FINE MUSIC, FOOD, AND THE CRAIC AT SHOUTH SHORE PUBS
~ by Maryellen Dever
It’s a chilly Monday evening in January, but inside The Snug on North Street in Hingham, it’s warm and cozy; reminiscent of my mother’s kitchen at suppertime when I was growing up. The small room is crowded with a cross section of the local community, from people unwinding after work to families with children having dinner together.
Waitresses are busy moving between kitchen, bar, and tables, serving drinks and hot comfort food, always with a word here and there for their customers and those they pass. Conversations at each table create a comfortable atmosphere, not unlike that of a family get together.
Meanwhile, in the corner, right by the large front window, about six people are sitting around a table playing traditional Irish music. According to Ed Brown, who owns the pub with his wife, Ellen Nally Brown, this traditional Irish seisiún (or “session” in English), is the key component to the pub. By definition, a seisiún is a welcoming structure for musicians of all types and abilities, where strangers and friends alike come together for their own enjoyment. The seisiún at The Snug is the heart of the culture of the pub itself.
Opened in January, 2003, The Snug’s popularity has sparked the resurgence in interest in traditional Irish music on the South Shore. Before it opened, music fans would go to the many pubs in Quincy, Boston, and beyond,where the steady influx of immigration from Ireland meant Irish music could be heard almost every night of the week for generations. In fact, it’s been observed more than once that these days, it’s easier to find traditional music here than in Ireland.
Ed Brown said when he and Ellen bought the building in 2002, they wanted a place that was cozy and familiar, where families would feel comfortable sitting down to a nice dinner of good food; a place where people could come to hear good Irish music. “We wanted something that didn’t exist before on the South Shore, in the community Ellen grew up in, and we stuck to our guns. We wanted to keep it consistent, with the music, the food, the Perfect Pint. We want everybody to feel comfortable coming in here.” In other words, they wanted to open a true Irish pub.
Ellen’s parents are both Irish-born. Her father’s family is from Mayo, and her mother hails from Sligo. Ed’s great grandparents are from Tipperary. On a trip to Galway in 2002, they found the inspiration for their pub’s name. A “snug” in a traditional Irish pub is a small private room or section where ladies often drank in private. Ed said there is a Snug Pub in Galway – the pub, in a 1920’s building, was on the water, and the room was very small, hence the name.
Their concept came from that traditional pub culture as well. As Ed explained, in Ireland, a pub is not a “bar”. “A pub is truly a place where all people come for commerce, to discuss public events, it’s not a drinking place, it’s about the clientele.” The pub is traditionally the focal point of a small village, and The Snug has become that. He estimates that 75% of their clientele comes from Hingham, and many drop in after a hard day to relax, have a pint, and talk about their day with friends.
He and Ellen are active in the community also, sponsoring softball and baseball teams, and regularly showcasing their Award Winning Steak Tips in the annual Taste of Hingham event. They have raised over $15,000 for local charities like Wellspring and the Hingham Food Pantry.
Many of their menu items are homemade with fresh local ingredients, including seafood. And, of course, The Snug is known as “The Home of the Perfect Pint” as well. The “Perfect Pint” is a special designation awarded each year by Guinness. Judges go on-site to inspect the pub’s state-of-the- art European draft system. They also specially train and observe servers for correct pouring and presentation.
From the beginning, though, it has been all about the music. The Browns wanted to focus on what they envisioned to be a great pub experience for families, including small children, who are a very common part of pub culture in Ireland.
There weren’t a lot of Irish musicians on the South Shore when The Snug first opened. Ed Brown went to the Burren in Somerville, an institution in local traditional Irish music circles; as well as other city venues in search of the right music. He also reached out to family – he has nieces who are champion fiddle players. Eventually word got around that The Snug was the place on the South Shore where traditional musicians were welcome. “We’re really committed to the music here.”
Right out of the box, The Snug was jammed, Brown said. “There was a pent-up need for this. Most musicians that play truly love playing here. They love the interaction with the crowd, and they feel appreciated by the crowd. There’s a really robust Irish community. This feeling is something that connects – it’s in your DNA. As owners, we’re committed to providing the best experience we can.”
You don’t have to be Irish to feel comfortable at The Snug. The pub, with warm lighting and wood wainscoting, is decorated with the couple’s personal photos and personal belongings. Brown said some of the wall decorations have been given to them by their customers. There are plants in every nook and cranny, too, in a nod to Ellen’s main business, The Hingham Greenery, directly behind The Snug at 39 South Street.
In the beginning, Ed said, they wanted to do it right, so people would come back. He wants people to feel like they’re in a friend’s home. As the families finish their dinner, the musicians pack up too. The servers clean up so this “friend’s home” is as neat as a pin. Owing to the delicious food, not a crumb was spotted on the floor. A lone red crayon, though, was left behind by a child, forgotten till next week’s family gathering at The Snug.
A little over two years ago, Brian Houlihan, chef/owner of Bia Bistro in Cohasset, saw an opportunity to expand when the building that housed the former Mount Blue restaurant in Norwell Center became available. He wanted to do a “family-style restaurant serving good food with good Irish roots.”
The Cork native, a classically-trained European chef, came to Boston 19 years ago for a change of scenery. He worked at the Harvard Club and Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston before becoming the Executive Chef at Seasons restaurant at the Bostonian Hotel. He left to open Bia about nine years ago.
With Tinker’s, Houlihan said “I wanted to show people Irish food isn’t what they thought it was. We’re trying to break that stereotype.” As an Irish pub, he said the music goes hand in hand with the food, but he has put a lot of emphasis on his food. True Irish food, as he knows it, is all about fresh, local ingredients. Tinker’s serves true Irish food. “Our fish comes from Scituate, and in summer, local farms like Holly Hill Farm supply our vegetables.” Many of his seafood recipes are originally from Cork.
Since the restaurant was a music venue before, patrons have come to expect quality music. Tinker’s offers live music six nights a week with no cover charge. Fridays and Saturdays, bands of every genre, particularly those with Irish influence, showcase their talents. An up to date schedule can be found on the pub’s website with links to the artists. Houlihan points out that he and his partner, Erica White, want to offer their customers, many of whom are second and third generation Irish-American, a variety of local music.
In addition, there are two regular traditional Irish seisiúns weekly. They’re as different as the musicians who play in them. Sunday’s seisiún, anchored by Skip Toomey, is a lively backdrop to the popular brunch, drawing families and groups of all kinds. It’s common to see young children dancing to the music while their parents browse the brunch buffet. It’s also common to hear a song or two, with some of the audience joining in.
Wednesday night’s seisiún, while just as lively, draws a more quiet mid-week dinner crowd. Diners are happy to sit, enjoy large portions of comfort food, and listen after a long work day. The musicians in this seisiún are more strictly traditional Irish musicians, anchored by Stuart Peak. He plays banjo and guitar, and is usually joined by fiddle player Rose Clancy and local bodhran player Peter Smith. Peak makes the distinction that they play “tunes,” not songs, because they don’t sing. Peter Smith is a US Championship bodhran player, has also won the silver medal once, and has placed 4th in Ireland twice. He began playing at age 58, and won his US gold medal 4 years later.
Stuart Peak anchors seisiúns almost every night of the week somewhere in the area, but he said, there’s more interest on The South Shore both with musicians and the audience. “I find it’s a lot easier to anchor a seisiún south of Boston.”
Musician Declan Houton, who plays in many pubs including Tinker’s with his band Devri, agrees. He emigrated from Malin Head, Donegal in 2000. He said “the South Shore has always had strong connections to Irish music. In fact there are some times in The Tinker’s Son when I may be asked by a young American to sing some obscure 100-year old Irish song, and you wonder how they even ever heard it before! A big difference compared to playing in the city, is a lot of the city bars are usually packed with tourists who only want to hear stuff like The Wild Rover and Whiskey in the Jar, whereas the South Shore patrons seem to know more about Irish music and will usually be more of a listening audience.”
Tinker’s is named for a poem written by Houlihan’s father Liam in 1954, telling the story of a childhood friend. The poem is immortalized as a mural on a wall inside the pub. It’s a touching story with a timeless message, available in print for the asking. It’s well worth a read while sipping a pint of Cork-brewed Murphy’s Irish Stout with great music playing in the background.
THE BAILEY, MARSHFIELD
Anybody who listens to WROL for Irish music has probably tuned in to the “Bailey Ceili” led by Bill Bailey of South Boston. Bailey’s show is a little casual, a little homespun, some days it’s quirkier than others, but always the host plays good music, entertains, informs, and wears his Irishness on his sleeve.
His pub on the main drag in Brant Rock, Marshfield, on the other hand, is classic – from the bartenders dressed in traditional white shirt and black tie, to the polished woodwork, the strict “no cell phones, no texting” rule, to the personal service from Himself.
“Big into trad,” or traditional Irish music, he wanted to bring quality music to the area. He believes that, “Quality people bring a quality product.” Through connections he has made over the years, he has developed contacts that help bring that quality music to The Bailey.
His Sunday afternoon family seisiún is rapidly becoming a tradition in the area. He said he often sees three generations of a family enjoying each other’s company on Sundays. It isn’t unusual to have Irish step-dancers, including his own daughter, take over the dance floor when the music gets going. He has live Irish music on Friday and Saturday nights also, and a popular blues night on Thursdays.
Bill Bailey had always wanted to own a pub when he retired, but when he was laid off from the gas company over two years ago, that plan was pushed up about twenty years. A self-described “people person,” he wanted a place where there were a lot of young families and where he could get involved in the community.
From the beginning, he said, “People have been very good to us.” His “soft opening” in January 2011 was planned as a gathering for family and friends. Instead, Bill remembers it as “the coldest day of the year. “The fryolators went, the heat went, the oven went, the computer system crashed – all brand new! All the taps went dry. We expected 150 people and 500 showed up!” It was obvious as he spoke, that in spite of the bugs; a good time was had by all.
He said he pushes family, starting with the pub’s logo. It shows four children – three boys and a girl – carrying an overturned currach, which is a traditional canoe-like Irish fishing boat from the west coast. The currach can be found in Connemara, where Bailey’s father is from, and the children symbolize Bailey and his three siblings all working together. Sure enough, he has many family members working at The Bailey, from his mother, siblings, and wife, to nine cousins. One of the cousins is his head chef.
The quality of his menu is just as important as the quality of his music. He refreshes the menu twice a year, but there are popular mainstays and great nightly dinner specials. He said there are dishes he “loves to serve,” namely the Bailey Chicken Tenders, the Homemade Meatloaf, the Baked Haddock, and the homemade Irish Bread Pudding. Everything comes with delicious Irish brown bread.
He also has a large Scotch and Whiskey selection behind the bar, in keeping with the “Galway City pub” feel. He has seen old-fashioned cocktails becoming popular again, perhaps because of the “Mad Men” influence. His bartenders are professionals, and he wants to be able to offer his customers drinks they might find in the city.
Bill designed the pub himself, recycling much of the wood from the previous restaurant on the site. His vision was to have a place where “right off the bat you’ll feel comfortable,” whether you choose to sit in the main room or the 40-seat snug in back; where tables are set for more intimate dining. His mantra is “Come in with one friend, and leave with many.” Both spaces are available for private parties.
As he moved effortlessly from customer to customer, he chatted with them, suggesting favorite menu items, catching up with their lives. Showing his gift for Irish hospitality, everyone was treated as if they were a treasured guest in Bill Bailey’s home.
MR. DOOLEY’S OLD IRISH VILLAGE PUB, COHASSET
Joe McDonough, Manager of Dooley’s in Cohasset, had a feeling back in early September that the latest addition to the Somers Pubs family would be a hit. While the space at 9 Depot Court was being renovated, a steady stream of people would wander in, demanding to know when the pub would be open.
Any fan of Dooley’s in Boston would recognize the familiar décor right away, from the hardwood floors, to the old sewing tables and wooden chairs, to the authentic Irish bric-a-brac on shelves above. A painting of legendary Irish-bred three-time Grand National Champion Red Rum hangs on the wall. Combined, it brings some long-awaited Irish to Cohasset.
The menu combines typical American favorites like burgers and sandwiches with traditional Irish dishes like Shepherd’s Pie, Fish and Chips, and Irish Mixed Grille. A traditional Irish Breakfast is served daily, and a children’s menu is always available.
Dooley’s has a traditional Irish seisiún on Sunday, anchored by Stuart Peak. For real breakfast fans, a full breakfast menu is served. Offerings again include American favorites like omelets and pancakes, but the emphasis is on the real traditional Irish offerings. Rashers of Irish bacon, imported Irish sausages, both black and white pudding, and home fries are offered with eggs any style. Coffee is refilled by the gracious wait staff as diners study their choices. Irish tunes are heard from seisiún players in the front of the room.
Dublin native Noel Gentelles, Group Operations Manager for Somers Pubs, says the traditional Irish seisiúns found here are Irish music in its purest form, while it’s an ever-evolving musical genre back in Ireland. He calls Irish music “the calling card of Irish heritage world-wide.” He goes on to say, “Ireland is the only country in the world to have a musical instrument, the harp, as its national symbol. Many countries have traditional music, but none is as readily identifiable as Ireland’s. No matter where you go in the world, when you hear Irish music, it’s synonymous with Ireland.”
That heritage is key to the music’s continued popularity here, he explained. “In pre-famine times, we weren’t allowed to be educated, to learn to read and write. It was a way for the English landowners to subdue the Irish people. The only way we had to translate and pass on our history and heritage was through the music and storytelling. The musician and Seanchaí (storyteller) were very important to our culture. It was the genesis of the pub culture to gather in people’s homes to tell stories and play music. The consumption of alcohol was always beside the point.”
Gentelles said the pub in Ireland was a multi-purpose place that grew out of that tradition. “It was always in the center of town. It was the local shop, the town hall, where organizations met, the source of all information in town.”
Still in their first year, McDonough says the pub is still building its local clientele, as is expected of the new kid on the block. Word of mouth is beginning to spread, though, with many saying “Cohasset needs a place like Dooley’s.”