Down on East 7th Street in the East Village of New York City, across the street from a preschool and a church, you’ll find the “snug and evil” McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest Irish tavern in NYC. Abraham Lincoln kicked back a brewsky here, the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup and partied like hell (and dented the cup!) here and in the Golden Girls, Dorothy was born on a table here. Since 1854 (or 1862 depending on who you ask), famous statesmen, celebrities, artists, soldiers and bros of every variety frequented the mythical McSorely’s Old Ale House, and the bar didn’t even allow women to step through it’s doors until it was forced to do so in 1970.
Walking through the weathered black front doors of McSorley’s transports you to an Irish slice of a bygone era of “Olde New York.” Irish waiters and bartenders, the sawdust scattered on the floors, the New York City nostalgia, old artwork, framed newspaper articles and other Americana adorning the walls all add to the olde-school ambiance. They say that no piece of memorabilia has been removed from the walls of the bar since 1910.
Wishbones dangle in the air above the bar immemorial, still waiting to be removed by the boys who tied them. Legend goes that they were hung there by soldiers deployed to Europe during World War I, only to be removed upon their return. These are the wishbones that weren’t so lucky. Attached to the bar you’ll even find a paid of handcuffs that belonged to Harry Houdini.
The bartenders will likely laugh at you if you try to order a Vodka Tonic or a Corona, although we’re not sure why you would want to order that in an Irish Tavern anyway. The only alcoholic options at McSorley’s are house brewed dark (Black Ale) or light (Pale Ale) ale and they’re served in two small glasses. Yes, they’re both good.
There is a simple bar food menu of burgers and sandwiches, which aren’t bad at all. McSorley’s is cash-only, but the cheaply-priced menu means you won’t need to come with a wad of twenties. You didn’t think that a credit card machine would go with the Americana decor did you?
The Oldest “Irish Tavern” in New York City
According to the sign above McSorley’s, the East Village alehouse was established in 1854, but some historians doubt that claim. Although some soft evidence exists to support the 1854 claim, including a document from 1904 in McSorley’s Founder, John McSorley’s, hand at the Museum of the City of New York where he declares the bar was established in 1854, historical records show that the site was a vacant lot from 1860 to 1861.
McSorley’s fanboys aside, most New York City historians now peg 1860 as the year this original Irish Bro-Tavern opened it’s famous doors. In whenever year John McSorley actually did open the bar, he originally named it “The Old House At Home.”
John McSorley was born in Country Tyrone, Ireland in 1827. He fled the Irish Potato Famine (Gorta Mór) to New York City in 1851. After just three years in the New World, John started serving his ale as an hommage to his favorite watering hole in his hometown of Omagh which was not so coincidentally called “Old House at Home.”
John ran the bar until 1910 when he passed away in his apartment on the second floor of the building above the bar. His son took the Ale-House reigns, and McSorley’s stayed in the family until 1936 when they sold the place to a known patron and NYC police officer. Although the bar has changed hands many times since, all of the owners have been true to the original quirky character and spirit of the ale-house institution.
Famous McSorley’s Patrons & Cultural Importance
It would be impossibly long to list all of the names of all of the iconic people that have visited McSorley’s, but there are definitely some names that stand out more than others. Big-name Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt all kicked back an ale like men on the saw-dust covered bar. The legendary Hunter S. Thompson was a McSorley’s regular. In Thompson’s book, Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 he writes:
What the hell kind of an operation are you people running, anyway? Or don’t you figure you need free-lancers? Fortunately, I have enough work with the Observer and The Reporter. I don’t make big money, but I make quite enough to visit New York now and then, and I stay in good enough shape to be able to raise all hell when I get there. There’s nothing I’ll like better-both as a healthy exercise and as good material for my biographers-than to gather some of my ham-fisted friends from McSorley’s and clean out your whole damn office.
E.E. Cummings Described McSorley’s as Snug and Evil
The American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright, E.E. Cummings described McSorley’s Old Ale House as “Snug and Evil.” The opening to an untitled 1922 poem reads:
i was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.
Inside snug and evil. the slobbering walls filthily push witless creases of screaming warmth chuck pillows are noise funnily swallows swallowing revolvingly pompous a the swallowed mottle with smooth or a but of rapidly goes gobs the and of flecks of and a chatter sobbings intersect with which distinct disks of graceful oath, upsoarings the break on ceiling-flatness the Bar.
Drinking out of the Stanley Cup at McSorley’s
Following a 54-year dry spell (some would say curse!) New Yorkers once again basked in the greatness of the Stanley Cup when the Rangers beat the Vancouver Canucks. As Sports illustrated put it: “Like a loose puck it has been slapped from bar to nightclub to ballpark to ballroom to racetrack to squad car to firehouse to strip joint.”
A couple New York Rangers including Mike Richter, brought the cup to McSorley’s Old Ale House, after a victory parade in the streets. For 45 minutes they locked the doors and let the McSorley’s patrons “hoist it above their heads and drink McSorley’s Dark and Light out of it.” Legendary.
McSorley’s Old Ale House was “Men Only” until 1970
Until 1970 McSorley’s was a men-only bar whose motto was even “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies.” Kicking and screaming, the bar finally allowed (under duress) the ladies in after they lost a discrimination case brought against them by the National Organization of Women. On August 10, 1970, Barbara Shaum became the first female patron of the old New York establishment. They would eventually install a restroom for the ladies 16 years later.
Since 1970 the watering hole has adopted two less chauvinistic mottos:”Be Good or Be Gone”, and “We were here before you were born.” Even though the ladies are more than welcome today, you can still drink “good ale” and be served “raw onions” if you order the McSorley’s cheese platter.
The bit from the Golden Girls about Sophia giving birth to Dorothy on a table in McSorely’s is an anachronism. Dorothy was definitely born after 1970 and Sophia wouldn’t have been allowed in the bar!
How a Bar Is across the Street from a Preschool and a Church & McSorley’s Surviving Prohibition
On December 5, 1933, the honorable, heroic and brotastic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Presidential Proclamation 2,065, officially repealing the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that established Prohibition in the United States. Rounds of “cheers” were heard throughout the city, corks popped and champagne flowed. The next day the streets were covered with puke and New Yorkers everywhere were hung over.
During Prohibition, New York City was a gangster’s paradise and mafia ran the town. Basements were outfitted with swanky speakeasies, casinos and cabarets. After alcohol was legalized, this mafia-run wild west needed to be regulated. In 1934 New York enacted the Alcoholic Beverage Control laws or ABC laws, which included a clause that states that you can’t serve alcohol within 200 feet of a church, synagogue house of worship or a school. McSorley’s, across the street from both a church AND a school, is in direct violation of the law.
What is the 200 Foot Rule?
Section 64(7) of the ABC law strictly prohibits bars from operating within 200 feet of a church, synagogue or school on the same street. We’re not sure why they included synagogues in this, because Jews (L’Chaim!) love to drink and be merry. For you lawyers out there, the 200 Foot Rule of the ABC law states:
7. No retail license for on-premises consumption shall be granted for
any premises which shall be
(a) on the same street or avenue and within two hundred feet of a
building occupied exclusively as a school, church, synagogue or other
place of worship
Enough about the law! So how does McSorley’s continue to serve bros brewskies?! If you guessed that it’s because it was there before they church you’d be wrong. St. George’s Ukranian Catholic Church was built on another older Methodist Episcopal Church around 1840. That would make that John McSorley built opened his bar directly across the street from a church that was around for at least twenty years. Our kinda guy. But if the church is older than the bar, how is McSorley’s Old Ale House allowed to serve Ale?!
Even though Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933, it wouldn’t be until 1934 that the ABC law was enacted. Any businesses that were open and selling liquor during before the ABC law came into effect, even if they’re located directly in front of a church, would be “Grandfathered in” and allowed to continue to wash their patrons’ sorrows down with Whiskey, or a choice of light or dark ale.
McSorley’s During Prohibition
When Prohibition fell on the good people and revelers of New York in 1920, all booze including all alcoholic beer, wine, and alcohol were strictly banned from production and sale. To avoid shuttering its doors, McSorley’s began to brew and serve non-alcoholic “Near Beer.” Yes, it’s as boring as it sounds. Meanwhile, down in the cellar they continued brewing their light and dark ales and would serve them up in the back room. When Prohibition was repealed, McSorley’s didn’t even miss a beat.