Exploring the Valley’s rich Irish heritage and authentic pubs
A few minutes before 11 a.m., Lawrence native David Burke ambles into The Claddagh Pub, which doesn’t open for business for another few hours.
But Burke isn’t looking for a late-morning nip or an early lunch. Rather, he’s tending to business. In the pub’s foyer, the 67-year-old lays out and organizes the latest brochures and flyers promoting Irish cultural events in Lawrence and the Merrimack Valley.
Burke is a well-known activist for Irish causes, a longtime member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the founder of the Irish Foundation of Lawrence. Though born in Lawrence, he has taken more than sixty trips to Ireland in the last twenty-five years. And he is a passionate guardian of the rich Irish heritage here in the Valley.
“Whatever your ethnicity, you need to understand your roots—the things that are behind what you say and do,” he says. “Whether it’s literature or history, or singing and dancing. The traditions that you pass down from generation to generation make up who you are.”
The Irish legacy in this region stretches back for centuries. Irish farmers first arrived in Haverhill, MA, and Nutfield, NH, in the early 1700s. They grew the nation’s first potato in Nutfield, a settlement that included what’s now known as Derry, Londonderry, and Windham, as well as parts of Manchester, Salem, and Hudson.
During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Irish citizens fled their country, with thousands emigrating to the Valley and eventually finding work in the mills along the Merrimack River. The tragedy was memorialized in 2006 when Burke and the Irish Foundation dedicated the “An Gorta Mor” monument that stands in the St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Lawrence. Burke refers to that era by its alternate name, the Great Hunger, noting that there was no true famine. As boatloads of food were shipped from Ireland to England, day after day the Irish starved.
The effect of that mass emigration still resonates today. According to the 2003 American Community Survey, almost 24 percent of Massachusetts residents claim to be Irish descendents, the highest of any reported ancestry. In New Hampshire, 21 percent claim Irish ancestry, second only to the combined group of French and French-Canadians.
If that survey was taken around March 17, the numbers might well spike, as everyone yearns to be Irish around St. Patrick’s Day. But while Burke revels in the festivities that fill the March calendar, he also works overtime to ensure the focus extends beyond green beer and leprechauns.
“That’s the stereotype, the drunk Irishmen from the old goofy cartoons and greeting cards,” he says dismissively.
Burke himself is a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, an Irish organization whose members devote themselves to a life free of alcohol. When he thinks of Irish culture, music is the first thing that jumps to mind, followed closely by literature.
For others, like Mia Guerrera, the first thing is art. Though not Irish-American herself, Guerrera developed a passion for Irish art after a visit to the Emerald Isle. In 2002, she opened Lorica Artworks in Andover, a gallery that showcases diverse styles with an emphasis on Irish art.
“I was overwhelmed by the beauty of what I saw there,” she says. “The work isn’t simply Irish landscapes with a little cottage. There’s impressionistic, contemporary, and abstract styles, and a real sophistication to their work. It’s not just good Irish art, it’s very good art for art’s sake. I wanted to bring that back here and it’s been well-received.”
While Irish culture is much more than a pint of Guinness, not everyone will make it to Lorica’s new exhibit, “A Field Day.” Nor will everyone attend the two showings of “A Couple of Blaguards” at Newburyport’s Firehouse Center for the Arts. And how many people even know there’s more than 7,000 books, magazines, and artifacts awaiting their perusal in The Irish Collection at the South Branch of Lawrence Public Library. (It’s the largest such collection in all of New England.)
Many of us, however, will find ourselves at an Irish pub at some point, if not this month. There’s certainly enough of them. In Manchester alone, you can’t toss a sliotar without hitting a pub. And that’s not a bad thing. Because in addition to offering traditional food and libations, many of today’s Irish pubs also provide a link to Irish and Irish-American culture.
The Claddagh, for instance, serves its role as a bar that appeals to a diverse crowd. But it also boasts an assortment of memorabilia and news clippings that tell the story of Irish yesteryear. Asked what makes The Claddagh an authentic Irish pub, co-owner Jimmy Kearney simply gestured to his surroundings.
“Look at our walls,” he says. “That’s our history, all around.”
Unlike Kearney, fellow pub proprietor Penny Hamourgas is not Irish born. In fact, she’s not even Irish-American. But in 2001, she and her husband Nick gained honorary membership when they purchased The Worthen House in Lowell, a pub steeped in Irish-American tradition.
The building was constructed in 1834, and the tavern opened its doors in 1898. One historic feature that remains intact is the building’s belt-and-pulley ceiling fan system. There are only four such systems in the U.S., and only the Worthen fan resides in its original home. Though powered by electricity, it was once steam-powered. And Hamourgas instantly recognized its charm.
“That’s what sold me when we went there for the first time,” she recalls. “We both love the history of the place and believed in its preservation. We’d never think of changing it.”
In its century-plus as a neighborhood bar, The Worthen House has hosted Bette Davis, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ed McMahon. Hamourgas said it continues to draw an eclectic mix of “musicians, poets, and working class people.”
Pubs like The Worthen House also provide a venue for Irish music. Peter Molloy, flutist and son of famed flutist Matt Molloy of The Chieftains, opened The Shaskeen in Manchester with two other musicians two and a half years ago. Molloy says his inspiration was, in part, keeping Ireland’s musical traditions alive. The Shaskeen features live music seven nights a week, with traditional Irish sessions on Sunday and Monday (as seen on page 51).
“It’s very important to us to get as much of that music as we can up into New Hampshire,” Molloy says. “Sunday here is like a family day. People come in with their kids and their instruments and it’s an open kind of session where anyone can play or sing along. That’s a big part of our heritage.”
The roots of pub culture extend back to the days in Ireland when your “local” was an all-purpose gathering place, whether it was to watch television or buy a stamp. Michael Conneely, who along with his wife owns The Peddler’s Daughter pubs in Haverhill and Nashua, says the pub was the focal point of life in his homeland.
“It’s not that we all grew up as alcoholics,” he says. “We might’ve said, ‘Let’s go out and have a few pints.’ But not, ‘Let’s go out and get hammered’ like kids say today. Getting loaded wasn’t the point. But the pub was a social place and the center of our community.
“If you wanted to buy a sheep, you bought it at the pub. The post office was at the pub. The undertaker, the butcher. Every significant transaction happened at the pub.”
Conneely, 41, moved to America from Ireland in 1989 and worked in Boston hotels before opening the Haverhill locale in 1999. The lighting and raw atmosphere of the partially underground space “just felt like an Irish pub to me,” he says.
Since then, he and his wife have worked to enhance that authentic feel, while fostering a laid-back and friendly atmosphere that he feels is a signature of Irish culture.
“We believe children are brought up, not dragged up,” he says. “So the pleases and thank yous…all of that was very important. Good manners are a trademark of the Irish culture.”
Conneely said a fundraiser last fall illustrated how tight-knit the Irish community is in the Merrimack Valley, even today. In 2007, at the age of 54, Patrick “Patsy” O’Riordan of Methuen succumbed to cancer, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
A friend of Conneely’s and a Claddagh patron, O’Riordan actually helped Conneely paint The Peddler’s Daughter. Following his death, The Claddagh hosted a fundraiser for O’Riordan’s family that Conneely said raised upwards of $100,000.
David Burke said he was not surprised by the overwhelming support. It was consistent with the area’s response to the Great Hunger, he said, when Lawrence was among the first cities to start a relief fund.
It was also consistent with the response to a visit in 1919 from Ireland’s eventual president Eamon de Valera, when local natives and Irish-Americans rallied to support the nation’s quest for independence. Lawrence was actually the first U.S. city to officially recognize the Republic of Ireland, says Burke with a certain degree of pride.
“Irishmen always come together to help one another during times of need. Whether it’s an organization, a religious group, or an individual. That loyalty’s always there.”