Irish publicans forge ahead with a fairytale Christmas in New York

‘Darkest days are behind us’ as Irish pub owners actively look to hire staff

It's Christmas time on 45th Street in Manhattan and three of Bernie Reilly's establishments are hives of activity. The masks are off, the drinks are being poured and the mood is jubilant.

In the Merrion Row Hotel, a scent of Irish moss fills the moodily lit lounge bar as cocktails are shaken, while next door in Connolly's, the rooftop bar is packed. So is everywhere else, including the neighbouring pub, The Perfect Pint.

Such scenes in early 2020 would have been unthinkable during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York city, when refrigerated trucks were used to store the city’s dead, and the streets were deserted.

Nearly two years on from the beginning of the crisis, a number of Irish publicans have managed to claw a degree of success from the ashes of 2020, on the back of New York city’s 72 per cent vaccination rate.


I have Midwest Radio playing in every location every morning during breakfast

Reilly, who is from Caherlistrane, Co Galway, and manages nine pubs and a hotel, believes "the darkest days are behind us", especially since the bar trade has adapted to some of the toughest Covid-19 regulations in the US.

Today, business is so busy that he, and many others involved in New York's Irish pub trade, are actively looking to hire staff, including people now living in Ireland.

“There are always opportunities for Irish people to come to New York city to find work,” he says. “I do not see that changing any time soon. I always have and always will find opportunities for Irish people to work.”

Reilly’s pubs have a strongly Irish flavour: “I have Midwest Radio playing in every location every morning during breakfast,” he says. “Because of that, we have been keeping up with the restrictions back home.”

Staff are needed, too, by Mean Fiddler owner Michael McNamee, originally from Blanchardstown in Dublin, who runs six venues with his brother, Patrick: "The hardest thing is finding staff," he says.

"When Broadway reopened in September, the city came back to life. It was like a light switch. American tourists came back and we saw a massive jump when Irish and English tourists were allowed back too," he says.

Busiest period

The fortnight before Christmas was the busiest ever for three of his pubs, despite the loss of Christmas corporate parties that were cancelled, or not booked at all this year.

Instead, the surge is coming from individuals: “People are turning out in numbers because of the built-up frustration of Covid, maybe frustration of government rules and basically people feeling like they lost out on the past year.”

Further downtown on East 4th Street, trad night is in full swing at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where owner Danny McDonald, from Co Laois, nurses a pint of Guinness and chats to staff.

Before Christmas, McDonald, who runs six establishments in his Gaelic Hospitality operation, marked the Hibernian’s 26th anniversary – a milestone in itself, but one more remarkable in the midst of the pandemic.

Life as a publican here has evolved: The Swift’s outdoors area is like a pub itself, replete with padded stools, framed pictures, dark paint and a gas fireplace to keep punters cosy.

The trade has changed during the pandemic, he says, especially since customers stay out later as they do not have to commute to work in the morning: “These are new waters and it’s going to be fun learning to navigate them.

“Cocktail hour doesn’t exist ... the big surprise is that so much of the business is after midnight. I find myself much busier up to 4 in the morning,” he says.

Like Reilly and McNamee, McDonald is watchful about Omicron, fearing new restrictions are on the books as cases rise in the city: “I would hate to see further restrictions, but it all boils down to hospital beds,” he says.