Metro

The Irish pub, a hallmark of Boston culture, begins to fade away

Somerville, MA, 09/16/2019 -- (L-R) Fiddler Alexandra Galperin plays beside fiddler Sean Connor, banjo player Terry O'Shea, and accordion player Tommy Sheridan during an Irish session at the Burren. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 17irishpubs Feature:
Jessica Rinaldi
Fiddler Alexandra Galperin (far left) plays beside fiddler Sean Connor, banjo player Terry O'Shea, and accordion player Tommy Sheridan during an Irish session at the Burren.

SOMERVILLE — It’s Monday night on Elm Street, and Regina Delaney lugs a harp the size of herself into The Burren. A shoeless Mike McDonagh settles in atop a cajon drum. Nestled in a nook and flanked by fiddles, Terry O’Shea grips a banjo, and Tommy Sheridan clutches an accordion. Maeve Linnane pours a Guinness with a creamy white head. A cacophony of brogues, dropped Rs, and clinking glasses erupts into a jovial Irish music session.

“This place is exactly what’d you get in Ireland,” said O’Shea, a Dublin native, between songs.

Around Boston, however, such places are getting harder to find.

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The Green Briar, former home of this Monday night session, shuttered in May. Last week, Jamaica Plain institution Doyle’s announced the end of its run after more than 135 years. A region long known for Irish brogues and bars now sees that cultural touchstone fading away.

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“There’s no question about it. The Irish scene has completely changed,” said Finnbar Murray, the owner of Flann O’Brien’s, who immigrated to Boston in 1984 from the Irish city of Cork. “It’s not nonexistent, but it’s slimmed down a hell of a lot.”

Even a couple of decades ago, a pub-goer couldn’t travel more than a block in South Boston or Dorchester without passing a classic Irish pub.

But then came last calls at Ned Kelly’s, Tara Pub, Nash’s, and later The Centre Bar on Dorchester Ave., as well as Somerville’s Tir na nOg, downtown’s Purple Shamrock, James’s Gate in Jamaica Plain, The Skellig in Waltham, Crossroads in Back Bay, Blackthorn, Irish Embassy, Triple O’s Lounge.

Many, of course, endure: The Eire Pub and The Banshee in Dorchester, The Druid in Cambridge, Brendan Behan Pub in Jamaica Plain, Mr. Dooley’s and Emmets downtown, J.J. Foley’s. But such pubs are increasingly drowned out by competitors that have sidelined the Irish elements and embraced an American fusion.

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The Blarney Stone in Dorchester claims to be the first bar in America to sell draught Guinness, but today also serves sauteed bok choy and Cuban sandwiches. Somerville’s Sligo Pub, which touts the oldest liquor license in Davis Square, peddles more Coors Light and White Claw than stout and whiskey.

The Briar Group closed The Green Briar in Brighton, which had been home to the longest-running traditional Irish session in the area, but continues to operate “Irish-themed” sports bars and nightclubs like The Harp near TD Garden and Ned Devine’s near Faneuil Hall. A thirsty patron can certainly order a Guinness at such places, but the scene is a far cry from the cozy pubs of Ireland.

“You have a few real traditional ones, then you have the 20 identical ones with all the green and a name like the Shamrock Inn or something,” said Tommy McCarthy, a Clare county native who owns The Burren with his wife, musician Louise Costello.

The checklist for an “authentic” Irish pub is as sprawling and nuanced as that for a perfect pint of Guinness. Points are given for wood floors and molding, walls teeming with pictures of patrons and bands, bangers and mash on the menu, an assemblage of Irish whiskeys and beers, Irish staff and ownership, and music sessions.

Especially important is the lack of televisions — a rarity, even among Irish pubs, in this fanatical sports town.

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“The pub in Ireland is a place to go and talk. One thing that would absolutely ruin the atmosphere of a pub is a television,” said Kevin Kenny, a professor of Irish studies at New York University and a Dublin native who came to America in the 1980s.

Beyond the material requisites, an authentic Irish pub should feel like a second home — and its loss like a blow to the soul of the neighborhood. Take the late River Gods in Cambridge, one of the few local watering holes owned by an Irish woman, which Irish tourism guide Melissa Farrington described as a “small, intimate bar with a giant, generous heart.” Or Doyle’s, which long served as a neighborhood rendezvous for residents of Jamaica Plain and beyond.

“The Irish pub is very different than an American sports bar. It’s family owned and feels like a family. People go there to get their news and be social,” said Jackie Linnane, a County Cork native who owned River Gods for 15 years.

What’s happening locally mirrors trends in major Irish cities, like Dublin and Limerick, where sleek, sprawling European-style bars threaten the cozy neighborhood pub. The Irish Times reported the country had 1,500 fewer local pubs in 2018 than in 2006.

In Boston, soaring rents and liquor licensing challenges have forced many proprietors to either bow to changing commercial tastes or close their doors.

“Technically if you are not owning your own building now, you cannot operate confidently. It’s a chronic problem in the city,” said Michel Soltani, owner of The Brendan Behan Pub in Jamaica Plain.

Even The Burren flirted with extinction in July when a developer purchased the Davis Square building that houses the pub and several other businesses. Owner McCarthy declined to get into the details of his negotiations but told the Globe, “The Burren will live on for another — God knows how long.”

Doyle’s owner Gerry Burke Jr. cashed in on his bar’s coveted seven-day, all-alcohol liquor license by selling it to Davio’s for $455,000 for use at a new 15,000-square-foot mega-restaurant planned for the Seaport.

All neighborhood establishments — Irish or not — must contend with these thorny business challenges. However, the Irish pub faces the added challenge of a decline in Irish-born patrons and publicans.

The population of Irish-Americans has fallen in the past 25 years. In 1990, 38.7 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry. By 2015, that number had dropped to 32.7 million, setting course for the number of Irish-Americans to dip below 30 million by 2020, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

The last large wave of Irish immigrated to Boston in the 1980s, fleeing economic depression and long-simmering conflict.

The wave gave a boost to the robust but aging Irish community that had arrived here decades earlier.

“That particular cohort really reinvigorated the Irish-American community and particularly the pub community,” said Kenny. “That persisted in the Northeast and Chicago until very recently.”

During the economic boom known as the “Celtic Tiger” period of the ’90s and 2000s, many overseas Irish returned home. Ireland’s economy faltered during the 2008 financial crisis, but by then many Irish looked to Europe and Australia for a new life rather than America, which had since adopted stringent immigration policies that required employer or school sponsorship.

“If you link the survival of the pub to the survival of Irish-American ethnicity, the dilemma is how do you sustain ethnicity in the absence of immigration?” said Kenny.

News of The Green Briar’s closure this spring reached Tommy McCarthy while he was in Ireland. Within hours, he had contacted O’Shea and Sheridan to tell them their Monday night session had a new home at his Somerville pub.

And while the brogues were scarcer Monday night at The Burren than they likely were during The Green Briar sessions of decades past, two dozen musicians still showed. Among them a German fiddler, a Canadian on the uilleann pipes, and two sons of former session members.

Even as trivia night in The Burren’s back room concluded and the hour crept toward midnight, an unconquerable Irish melody drifted out of the pub and onto the otherwise sleepy Elm Street.

Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @hannaskrueger.