorian, Country Cottage, Pub Store, Gaelic and Brewery, which are common in other company pubs. Some stick to a single theme, while others may include several.

Beer, preferably stout, and Irish whiskey are essential in an Irish pub, but so are craic (good conversation among equals) and sessiun, an open jam where musicians play traditional Irish instruments. While it is relatively easy to import bar fixtures from Ireland, hire staff members with Irish accents and serve the requisite drinks, craic can be harder to come by.

It can be tough even in the home country. In Dublin Pub Life and Lore: An Oral History, author Kevin Kearns writes that the pub culture that existed in Dublin between Irish independence in 1922 and the onset of World War II has mostly vanished. Tom Corkery, a longtime Dublin pub regular, provided Kearns with an interesting definition of a good pub, saying it should have "a regular and knowing clientele; an absence of ale quaffers, ginsippers, whiskey suppers, or wine-bibbers; a seemly and decorous interior in shades of brown and mahogany, relieved only by the glitter of glass . . . sawdust and framed enlargements of hurlers, footballers, horses or dogs."

Irish pub Corkery would find few such qualifying Irish pubs in the United States, which is not to say you can't find good craic, live Irish music and a wide selection of beer (from Ireland and elsewhere). Some of the best are more interested in serving Irish regulars than appearing to be Irish. In Chicago, for instance, you'll find places that offer only two beers on tap, Old Style and Guinness. In Philadelphia, those taps will go to Guinness and Coors Light.

A few years ago we inadvertently stopped at a corner bar in Philadelphia called Cavanaugh's while looking for a different Cavanaugh's, which has 16 taps and an extensive bottle selection. This corner pub had a small island bar and five taps, including Guinness and Yuengling's Black and Tan.

It's an Irish bar out of the 1950s, with two fine murals and a fair Guinness draw in one room, and a classy dining area in the other. Three sweat-covered men entered shortly after we did. "Working on a Sunday, are we?" a young woman on the other side of the bar asked, her Irish accent coming through. They grinned and nodded their heads. As they drank their beers, they talked in thick Irish accents. One drank Miller Lite, another Budweiser, and the third had Coors Light on ice.

Mike Healy, who operates Healy's Westside in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, affectionately remembers when his father ran Mike Healy's Public House on the northwest side of Chicago in the 1950s and '60s. "The bar was the first stop you'd make off the boat, where you'd go to get a green card and a job," he said.

Life has changed since then, but Irishmen do still make a pub their first stop in the United States. We were once seated on the bar stools in Jamaica Plain's Brendan Behan Pub next to a young man who had just gotten off a plane from Dublin. The bartender was helping to hook him up with somebody who would take him to a relative's apartment.

Brendan Behan annually wins Boston Magazine's award as the best Irish bar in Boston. The entrance was filled with kegs of Guinness on the Wednesday afternoon we visited. "They'll be gone by the weekend," the bartender said. It's too small to be a tourist trap, rather dark, with a low ceiling, and walls covered with tattered theater posters, black-and-white photos of County Kerry and portraits of the bar's namesake poet. There's also a directional sign to "Uaghna Mna Moire (Long Woman's Grave)."

The pub's T-shirts bear the Behan quote, "There's no place on Earth like the world." Where you might expect to find a TV, there's a fish tank filled with tiny sharks.

Boston is the major league of Irish pubs. For instance, large backlit advertisements for Irish Pub Co.-built pubs in the suburbs greet visitors who land at Logan Airport. While Manhattan, like Boston, was and is a major sanctuary for Irish immigrants -- and may have even more Irish pubs -- many of the Boston pubs have turned themselves into tourist attractions.

The Black Rose, located near Faneuil Hall, has been referred to as Disneyesque, and it's more high-end than many Irish pubs. There's a line out the door many nights, and the place can get very loud. As well as Guinness and Murphy's stouts, there's a wide cross-section of American and foreign-brewed craft beers on tap.

It's a short walk from The Black Rose to The Littlest Bar, which isn't much bigger than the large sign above it with an arrow pointing down. There's a green neon Budweiser shamrock in the window and cases of Bud and Bud Light piled in the window well. Official capacity is 38, but none of them had better be claustrophobic, and there are 13 stools at the bar and along the wall just a few feet away.

Guinness and Boddington's are the only two draft choices, but when we visited everybody was drinking bottled Bud or Bud Light. There was, however, plenty of good craic.

This story orginally appeared in All About Beer Magazine in March 1999.

300 Irish pubs

Maine, Massachussets, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont.

Delaware, Washington DC, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia.

Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin.

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, N. Carolina, S. Caronolin, Tennessee.

Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Utah.

Arizona, Texas.

California, Oregon, Washington.

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