St. Patrick’s Day can mean different things to different people. For me, it’s not about shamrocks and leprechauns or green beer, but rather, about my hometown and its Irish heritage. Chicago’s history is an Irish history - a town built with the help of many immigrant hands hailing from the Emerald Isle. To honor this Irish history on St. Patrick's Day, let's take a look at some of Chicago's most authentic Irish pubs.
A large wave of immigrants came to our city just after the Great Potato Famine of 1845 and, by 1860, Chicago was the fourth largest Irish city in America.The 19th Century neighborhood bar was an important place for many of these early residents. Irish pubs were special places. These public houses were more than just a locale to have a drink: they were social centers where you would take the time to sit and have a real conversation with a real person sitting in front of you.
That has always been a part of life in Ireland because nothing is more sacred than having a beer and exchanging news and stories with another human being. The Irish have excelled in this capacity and pubs are truly a part of the fabric of Irish life. So when I think about St. Patrick’s Day, my mind turns to Chicago history and tavern history. We are fortunate to have such a wide variety of Irish bars in our great city of Chicago, but my favorites are those which do their best at capturing the true essence of the traditional Irish pub.
Housed in a pair of buildings dating to 1883, The Galway Arms is bit of Chicago and Irish history. Originally constructed as a boarding house, this piece of property has seen an array of businesses come and go. For most of its past, 2442 N. Clark St. has been an assortment of restaurants, more recently called Rudy Fazulis.
In 2002, an Irish medical lawyer from Galway, Ireland purchased the buildings to open The Galway Arms. The beauty of this bar is the architectural space. It still resembles its days of a 19th Century boarding house, but in a pub setting, this translates to you being able to drink your Guinness in various nooks and crannies that undoubtedly once hosted an amalgam of everyday household conversations. The inner courtyard within the bar boasts a unique fire escape which provides hints to its outdoor past - the only one that exists in any Chicago bar.
In 1897, this building was once home to Pickard China, a small company founded in 1893 in Edgerton, Wisconsin that specialized in hand decorating dessert and tea sets. Pickard China was the go-to company for Chicago's finest restaurants and hotels during the early 1900s.
Many native Chicagoans will remember the corner of Wilson/Ravenswood as the place they could grab delectable ice cream concoctions at Zephyrs. In 2008, the owners of the building, Liz and Mike Finan opened O'Shaughnessy's. Mike Finan, a fine Irish carpenter hailing from Galway, Ireland, wanted to pay homage to the institution of the Irish pub, so he got to work building the bar. He also made it a point to employ fellow Irish-Americans needing work. From the top down, this saloon is truly built by Irish hands. When it was time to open, they named the bar in honor of Mike’s mother whose maiden name is O’Shaughnessy. The bar is a work of art and spending any sort of time at the tavern will make you feel like you’ve encountered a little piece of Ireland. (Pictured above.)
In 1870, Francis O’Neill left Ireland and moved to Chicago to eventually became the Chief of Police. Possessing a passion for Irish flute music, all of which he learned through oral histories, O’Neill took the time to write down and record much of this music. He collected over 2,000 songs, which he would later publish. His most famous came in 1903 with the publication of O’ Neill’s Music of Ireland. In the end, Chief O’Neill is credited with preserving a significant amount of Irish music history as well as bringing it to America via his adopted hometown of Chicago.
Wanting to honor the memory of Chief Francis O’Neill, Brendan and Siobhan McKinney (two Irish musicians) opened the bar in 1999. The tavern is a gem and is also a bit of a shrine to Irish music and Chief O’Neill himself. You'll see many of his personal possessions on the walls, including his Chief of Police jacket, along with other traditional Irish musical instruments. Music, conversation, and history are at the forefront of this Chicago pub making it as genuine as Irish gets.