The luck of the Irish nearly ran out this past year, to hear
tell it. The County Roscommon-born owner of McKeon’s Bar & Restaurant has seen plenty of adversity during his 43 years in the tavern business, starting as a busboy, and “this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.” Nothing—not the crime of the 1970s and ’80s, blackouts, 9/11, the housing collapse or superstorm Sandy—came close to laying New York’s nightlife economy as low as the coronavirus lockdowns.
The nightmare began on March 16, 2020, when state and local authorities ordered every pub, club, cafe, buffet, bistro, boîte, bar, tavern and shebeen in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to close. The allowance for takeout and delivery wasn’t much help to joints like McKeon’s, where the ambiance is the main attraction—the familiar face behind the bar, the easy conversation, the banter, the laughter. The craic, as the lads say.
Many businesses will never reopen. At least 1,000 New York City restaurants have closed permanently since the lockdowns began, according to Eater.com. Coogan’s pub in Washington Heights went under in April. The whistle blew for Foley’s near Madison Square Garden in May. Jameson’s on Second Avenue turned off the beer lights in July; next-door Murphy’s did the same in August. The Mean Fiddler in Times Square made it to October before throwing in the bar towel.
“Whatever it is they’re trying to do to the city, whatever way they’re trying to kill it, between [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo and [Mayor Bill] de Blasio, it’s working,” Mr. Lyons, 62, says. Several of his New York peers abandoned investments of as much as half a million dollars. “They walked away. Gone,” he says in astonishment.
McKeon’s, just north of the New York City limits, was closed for in-person drinking and dining for two full months. It survived with the help of a Paycheck Protection Program loan amounting to about 15% of monthly cash flow even as the bills kept rolling in. “The mortgage don’t go away,” Mr. Lyons says. The lender offered “a brief reprieve, but you gotta pay it eventually. So you try to pay it and not fall behind because when you do open you’re going to be faced with the same bills and the business is not going to be here.” The gas and electric bills “were nearly the same. . . . Your insurance has to be paid. Taxes have to be paid.”
The lockdown was especially ill-timed for Irish bars, coming on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, when a surge in business normally “pays your bills for January and February,” as Mr. Lyons puts it. From a public-health perspective, he concedes, authorities made the right call; the virus would have spread like a spilled keg of Guinness through the crowds jamming McKeon’s on March 17 and 20, when the Yonkers St. Patrick’s Day parade was to have marched past the front door.
Still, Mr. Lyons says ruefully, “they kept them closed a little too long.”
Eleven Irish bars cluster on a half-mile stretch of McLean Avenue on the border between Yonkers, in Westchester County, and the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, where nearby Katonah Avenue boasts another half-dozen pubs flying the green-white-and-orange Irish flag. Fifty years ago, a dozen or more communities across the five boroughs could have plausibly been described as Irish neighborhoods. Those days are gone, making the “Emerald Mile” something of a time capsule, one of the area’s last major Irish immigrant enclaves. It’s home to much of the workforce staffing the hundreds of Irish pubs in the Big Apple.
The city’s restaurants, currently operating at limited capacity, may be allowed to reopen fully in coming weeks. When they do, places like McKeon’s could have a hard time finding and retaining Irish staff. While a brogue behind the bar remains a big draw, Mr. Lyons says the pandemic has scrambled the local labor market. Many Irish-born bartenders and waitresses have gone back to Ireland.
“Most of the young Irish that was out here working couldn’t afford to stay,” he says. “They all went back home.” Others found work elsewhere, or started training as nurses and home health aides. “They’re not coming back to this business,” Mr. Lyons says, naming two Manhattan bars that tried to reopen in February but couldn’t find a bartender.
Even before the pandemic, immigration from Ireland had fallen sharply from late-20th-century highs. Of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in the U.S., only between 10,000 and 50,000 are thought to be Irish. But that’s not because legal immigration is easy. In 2019 the State Department awarded a mere 0.05% of the green cards in its annual diversity lottery to Irish applicants.
Mr. Lyons himself arrived in December 1977, following a well-trod path to the American dream. He spent 21 years bartending and socking away tips with the dream of opening his own place. His first few ventures went under. Now he has two bars: McKeon’s, which he’s owned and operated for 13 years, and the River Court, across the Hudson in the Rockland County hamlet of New City, which opened in 2017. Striking out on his own, he says, “was do or die,” something politicians can’t appreciate: “These people don’t realize how hard you work to pay your bills. And they don’t give a damn for the regular people. They can talk all they want.”
Since July, Westchester restaurants like McKeon’s have been allowed to operate at 50% capacity. Across the road in the Bronx, the indoor limit was zero or 25% for a full year. On Feb. 26 it was expanded to 35% and this week it goes up to 50%, but bars on both sides of the border must still close at 11 p.m., five hours earlier than normal—as if the coronavirus had a bedtime.
Pushing last call back an hour or two would be a boon to Mr. Lyons and his peers in the bar business who face the loss of another Paddy’s Day pot of gold. But with vaccinations increasing and caseloads trending in the right direction, perhaps their luck will turn soon.
Mr. Hennessey is the Journal’s deputy editorial features editor.
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