The Irish saved civilization, according to the book “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” which credited St. Patrick and the Irish monks for keeping literature alive in the Dark Ages.
So, did the Irish bar save city streetscapes?
No. That’s a claim too grand for even a Gaelic reveler to make on St. Patrick’s Day. But there’s something about an Irish pub that brings warmth and cheer to a street.
You know an Irish bar even before you go inside. It’s different from any other drinking establishment — an embassy from a green and timeless place magically transported to the chilly streets of Minnesota.
Inside, there are the trappings of Auld Eire: the logos for Guinness and Harp. The shiny brass taps. The great oak bar, which was brought over from Ireland to sanctify the pub and tie it to a tradition that reaches back to the 10th century.
Outside, there’s green painted trim and 19th-century ornamentation, and you might think that’s a cliché, just a Disney facade at a theme park.
Ah, but sometimes it’s quite real.
Marty Neumann, owner of Keegan’s Irish Pub in northeast Minneapolis, explains:
“Our exterior and interior was made by the O’Sullivans, a third-generation family of Irish pub builders from Waterford, Ireland. They came over in 2001, saw the space, and then they were able to replicate a Victorian-style pub. It was built in Ireland and shipped here, three months before we opened.”
“They repainted the entrance twice, because they didn’t feel it was what they wanted.”
And what they wanted was the craic.
“The craic is a feeling you get when the bar’s atmosphere is right,” said Neumann. “When you see a woman sitting by herself, not being bothered. When people are enjoying themselves.”
It’s a subjective thing, a tone, a mood.
The word, originally English and spelled crack, meant news or information, but the meaning evolved to mean gossip, conversation, music and fun. The place where you’d hear good crack? The public house, of course.
And so the craic (the Irish spelling) came to mean the feel of a place, the way it encouraged conviviality, explained Neumann. That’s the sense you get when you look at a typical Irish pub.
Why didn’t all bars have it? Why, before the Irish pub began to appear on American streets, did our bars look so unfriendly?
These days, we take a warm, welcoming entrance for granted, but it wasn’t always so. The Irish pub of today is the opposite of what bars once looked like — bunkered bomb shelters that made the streets look dull, sad and slightly furtive.
Perhaps it was Prohibition that made the saloon show such a flat face to the world.
Before the Volstead Act, Minneapolis had 400 bars. During Prohibition: 800 bars.
So said Mrs. W.W. Remington in 1922, speaking to a group of concerned GOP women at the Radisson Hotel.
Saloons, she lamented, hadn’t been shut down by the 18th Amendment, they’d just been replaced by “soft drink bars.” They sold pop, but everyone knew they had the hard stuff ready to pour. Mrs. Remington demanded that the city cut the number of those bars in half, but it was a no-go. In 1923, the city had a thousand applications for “soft drink bar” licenses.
The speakeasies (aka soft drink bars) didn’t want to attract undue attention. A big broad window that let the passing police see all the tipplers would be madness. So bars kept windows to a minimum, if they had any at all.
Even after Prohibition was lifted in 1933, bars didn’t often announce themselves. Glass-block windows let a few photons penetrate the smoky interior, but obscured the outside world.
Instead of big, welcoming windows, most brash joints had brick walls and garish signs with flashing lights. Even smaller neighborhood bars, like the West Bank’s fabled 400 Bar, seemed to keep its distance from the surrounding own community.
Irish pubs go back a thousand years, but in the Twin Cities they’re a surprisingly recent addition.
St. Paul didn’t get a true Irish bar until the mid-1970s, according to true aficionados.
Of course, there were bars that had all the cliches — lots of shamrocks, pictures of leprechauns caperin’ about. But that doesn’t make a place Irish any more than serving tequila at an airport bar makes it authentically Mexican.
When MacCafferty’s opened on Grand Avenue in 1976, it had Irish drink, Irish food, Irish music — and the gift of the craic bestowed by its owner, Raymond MacCafferty, who’d run a pub in Londonderry for seven years.
These days, no one would think of building an Irish bar — or any bar, for that matter — without a windowed welcome.
A drinking house need not be Irish, but if its design suggests it’s a place to talk rather than a place to be seen, a place where the pleasures of life are measured out in drams and pints rather than likes and follows, it’s a place that knows the virtue of the craic. And you can see all of that from the street.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lieks