Surely I’m not the only one who remembers learning about the tragic story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius onto the ill-fated Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD. I think it’s something many of us in the Midwest learned even in elementary school. Our teachers described to us, in vivid detail, how it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly that it essentially left a community frozen in time under a thick sheet of ash, pumice, and smolder, to the delight of archaeologists several centuries later. Obviously it struck a chord with me. Having cursorily researched the almost legendary story of the demise of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum (in part for this article), I’m sure some key aspects of the narrative get embellished, perhaps to widen the eyes of the fourth graders listening and viewing the photographs of the ruins. In truth (as I’ve learned), Pompeii’s demise wasn’t quite that rapid: a non-lethal rain shower of pumice lasted 18 hours, giving time for many inhabitants to escape with their most valued belongings. If estimates peg the city’s population at around 11,000 before its demise, the calculation of preserved human remains indicate that as many as 80 to 90% of people might have successfully evacuated. And although Pompeii remains one of the best preserved examples of a relatively significant city within the Roman Empire, centuries of thievery and plundering ensured that the most significant archaeological findings disappeared long before its widely touted rediscovery in the late 16th century.
But the notion of a civilization getting frozen in time endows Pompeii with a clear mythology, and it was precisely what came to mind while wandering around Midtown Manhattan last summer. I could not help but recall the eruption of Vesuvius while peering through the windows of a few different Irish pubs, like this one right near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
The welcoming red and gold paint that lines the entry hints at a pub-like atmosphere, but it took a bit more snooping to confirm its Celtic roots.
Shamrocks dangle alongside tinsel in the interior. Some of the decorations have fallen to the floor.
And a sign in the window explains what happened.
So it closed down during the uncertainty of COVID-19, a time when most businesses felt pressure to close for the sake of citywide public health directives. But that was March of 2020; I’m taking these photos in July of 2021. Peering through the window, it looks like Connolly’s Pub and Restaurant would be ready to open tomorrow…if tomorrow were St. Patrick’s Day.
After all, even in an Irish pub, it’s a bit trite to festoon the place with glittery shamrocks outside of the big holiday.
Connolly’s isn’t alone. Just a few blocks away…
…the Stage Coach Tavern suffered a similar fate. Butcher paper conceals most of the interior, but I was able to peer in a few places where the paper was failing.
Can you see it? The reflection from the window is pretty bad, but in the middle of the image is a faintly green stripe, where two strips of the paper no longer meet. And written on the green is “HAPPY” in white. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume the remaining text says “ST. PATRICK’S DAY”. Understandable that another Irish pub would want to capitalize on the big day.
Okay, I’ll concede: this tiny set of photos doesn’t make for much of a Pompeii. Nor is it Herculaneum. Two shuttered Irish pubs does not constitute a crisis. And besides, in the case of Connolly’s, two other locations still seem to be going strong. But I found these examples without even really looking, suggesting that there easily could be others, if I do the research. So I did the research.
Elsewhere in Manhattan’s Garment District, a recent arrival named Doyler’s, affiliated with the Hilton Garden Inn that opened in the mid 2010s, has also remained in limbo for the better part of two years. It was clearly operating in the summer of 2019. And the much more established Foley’s pub and restaurant closed at the exact same time; while hoping to reopen at some point in the future, by May of that year its owner decided to close the West 33rd Street location permanently. He has sworn he would reconsider opening his Irish pub when he feels confident that we’re out of the woods regarding COVID. This Google Street View image shows Foley’s was bustling in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic. Coogan’s on the Upper West Side also announced its permanent closure, just weeks after the mandated shutdowns. And though I cannot find PJ Moran’s anywhere on a map—its records have been wiped clean—photographic from a New York Post article evidence shows it to be another Irish pub that became a COVID casualty. And the Pig ’n Whistle, a local small-scale Irish pub chain, was forced to shutter a few of its dozen or so locations permanently.
So it really is a thing, and, at the onset of St. Patrick’s Day 2022, the local media has begun taking notice. Estimates are that up to 10% of the city’s Irish pubs have shuttered in the last two years, a higher proportion than most other ethnic eateries. Why? The timing of the COVID-induced shutdowns couldn’t have been worse: right at the onset of St. Patrick’s Day, which, when combined with the opening of the baseball season and NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament, comprise nearly half they year’s revenue for many Irish pubs and restaurants dishing out corned beef. Sports are big in Irish pubs, and the signature Irish holiday is even bigger. But the closure mandates came to New York City on March 16, shutting down a major economic engine for the city, even while other, less cautious municipalities allowed their St. Patrick’s Day festivals to run their course. Still reeling from that mandate, several of the Irish pubs are continuing to negotiate a more favorable leasing arrangement with their landlords,
But, all in all, the timing couldn’t have been worse for Irish pubs. COVID-19 was a Vesuvius that erupted with channelized lava flow onto this little nook within the hospitality industry. And my observation, coinciding with the big Irish holiday, forces me yet again to confront coronavirus, just one post after I said I was backing away from the subject. Fortunately, as devastating as COVID-19 has been to the Irish pub culture within the nation’s most popular city, there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: over 300 more pubs persevere. And céad míle fáilte to those pubs that attempt to reopen on this most Irish of days.