St. Patrick's Day in Washington, Then & Now

Jeff Malet

Every St. Patrick’s Day, I get nostalgic. Some part of me wants to hear an Irish rebel song, down a stiff Irish whiskey, get begorrah drunk in a place where there’s already two feet of beer on the floor and admire an Irish lass with green eyes and flaming hair.

It passes. There are, if my fading old eyes don’t deceive me, more Irish bars than ever ‘round about here, so I imagine that at least today there is a market for the wee bit of Gaelic sound. Many of the newer bars I’ve never heard of, but the old standby pubs still standing, like Sinatra and Elvis, make you breathe with the slowed down breath of memory.

Some of the newer ones certainly sound like old sod pubs—Castlebay Irish Pub in Annapolis, Flanagan’s Harp and Fiddle in Bethesda, O’Faolain’s Irish Pub in Sterling, Virginia, Ned Devine’s and Ned Kelly’s in Herndon, Virginia, O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub in Arlington, Old Brogue Irish Pub in Great Falls, Sine Irish Pub in Arlington, Slainte Irish Pub in Bethesda, the Auld Shabeen in Fairfax—even the Fado downtown with its myriad beers and Irish bric a brac, not to mention the legendary Murphy’s in Alexandria, and the rising Ri Ras where the hold music sessions.

But for my money—and it’s not a lot, I’m a writer after all—its places like Kelly’s Irish Times, the Four Provinces, (now Ireland’s Four Fields) the Dubliner, Nanny O’Brien’s, and the long-defunct Matt Kane’s and Ellen’s which are and were the real thing. And you can throw in Billy Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, which has been around longer than anybody and anyone, serving up square and basic-good Irish food and spirits and conviviality as a matter of family tradition.

Of course, the heydays were probably during the 1970s and 1980s, when St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated a little bit like a hooligan’s holiday, with daylong, sometimes weekend-long celebrations. In those days, there was a steady and large supply of Irish bartenders to go with the Irish restaurants, not to mention Irish musicians who were splendid, played and sang reels and rebel songs and ballads that broke your heart, and got everybody in the spirit of things along with the spirits.

I suspect some of that atmosphere is missing now—I don’t see hundreds of hill staffers running around with “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pins for a whole day, although the funny looking big green hats remain ever popular.

St. Patrick’s Day was a day of wretched excess in those days, and, luckily and with good reason, I don’t remember much about them.

What I do remember is that this German writer loved most things Irish beyond reason. With my metabolism now rebellious of anything beyond a single glass of beer, I can look at this with measured focus, as opposed to through a glass darkly. I think it’s because friends I knew in Washington from the beginning were named Kelly and O’Brien and Murphy and McHugh and so on, and they were the types you could tell your worst secrets to, make the phone call in the middle of the middle of the night. They would take you in if you got kicked out of some other place for the night. They were the boon companions at the race track, the guy who’d spot you a bar bill and laughed at all of your jokes, except the Irish ones. I knew a few, let’s say, and here’s to Michael Kelly, and his brother Hugh, the publican and founder of Kelly’s Irish Times, the most democratic of Irish pubs in existence, if not the most elegant.

Kelly’s was a footstep or so away from The Dubliner, and was once a Hawaiian Luau Hut before Hugh Kelly bought it and once held a celebration in which patrons were encouraged to smash a plastic volcano rock to piece. The Dubliner—run by the estimable Danny Coleman—was also the best venue for some of the greatest Irish musicians around, notably Celtic Thunder and the Irish Tradition. That trio, which sometimes wandered into the Irish Times, filled the house like a rock band. They were Andy O’Brien, the lad the lassies dug, Billy McComiskey, a button accordionist of great gifts, and the vibrant Brendan Mulvihill, a fiddle player of Irish national championship quality, big of girth and afro-red hair, who could make a fiddle do anything—produce tears, sound like jazz, be bluesy and rangy, and tell musical stories as thick as novels. In the past he has been known to play at Nanny O’Brien’s on Connecticut Avenue, right across the street from the Uptown Theater and, lo and behold, another Irish pub, the Irish Four Fields.

But enough about pubs: that’s where all your friends are today if they have signs of life in them. The Irish connection runs deeper than a state of bold and wordy inebriation. I once had a discussion with another fine Irish person of note about the religious and philosophical symbolism of a certain scene from “Saturday Night Fever,” and it says a lot for Guinness and the Irish that this stuck in my mind.

The Irish love to talk, and when they’re not talking, they’re writing, composing, singing, putting on plays, making theater and persevering, in spite of anything, come famine or feuding. If you want to know the origin of St. Patrick’s Day and its consequences, check out Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (or four hours in a bar with some very eloquent and poetic drunks), in which a cop or two make an appearance and one of the denizen’s says “Why didn’t St. Patrick drive all the snakes out of Ireland, and didn’t they swim across the Atlantic and become New York policemen?” or words to that effect.

I love the Irish words, probably more than the Irish do: both the great playwright of the void, Samuel Beckett, and novelist James Joyce, moved to Paris and wrote in French.

A whole new generation of Irish playwright’s have emerged, but Wilde, Synge, Behan, Shaw and all the rest still rise up onto our stage with words, wit and wonder (“An Ideal Husband” at the Shakespeare Theatre right now and “Penelope” at the Studio right now). And Solas Nua, the Irish theater group, is handing out free books today.

And it’s St. Patrick Day. If things should go amiss, remember a few things along the way: there may have been Bette Davis eyes, but there is Maureen O’Hara hair as well. And remember that famous Irish saying: “May you be in heaven a half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” And may you recall with some caution that famous scene in “Fort Apache” when the Irish 7th Cavalry First Sergeant, played by Victor McLaglen, is ordered to destroy a roomful of rotgut whiskey by Henry Fonda. “Lads,” he said, “let us pull together. We have a fearful task ahead of us.”

Indeed all of you do. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. Celebrate as the Irish might and god help you on the way.

Mar 18, 2011 at 9:39 PM Dave Roffman

You can't get nostalgic about St. Patrick's Day in Washington, D.C. and not mention Matt Kane's Bit O' Ireland that catered to a varied clientele, ranging from Irish tourists and Irish-American politicians to newspaper writers to the working Joe's of Washington. The bartenders were all reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney and the owner, Matthew J. Kane himself (who died February 3 of this year by the way) was the impresario supreme, especially on March 17. The lines were out the door and down the street on St. Paddy' Day. When a patron inside was drunk enough to go home, he was ushered out the door and another customer was admitted.

Matt Kane's opened in 1960 and ran until 1988. Among its famous regulars was Tip O'Neal, the speaker of the House, who often was seen there with Senator Ted Kennedy and his brother Robert.

I miss Matt Kane's. Especially on St. Patrick's Day.

Apr 9, 2011 at 10:18 PM Bob Loftur-Thun

I was in the Army's Old Guard during the late 70's. Matt Kane's was my introduction to my Irish heritage. It was a magical place with it's exposed beams, brick walls rough slate bar and flags hanging form the ceiling. I recently Googled "Butch and Meve" - a couple who played there for yesr and were very popular. I came across a blog where various people remembered them. Unfortunately, they both have passed, but their daughter volunteers to send a CD of their music to fans. Funny how teachers and places like Matt Kane's and musicians like Butch and Maeve can touch your life and you remembner them clearly 30+ years later...

May 25, 2011 at 9:08 PM Phil white

I went to Matt's before I went to Vietnam and later when I got back and went back to college at the University of Maryland. I woundup working there on call with the Likes og]f George Vinclov, Shamus McIver, Jim Mulligan, Dottie and Olive Bayle. I also played on the dart team with some of these same people including an old friend Frank Novotny. He lives in Maine now. I now live in Virginia Beach, Virginia and plan to open my own pub and model it after Matt's. Those were as the saying goes "...the best of times and the worst of times..." Mostly the best.
I got to know Butch and Mave rather well and stayed in touch from time to time until there death. The Irish folk music world will miss them along with the Clancys and Tommy Makim. My future wife and I use to go almost every weekend to Matt's it was more fun than anything else one could do on a weekend. I even remembere going to the Redskins games on the bus and going back to Matt's after.
If ant of the old crowd is still out there give me a shout.
phil white

Sep 26, 2011 at 3:09 PM Agnes

Thanks so much for the memories at Matt Kane's Bit Of Ireland.
Spent many a good night with my friends at Kane's in the sixties and early seventies.
were are you now my old pals?
Moira Patsy Rosemary Margaret and Cathleen Colgan Susan and Bobby Dragg Ed Mcnamara Jimmy Mulligan Matt Quinn Rita Larkin Pete Dooley Frank McMahon Marlene and Hazim and not forgetting DIBA DIBA.

Feb 26, 2012 at 9:16 PM FDNYBobbyBrown

I first visited Matt Kane's in 1987 being taken there by my good friend Jeb McCarvill, a fellow Irish-American. It was St Paddy's day and I was ushered into the back room and served some corn beef, beer and terrific Irish hospitality. I was no stranger to this, being Irish from New York was no different than DC. I remember my first few years here spending weekends down at the the Dubliner and the Irish Times because they felt like home. And where else was a Irish boy from NY suppose to go? Thank you Jeb for introducing me to Bit of Ireland before it went to the ages... Thank you DC for letting me cherish my Irish Ancestry. And thank you all for let me share a wee bit with you!

Mar 9, 2012 at 8:46 PM Alan Curtis

Brings back great memories of regular trips to Matt Kane's from MCB Quantico in 1968 before leaving for the Nam. Great beer, darts, beer, music and beer and company. Driving back to Quantico after a full night at Mat Kane's was an adventure...couldn't get away with that now. RIP Matt.

Mar 17, 2012 at 11:05 PM John McBride

Used to go to Matt's in the early 70's. He used to have the various Irish musical groups play in an informal rotation, changing every so often. And as I remember, he had a place close by (apartment) where they stayed while in town. Went to hear the music upstairs on Thursday and Friday nights, and at the intermission we went downstairs to his "Newsroom" bar, where the musicians would go to "refresh". In addition to Butch and Maeve, he had two other really good groups of four guys. Can't recall the names of the groups, just that the older and more experienced guys had as their lead vocalist Mike. Then there was a new group of young guys that Matt brought over from Ireland, who became popular and returned often. On Saturday afternoons, Matt used to sit and a few Carling Black Labels with his friends downstairs in one of the booths labelled "Chicago", where he was from. His wife tended bar sometimes on Saturday afternoon, and occasionally his daughter. At the end of the afternoon they would leave and go home together, as I recall. I am not a Marine, but Matt loved the Marines, and on the weekends, the Quantico guys were usually well represented. Matt's was the kind of place that you REALLY looked forward to going, and made you glad to be an American in those wonderful days. I remember Seamus McIver, the hard working upstairs bartender, who was such a great asset to Matt, and Ed McNamara, who I looked forward to seeing on weekends after work. Also the
the dear young ladies that tended bar downstairs. Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

Mar 18, 2012 at 11:53 AM nancy niles

Matt Kanes... so many wonderful memories of drinking and singing those old Irish drinking songs! There will never be another place like it. It may be gone but will never be forgotten!

Mar 21, 2012 at 2:34 PM Skip Lash

While Stationed at the Navy Experimental Diving Unit at the Wash. Navy Yard in the early 70's, I spent a lot of time at Matt's. Got to be good friends with Seamus, and even managed to get whipped in a few dart matches, while I could still stand up. Got introduced to Jameson's irish Whiskey, and it is still my drink of choice. Never knew who would show up. The Black Watch came in one night, and played a few numbers for us. Saw Tip O'Neal and Kennedy several times. It always comes up in conversation when we have a divers reunion. The old timers love to laf and talk about the place. RIP Matt......

Jun 17, 2012 at 8:58 PM Anna McNulty Gangler

So many good memories of Matt Kane's in teh 60's and 70's. Remember Mary Sheridan, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Kathleen and Ciaran Russell, Josephine Keane, Cowboy.

Does anyone know where Liz McBRide is, I'd love to hear from her.

Jun 17, 2012 at 9:00 PM Anna McNulty Gangler

Also if anybody knows the whereabouts of Susan Duff and Ellen Dougherty?

Jul 6, 2012 at 5:11 PM Jack

I was a "regular" at Kane's back in the 60s, roughly 62-67. What a nice and friendly place it was. I always tried to get there a couple of nights a week, or once at least. I recall Seamus the upstairs bartender very well and many of the other regulars like Ed McNamara, Mark Quinn and Gerry O'Neill. Also learned "301" Irish/British darts while there. I left DC in 1967 and did get back a few times before it closed down but of course it never was quite the same.

Jul 8, 2012 at 9:00 PM cris (lynch)navarre

does anyone know where kathy doyle is, dont know her married name, we had great times at matt kanes,lived in mclean virginia

Feb 16, 2013 at 7:55 PM Damian Peach

Anyone remember Danny O flaherty and the o flaherty bros

Post New Comment

Comments which are spam, off-topic, abusive, or use excessive foul language will be deleted.
No HTML markup is allowed. URLs will be turned into links automatically. 3000 character limit.

If you want a small picture next to your comments, get a gravatar.

Wed, 16 Apr 2014 15:03:07 -0400

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest Georgetowner updates.