“It’s not what you become in life but what you overcome.” (Matty Maher)
The past year has been one of immense transition on levels beyond what any of us might have imagined. We continue to reel from the daily news in this ecological and political whirlwind. Many souls have left the planet before the fan regulating the health of humankind has been splattered beyond repair.
As my husband and I prepare to head north for the celebration of life for the passing of yet another dear longtime friend, I am grateful that my brother alerted me to the passing of one of the most legendary Mahers — Matty Maher (Matthew Dennis), owner of the 166 year old McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City. New to Maher’s legend myself, articles immediately available from a quick search intrigued me, and Matty was easy to spot in photos via his undeniable Maher eyes! Learning about him has been a welcome distraction, and I cheer him from afar while his friends and family celebrate the great man at his funeral events today.
The story of Matty Maher brought back memories of the seventies and my first venture into New York City as a tentative adult with art peers on a field trip from college. In recommending places to visit, our teachers told us that by the end of the afternoon they could be found at a very cool Irish pub – McSorley’s – and we were welcome to stop by. Whether or not they knew that women were not yet (or only barely recently) welcome, at that point in time the mere thought was beyond possible for me. Shy as I was to even speak to my seemingly all powerful and quite intimidating male teachers in class, the odds of my showing up there were nil, bars not yet being part of my universe. The trip was wonderful, nonetheless, and through the years New York, and the world itself, became ever smaller and less terrifying to wander through as I have claimed various parts as homes along the way. The next time I’m in NYC I’ll be sure to have a pint in honor of this very important Maher at New York’s oldest bar (established in 1854). Maybe I’ll even get to meet and toast a Sláinte to one of his five daughters.
Several articles (linked here) round out the story of a man who was deeply loved over many decades and whose life was directed as if by the angels to immigrate from his Threecastles, Kilkenny, homeland and build a charmed life in America. (Of particular note is an essay from Kilkenny that includes a great photo of Matty Maher and a timeline history of McSorley’s.) Maher’s work from 1964 onward ultimately transformed a simple beer bar into a destination. His former employees shared loving memories of him, recalling his generosity of spirit. Michael Brannigan explained, “People’d always ask him, ‘You own the bar?’ ”…“He’d say, ‘No, you own the bar.’ The customers own it.”
My brother described McSorley’s as “a museum really…Every inch of the place is covered in pictures…and there’s only beer and only two choices—black or tan—and crackers and cheese and onions…that’s it…and shoes alleged of Joe Kennedy.” New York Times and New Yorker Magazine articles described a sawdusted floor and particulars among the treasure trove of memorabilia, including a collection of “holy relics” in the form of turkey wishbones left behind on an ancient chandelier by soldiers in World War I to safeguard their return before heading off to battle. According to Maher, the bones came to represent those who were lost in the war and thus treated reverentially. More were added in honor of individuals in relatively recent conflicts. For artists and writers in the fifties and sixties John McSorley’s “The Old House at Home” must have been akin to the Cedar Street Tavern, which was originally in Greenwich Village. John Sloan depicted a scene inside McSorley’s in a painting that had been exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913.
As the energy of this Matthew Maher, son of one other Patrick Maher, joins all that is good in the universe and those who knew him are filled with the joy of having shared his life, may the energy of our own friend, Noah Totten, find and join his like-energy, and may our world be strengthened by this powerful addition of spirit. “May it be its own force field / And dwell uniquely / Between the heart and the light.” (John O’Donohue)
[Update: 16 January 2020 — See @IrishTimesNews on Instagram for a great photograph by Lauren Crothers that captured the honor canopy of raised hurling sticks as pallbearers carried the great man’s coffin. The funeral of Matty Maher took place at Holy Trinity Church, Whitestone, New York.]
Dan Barry, The New York Times, “Dust Is Gone Above the Bar, But A Legend Still Dangles,” April 6, 2011
Chang, Sophia, Gothamist, “Longtime McSorley’s Owner Has Died, Bar Will Stay In the Family, ” January 13, 2020
Sean Keen, Kilkenny People, “Matty Maher Passed Away This Morning With His Family By His Side, Wonderful Kilkenny man who owned McSorleys in New York has passed away, Kilkenny and Irish People in New York Lose A Great Friend,” January 11, 2020
Joseph Mitchell, The New Yorker, ‘The Old House at Home,” April 14, 1940
McSorley’s Old Ale House, https://mcsorleysoldalehouse.nyc/
New York Historical Society Museum & Library, “The Armory Show at 100,” McSorley’s Bar, 1912
Elizabeth Nix, History Stories, “Why Were American Soldiers in WWI Called Doughboys?,” September 28, 2018
John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, A Book of Blessings, Doubleday, 2008, pg. 18
Rikki Reyna and Clayton Guse, New York Daily News, “‘He was an absolute legend’: Owner of 166-year-old McSorley’s Old Ale House dies at 80,” January 12, 2020
Sam Roberts, The New York Times, “Matty Maher, an Institution at an Institution, McSorley’s, Dies at 80,” January 13, 2020
Lori Zimmer, Art Nerd New York | Los Angeles, “Cedar Tavern,” July 31, 2013
©2020 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
Paul Keroack said:
I too went to McSorley’s on an art class (Pratt Institute) field trip – in 1963. It was memorable. We sat at small tables to sketch, not standing at the bar. I’m sure there were women in our group – perhaps not standing at the bar was the prohibition that day. I never went back, though. We had our own favorite places near Pratt, one a student hangout where we shared pitchers of beer and the other a German tavern in the shadow of the Myrtle Avenue “El” which served imported dark beer – a treat.
Thanks for sharing that memory, Paul. Interesting to learn that you studied art back then, and had your own group hangouts. Neighborhood bars and their evolution is quite a topic in its own right, isn’t it? Another thing the Irish transplanted and established in America, builders of community.