An Irishman in New York (sort of)

by Joseph McKeown


St. Patrick’s Day. The feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. A day to honor Irish culture and heritage. As an Irishman (sort of, well, Irish last name), this year I decided to check out a few ways that New York City celebrates.

The big one, of course, is the parade. The first march was on March 17, 1762, fourteen years before the Declaration of Independence, and is what organizers claim the “country’s oldest and proudest Irish tradition.” I arrive on Fifth Avenue across from the Metropolitan Museum a little after 11am last Monday. It’s mostly deserted, except for a few police officers on the corners, a young couple with dyed green hair holding each other, and a few other bystanders trying to keep warm. The parade is coming north from downtown, but I have time. I should have stopped for a Guinness (not a sponsor).

Bagpipers.

I don’t have to wait too long. The Mounted Police come first, then the 69th Regiment of New York, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry (in camouflage, no coats, no gloves, they must be freezing), and there's music, of course: the Bergen County Police Pipes & Drums, the Wantagh American Legion Band, the Xaverian High School Pipe Band, the Finglas Concert & Marching Band, the Tulla Pipe Band (playing at Sober St. Patrick’s Day after), the Mother Cabrini High School Band, the Irish Thunder Pipe Band, the Spirit of Blackrock Fife and Drum Band. There's the Ancient Order of the Hibernians (“Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity”), Irish Wolfhounds (very cool), more military uniforms, more bands, more kilts, more bagpipes. You’d think that a parade with hundreds of men essentially wearing skirts would be more open-minded.

It’s cold. I have to use the bathroom. I decide to partake in another old and proud Irish tradition: drinking beer at a bar. Conveniently there’s an Irish bar in the neighborhood, and it’s appropriately named: McKeown’s.

I’ve been to McKeown’s a number of times over the years, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the bar’s history. The current owner, I’ve been told, is not a McKeown. The last McKeown to possibly own it was years ago. Not really sure about my own family’s immigration history, actually. Maybe they came over during the potato famine. That might explain my strong aversion to potatoes. The closest source of knowledge I have to my own immigration history is a stack of letters in Norwegian from my mother’s side. They were farmers in Minnesota. Or South Dakota. Somewhere cold.

The bar is full of mostly parade marchers in uniform. Next to me is a group of men who renovate brownstones. Not sure if they marched. They’re drinking Heineken. The parade is on the TV. After my Guinness in a plastic cup, I decide to head back and watch the rest of the parade.

 Only a few more miles to walk.

Only a few more miles to walk.

Back on Fifth. Irish dancers. That's nice. More marching bands, more kilts, more bagpipes. Aren’t bagpipes Scottish? Yes, but Irish too. Fascinating. I see the Grand Marshall. But no Mayor. Another Wolfhound. Damn, I want one.

What else is there to do? Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral? Arts and crafts at Central Park?  The Pogues at Terminal 5? Another Guinness perhaps?

Molly's Shebeen is my next bar. It’s self-proclaimed the most authentic Irish bar in New York City (also by noted authority Yelp). An Irish bartender pours me a Guinness. Just like what would happen in Ireland. Guys next to me are debating shots of Jäger vs. Jameson. Guy wearing green beads around neck would pick Jameson, totally, over Jäger. Good choice, young man.

I continue my bar crawl. Why stop now? Third bar: Plug Uglies. I've been here before, but the memory is hazy. Not too busy today. Younger crowd. Guinness in a plastic cup. Two guys in the back near pool tables are playfully wrestling. There’s an angry and confused looking older guy alone at bar. Gray whiskers. Bet he's been a bar fight or two in his time. He's mad dogging me across the bar. If I get in a fight I hope I don't forget my tote bag.

Next bar: Shades of Green near Union Square. One of the first bars I ever went to in New York. Met a former housemate here. Another Guinness in a plastic cup. ESPN SportsCenter is on mute. Women in plastic green cowboy hats are drunkenly dancing. I photobomb a picture of three girls next to me who tried to order green beer. I think they’re frightened. They leave.

For my last bar I decide on Four-Faced Liar in the West Village. I’ve had some interesting times there. Girl I used to date warned me at this bar that she had "problems." I should have believed her. Walking down Sixth Avenue, I think I recognize my old friend Natasha, whom I haven’t seen in years. Not sure it’s her though. I follow her. “Natasha! Natasha!” She ignores me. I fall back. Might be screaming at some stranger. I go eat a quesadilla. Don’t really feel like corned beef (not really Irish anyways). Other St. Patrick’s Day "myths": St. Patrick wasn't Irish (he was English nobleman), he didn't drive snakes out of Ireland, and the shamrock isn't uniquely Irish. Makes you question everything. I'm pretty sure Guinness is Irish though. That's something to hold onto. I still like their old slogan: "Guinness is Good for You."

Natasha texts me. She’s at Formerly Crows, which seems as good as any place to end this. I meet her there and ask for my last Guinness of the day. No more Guinness! the bartender says. But a dude gives me a free pint of O’Reilly’s, very similar to Guinness he explains. He might be a beer promoter or just some random person. I'm not sure.

I ask Natasha what she thinks about St. Patrick’s Day. “It’s a bullshit holiday,” she says.

Hmm. One women's opinion.

“What’s your favorite holiday?” I say.

“Fourth of July. You get to blow things up.”

Fair enough.

I finish my beer. Not sure I’ve learned anything about Irish culture. I'd like to visit Ireland someday. Maybe one day I'll figure out where exactly my people came from. I’ve never really understood the point of parades. I want a Wolfhound though. That’s what I’m taking away from all this, a beautiful Irish Wolfhound. It’s the least I can do for the old country.