As we trudge ever more quickly into the depths of the twenty-first century, it is a comfort to know that some places never change. (Willingly, anyway.) On a quiet stretch of East 7th Street, in the shadow of the domed St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church and the starkly modern 41 Cooper Square, stands an institution which seems to have been forgotten by time. Or rather, an institution which has resisted time’s effects for more than a dozen decades. “Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies.” That’s McSorley’s Old Ale House. Other than a brief experiment serving liquor in 1905-6, they’ve served nothing but ale since their founding. And until they were legally forced to do so in 1970, they never allowed women inside the bar. Everything about McSorley’s is a throwback to a bygone era, and a relic of a New York that exists now only in black-and-white photographs.
McSorley’s claims to have been founded in 1854 by John McSorley of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He arrived in New York City in 1851, fleeing the potato famine ravaging the country at that time. Three years later, he opened the doors of “The Old House at Home” at 15 East 7th Street. The exact year is debatable, as city records show the location as a vacant lot as late as 1861, but you’d be hard-pressed to win an argument on the issue with any of McSorley’s faithful. Suffice it to say that the bar is old. Very old, actually, by the standards of a city where profit and necessity ensure a turning over of buildings, streets, and entire neighborhoods on a fairly regular basis.
The ale house retained the name “The Old House at Home” until 1908, when its sign was blown down in a storm. It was replaced with a new sign, reading “McSorley’s Old Time Ale House,” and other than dropping the word “Time” at some point, the name has stuck ever since. Two years later, in 1910, John McSorley died in his apartment above the bar at age 83, and his son Bill took over for him, treating the bar as a shrine to his father.
Inside, it is said that not a single piece of memorabilia has been removed from the walls since Bill took over in 1910. A chandelier hanging over the bar is spangled with dozens of fragile wishbones. Starting with World War I, soldiers have hung the bones on the lamp to give them luck before leaving for war. The bones left behind symbolize the patrons who never made it back to reclaim their bones. They have become something of a holy relic in McSorley’s, and it wasn’t until the Health Department put its foot down in 2011 that the owners, reluctantly and begrudgingly, swept a century of dust from the lamp. The wishbones which survived the cleaning process were hung back above the bar as a memorial to those McSorley boys never to return.
1920 saw the bar’s survival threatened, as Prohibition went into effect. McSorley’s limped along by serving “near beer” to its cadre of loyal patrons until the law was struck down in 1933. In 1936, Bill McSorley sold the bar to policeman Daniel O’Connell, who retired from the NYPD to run it. McSorley would die in 1938, followed in 1939 by O’Connell, who left the bar in the charge of his daughter Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan. Honoring a promise to her father, Dorothy never entered the bar except when it was closed on Sundays, and left its management to her husband Harry.
In 1940, an author for the New Yorker named Joseph Mitchell wrote the first of several articles and stories revolving around McSorley’s and its peanut gallery of patrons. These would eventually be compiled into a book in 1943, entitled “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.” The book and articles brought increased attention to the little old bar in the East Village, and its reputation as a local institution began to be cemented.
In 1964, while traveling through Ireland, Dorothy and Harry Kirwan’s son Danny had his car break down. A young man by the name of Matty Maher picked him up and helped him get back on his way. In gratitude, Danny promised Matty that if he ever came to New York, he’d give him a job. Matty took him up on his offer, becoming a waiter and bartender and McSorley’s that very year. He would eventually go on to buy the bar from Danny in 1977, and he continues to run it to this day.
The 1960s were a time of great and rapid change in the New York and the world, and McSorley’s, for once, couldn’t avoid being swept up in the tumult. In 1969, Karen DeCrow and Faith Seidenberg of the National Organization for Women sued to be allowed into McSorley’s Old Ale House on the grounds of gender discrimination.
On June 25, 1970, Judge Walter R. Mansfield declared that, as a public establishment, McSorley’s could not legally prevent women from entering. The bar attempted to appeal, going so far as to turn women away at the door even after the law was supposed to have gone into effect. But on August 10th, they could fight it no longer: Mayor Lindsay arrived with an army of reporters as the first women in history walked through the doors and past the potbellied stove of McSorley’s Old Ale House.
Most of the first women to enter the bar were what were then called “militant feminists” who were more interested in the politics of their actions than in the taste of liederkranz and ale. In fact, the first day of a coed McSorley’s also marked the bar’s first coed fight. A young male patron showed a lewd poem he’d written on a napkin to NOW Vice President Lucy Komisar. Offended, she tried to snatch it from his hand. He retaliated by calling her an unprintable name and dumping a mug of beer over her heard. The man was thrown out, and a dripping-wet Ms. Komisar, when asked by the bartender if she was having a good time, replied, “Not particularly, but politics is not always enjoyable.” Perhaps as a sign of resistance to this forced integration of the sexes, McSorley’s didn’t build a designated women’s restroom until 1986.
McSorley’s Old Ale House remains planted on East 7th Street, much as it has for generations. They may now have to allow women inside, but little else has changed: sawdust on the floor, memorabilia on the walls, cold beer on the taps … and cats in permanent residence. The felines were even featured in one of John Sloan’s paintings of the bar in 1928. In 2009, Maher and McSorley’s were on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by New Jersey resident Cheryl Sibley (a woman!) who claimed to have been mauled by the bar’s current resident cat, Minnie II. Owner Matty Maher insisted that he had no knowledge of the attack and didn’t know how the lady could have been attacked, seeing as how health laws prevent Minnie from being in the drinking areas of the bar during open hours.
“It may have been this beast over here,” he joked in an interview with the New York Post, pointing to a stuffed jackalope on the wall. “There have always been cats at McSorley’s, and there always will be.” Sticking steadfastly to tradition: the old McSorley’s way.
***A great deal of this information was retrieved from the McSorley’s website. Visit the site, then head to the East Village for a pint! http://www.mcsorleysnewyork.com/home.html