Be Good or Be Gone: McSorley’s Old Ale House

McSorley’s Old Ale House, true to its name, is one of the oldest saloons in New York City. As soon as customers walk into the establishment, they time travel to a different time and place. It is suddenly no longer 21st century New York. Located on 15 E. Seventh St., there are no crowds swarming, no ambulances passing, no hurried passerby. It is instead an old town in late 19th-century Ireland — simple and authentic.

Customers love McSorley’s because of its enduring authenticity. Founder John McSorley was an Irish immigrant who came to the United States in 1851 because of the potato famine. Three years later he opened the bar, which was originally named The Old House at Home. John McSorley and his family lived upstairs from the bar, and it stayed in the family, passed down from John to his son Bill. Bill then sold it in 1936 to regular customer Daniel O’Connell, and it was then bought in 1977 by its current owner, O’Connell’s friend Matthew Maher.

McSorley’s was known for its slogan “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies” until 1970. Women were prohibited from entering the bar until 1969, when the establishment was sued and changed its policy. Even when Daniel O’Connell’s daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwarn, owned McSorley’s from 1939 to 1960, she was not allowed in — something she had promised her father before taking over the business.

McSorley’s is brimming with history. During World War II for instance, it served turkey dinners to men going off to war. Once done with their dinners, the men would take the wishbones of their turkeys and place them on a gas lamp right above the bar. When they returned from war, they would return to the bar to retrieve them — there are about 15 wishbones still left on the lamp, presumably belonging to those who never made it back from the war.

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McSorley’s is also known for its famous patrons. Houdini was said to have visited often, and the handcuffs he used in his shows are supposedly the same ones hanging in the bar. Other customers include president Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as musicians John Lennon and Woody Guthrie.

McSorley’s is also known for its famous patrons. Brendan O’Grady, who got his masters at NYU in 1994, has frequented McSorley’s since his older brother brought him at age 14. He embodies McSorley’s average customer: dedicated and incredibly knowledgeable about the establishment.

Similar to its customers, McSorley’s has stayed pretty much true to the original menu: cheese plates with hot mustard, Irish chili and liverwurst are some of the regular dishes offered, in addition to different daily specials. O’Grady’s favorite at McSorley’s is the chicken sandwich, which is also the Tuesday special. The ale, which O’Grady refers to as “liquid bread,” is also a favorite.

Teresa has been a bartender at McSorley’s for 23 years.

“We’ve pretty much tried to keep the simplicity about the place,” she said.

They have stayed true to the pub’s roots over the years, and its prices are surprisingly low with no menu items costing more than $8. The owners want the pub to serve as a little Irish oasis among the hustle and bustle of NYC.

Filled with old-timey newspapers, photographs, recipes and even a “wanted” poster for John Wilkes Booth, McSorley’s is a truly nostalgic establishment. Instead of trying to make it in the big city with expensive drinks, fancy food and a pretentious ambiance, McSorley’s relies on tradition. The bar serves as a home within a home and after 163 years, it shows no signs of going anywhere anytime soon.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 10 print edition. Email Caroline Zemsky at [email protected]

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