Authentic Irish Pubs in the USA
Irish culture at straight-from-the-motherland pubs.
Story by Ginger Warder
Céad míle fáilte (pronounced Kay-od mee-leh foyle-cha) means a hundred thousand welcomes and that’s the kind of hospitality you’ll find in a real Irish pub. There’s a reason Irish people call their neighborhood watering hole “the local.” The pub in Ireland is the community center, especially in small towns and villages. Residents of all ages, from infants to octogenarians, head to the pub to catch up with friends and neighbors, enjoy a good meal, kick back with a drink after work, watch a local sporting event, or spend an evening listening to or playing music. As Irish locals say, the pub is the place for good craic (pronounced crack)—an Irish expression that means fun, entertainment, humor, and conversation all rolled into one.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Ireland—from the village pubs along the Wild Atlantic Way in the west to the more cosmopolitan establishments in Dublin and Kilkenny—so I know the difference between the real deal and shamrock-laden bars that claim to be Irish. But what really makes an Irish pub authentic? Is it the food and drink? The music? The décor? Yes, it’s all of those, but the essence of an Irish pub is the culture.
First and foremost, a truly authentic Irish pub needs Irish people. While food and ambience accentuated by authentic décor are important, and music and sports are integral parts of the experience, the key is making a pub a gathering place, not just a bar or restaurant.
When the Irish emigrated to America in the 19th century, many made homes in Boston, New York City, and Chicago; today those cities still boast large numbers of Irish-Americans. New York alone is home to more than 100 Irish pubs, although many attract more tourists than locals. Irish-Americans are also the largest ethnic group in Chicago and in Boston, making up more than 22 percent of the population. Although there are Irish pubs in literally every state in America, it makes sense that some of the most authentic pubs are located in cities with the most Irish residents.
The Burren in Somerville, Massachusetts (a Boston suburb) looks exactly like the colorful pubs found throughout the Emerald Isle and is known for its great live music. That’s not surprising since husband-and-wife owners Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello are professional Irish musicians. They named the pub after the rocky glacial limestone on the Atlantic Coast of County Clare in Ireland, but you’ll find the atmosphere here anything but chilly. Catch a traditional Irish pub session and some Irish step-dancing, or listen to local, national, and international artists in a range of genres including folk, Americana, rock, and jazz. Located in a college town, The Burren offers a broad menu of American favorites as well as traditional Irish dishes, and, in a nod to ever-changing food preferences, even offers vegetarian versions of shepherd’s pie and Guinness stew.
Owned by Irish folk singer Paddy Reilly (a former member of the Dubliners) and Cavan-born Steve Duggan (a former Gaelic footballer), Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar is the home for toe-tapping craic in the Big Apple. Featuring live music seven nights a week—including traditional Irish nights—the bar used to be known as “the world’s only all-draught Guinness bar,” but to compete with the craft beer boom several IPAs and a variety of domestic and imported bottled beers now round out the liquid menu. Duggan imported the flooring, lanterns and other furnishings to make sure the pub had an authentic look and feel. If you want to party like the Irish with the Irish, this is the place to be in Manhattan (and you’ll probably spot a celebrity or two).
After a night of music and revelry at Paddy Reilly’s, head to another Irish-owned pub in New York’s Gramercy neighborhood for a bit of post-partying pub grub. Molly’s Pub and Restaurant Shebeen offers a late-night menu including lamb stew and shepherd’s pie and still serves its Irish beers “to Irish standards” in 20-ounce glasses. The dimly-lit pub is designed to resemble a rural Irish shebeen—an illegal establishment serving alcohol—and features low ceilings, sawdust floors and a wood-burning fire on chilly nights.
All-Ireland musicians Brendan and Siobhan McKinney played the Chicago circuit for years before opening Chief O’Neill’s Pub in that city. The pub pays homage to 20th-century superintendent of police, Captain O’Neill, whose personal passion was to preserve the traditional music of Ireland after the great famine. Published in 1903, O’ Neill’s Music of Ireland preserved more than 1,850 tunes—the largest collection of Irish music at that time. His namesake pub keeps Irish music alive with informal pub sessions, as well as more formal concerts and performances several days a week. The expansive flower-filled patio-cum-beer-garden is popular during warm weather, and the interior of the pub features family memorabilia like Brendan’s grandfather’s fiddle and an assortment Irish antiques collected by Siobhan’s family in County Cork. The Emerald Isle favorites section of the menu features steak and Guinness pie, fish and chips, and McKinney’s ‘famous’ corned beef, while the bar offers a variety of Irish and imported beer, a sophisticated wine list, and clever craft cocktails with names like ‘The Red Haired Lass,’ which combines Jameson Black Barrel, fresh strawberries, fresh lemon juice, Angostura bitters, simple syrup, and ginger beer.
Also in Chicago, Galvin’s Public House is a popular hangout for sports enthusiasts. Owned by Ireland natives Paul and Kathy Galvin, the authentic interior even includes fireplace stones from Kathy’s parents’ house. You’ll find traditional Irish “fayre” on the menu, from a full fry—breakfast—to shepherd’s pie, fish and chips and bangers and mash, as well as a wide range of American bar food from burgers and wings to salads and a variety of sandwiches and wraps. Of course, the big game is always on the telly!
When you walk into an Irish pub, you want to feel like you’re in Ireland. That means dark woods, a substantial bar with Irish beer on tap, a fine selection of whiskey, and a variety of authentic Irish memorabilia. There are several Irish pubs in America with interiors that were literally built in Ireland and shipped here!
To find Ireland in Austin, Texas, mosey around downtown to B.D. Riley’s. Named for Irish immigrant Bessie Dee Riley who fled her homeland to escape the famine, this pub is located in one of Austin’s historic buildings in the entertainment district, but the entire interior was built in Ireland and shipped to America. Count on a mix of great local and traditional Irish music. Cowboy boots optional.
The Brazen Head Irish Pub in Omaha, Nebraska was modeled after its famous namesake in Dublin, a favorite gathering spot at the head of the River Liffey for Irish revolutionaries like Robert Emmet and Daniel O’Connell. The bar was built in Wexford, Ireland and reassembled by Irish joiners upon arrival. The pub also features mosaic floors and genuine Irish antiques to create the essential Emerald Isle ambience.
Rí Rá (pronounced ree-rah) in Atlanta, Georgia features a restored mid-19th century bar with Victorian snugs, as well as a parquet floor from the same yard where the Titanic was built. More than 40 tons of materials were shipped from Ireland to create the ambience of an authentic Irish pub, and it took Irish craftsmen more than two years to complete the installation.
Named after the 16th-century chieftain and pirate, Grace O’Malley’s in Norfolk, Virginia has painstakingly recreated an Irish pub from the homeland. Literally everything you see, including the storefront, was handcrafted in Ireland.
The James Joyce Irish Pub in Baltimore, Maryland also had all of its interior fixtures crafted in Ireland and shipped. You’ll find a great selection of Irish beers, including Guinness Blonde and the innovative barrel-aged brews crafted at the nearby Guinness Open Gate Brewery.
Plan A Trip
247 Elm Street (Davis Square)
Somerville, MA 02144
Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar
519 Second Avenue (Corner of 29th)
New York, NY 10016
Molly’s Pub and Restaurant Shebeen
287 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Chief O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant
3471 N Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
Galvin’s Public House
5901 W Lawrence Avenue
Chicago, IL 60630
Ginger Warder is a contributor to the Fodor’s Guide to Virginia & Maryland and is the author of Fido’s Virginia.