It was 92 days before St. Patrick’s Day when I started this assignment. I know that because the sign counting down the days loomed bright and merry in December over the bar at O’Neill’s in Salem. Beneath twinkly white lights, there we are— my friends and I taking down a basket of steak fries in curry sauce, a mainstay at the nearly 20-year-old Washington Street establishment, while chatting with manager Mary Levasseur, who loves how the place seems to magically whisk her back to County Louth.
“It’s very much like home here; [it’s] the closest thing,” she says, pointing to the two musicians in the corner on this Friday evening session.
We’re here in search of a bit of the craic, as the Irish say—a good laugh, a bit of fun. Sweatshirts sold at the North Shore Irish pub sum up our location just exactly: Wicked Good Craic. We try the usual suspect beers—Guinness, Harp, Boddington’s—but I also relish a peanut butter porter by Foolproof Brewing Company out of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Regional creativity meets global tradition.
The Irish tend to pop round the corner to their “local,” and in downtown Salem, this practice is just as easy. “This is physically the closest place we could go,” says Joe Ferrari. “Yes, it’s like our living room,” adds his wife Beki. “We eat here, we drink here, we made most of our friends here.”
John Foley says O’Neill’s is also his local. “This is the only bar I go to, really. I may wander, but this is home base.” A few customers stand before the musicians, and then begin to sway and sing along. “We just have it covered for the Irish session on the North Shore,” Levasseur says wistfully.
By “covered,” she means the long bar gets rollicking every Friday evening and Sunday afternoon with some of the finest traditional musicians on the North Shore, and then the session opens to other talented fiddle, banjo, and tin whistle players who turn up to join in the merriment. Little ones will do a jig as their parents enjoy a pint two.
On this particular evening, things are a bit quieter. The room is filled with the heartfelt songs of Tim O’Toole and James Moriarty, who take us on a journey through poetic lyrics and the drone of the accordion and the Irish Bouzouki, a traditional Greek instrument introduced into Irish music in the 1960s. Moriarty, from Kerry, first came to the United States in 1986 on his honeymoon and pretty much stayed. He comes from a “rambling house,” a family of musicians and storytellers.
“I’m drawn to famine songs,” he says, referring to the mid-19th-century Great Famine that caused mass emigration from Ireland. “I like that the songs all tell a story. People were starved out of the country. It was a sad time.”
O’Toole, 29 and born in this country, sings and plays as though he’s been through the Great Famine. A lover of the Dropkick Murphys and other Celtic punk, he was influencd by a high school English teacher to go more traditional. “I think it’s coming back,” he says, “It’s one of the most accessible forms of music—not just Irish, but folk music.”
When Moriarty begins a heart-tugging tune, O’Toole marvels at his voice, “It’s old style. It’s not a classical training at all. It’s what you’d expect someone to sound like in their cottage.”
Both musicians also play at The Peddler’s Daughter, where I head the next day on a four-pub journey that takes me to Haverhill, Methuen, Newburyport, and Beverly. With a name that references the Haverhill lass who became a Vaudeville star, The Peddler’s Daughter is tucked down a flight of stairs among the bricked downtown mill buildings and is the most authentic atmosphere you can find this side of County Clare.
“Now, girls, what can I get you?” asks Kit Leahy, in a central casting lilt. Leahy has only been in this country a couple of years from County Clare. Her sister, Mags Conneely, who owns the place with her Galway-native husband, Michael, breezes in, and then a third sister enters the place and chats with the customers. The sisters used to lead tourists on the Cliffs of Moher.
If you choose to spend your St. Patrick?s Day doing kegs and eggs at The Peddler’s Daughter, you’ve got a full week to ramp up to the big day, starting at 8 a.m., with live music at 10 a.m., pipers and Irish dancers later on, and corned beef and cabbage right into the afternoon. If you tire of Guinness, there’s Jameson Green Tea or a Hot Toddy. The menu tempts with potato and leek soup, bangers (Irish sausage), bubble and squeak (a scramble of fried cabbage, potatoes, and meat), cottage pie (meat pie), and a scotch egg (hardboiled egg wrapped in sausage meat). Melissa Etheridge, Jack Johnson, and Greg Alman have all visited this place which is well worth a trip to charming, bricked downtown Haverhill. On this day, a couple of regulars regale us with tales of the old building that survived Haverhill’s Great Fire and of Mags Conneely’s father, a serious horse trainer in Ireland who is featured in a beautiful photograph by the bar.
The North Shore’s Irish pubs are all connected in interesting ways. The co-owner of Salem’s Olde Main Street Pub and the owner of The Indo in Beverly became U.S. citizens at Faneuil Hall three years ago on the same day. Kieran O’Neill tells me the story the day after, when I visit his Salem pub Olde Main Street and chat with regulars. O’Neill grew up in Limerick and moved to the United States and became captain of the soccer team at Salem State University. After bartending at a different Irish pub in the space, he was excited when the opportunity came up to buy the bar with his chef friend Tim Caldwell, who has perfected his cream ale batter on the fish and chips and has diners lining up for his fried lollipop kale.
At Olde Main Street Pub, the intimate, dimly lit bar has a fireplace and is separated from the restaurant. It’s the kind of cozy place where you are sure to actually talk to strangers. “I’m here today. I was here yesterday, and I’ll probably be here all next week,” says a 25-year-old patron who lives in downtown Salem. Meanwhile, Sam and Susan Allen have braved the cold to walk the couple of miles from The Willows to enjoy the quaint atmosphere.
O’Neill can talk for a while about the importance of cozy, soft lighting. Atmosphere is half of it, and no matter what, it’s a lot of work. “You’re only as good as that day you closed the door behind you. The following day is a new game,” he says. “And you just hope [you] can continue on with what you’re doing.”
The Indo in Beverly is a more modern take on the Irish American pub. Many regulars enter through the back door, past a tiny porch. It’s cozy and cool. A record player on the bar spins vinyl on Wednesday evenings. “As a bartender, music is everything for the flow,” says bartender Gianna Baglioni on a cold and sunny Friday afternoon. “Having great records spinning is everything.”
Beer here is super local. Baglioni takes me through three different styles of IPAs and grows enthusiastic about their nuanced tastes. Cara D’Eon, a young teacher who lives nearby, is sitting next to me finishing lunch. An increased curiosity about whiskey has led her to take something of a crash course at The Indo. “If I come here alone, I always find friendly people to talk to,” she says.
There are the occasional big Irish moments at The Indo, like when a group of guys with heavy brogues gather at the end of the bar, buying each other pints and packets of crisps and talking about their Cadbury chocolate. Still, Baglioni would describe the place as not a hipster bar exactly, “but it is a large part of our business.”
Every traveler knows that an Irish pub is a beacon of comfort on the road. “If you’re ever in trouble in the world, look for the Irish bar, because you’re going to be safe there,” says O’Neill. “That goes to show the tradition of the Irish pub has expanded all over the world from the small Irish village it started in hundreds of years ago.”
There is no shortage of pubs to visit on the North Shore this March in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Tips to keep you upright: Pace yourself, eat well, sing loud, and talk to your neighbor down the bar.
The Peddler’s Daughter
45 Wingate Street, Haverhill
• A seriously authentic atmosphere that might make you forget for
a moment that you’re in downtown Haverhill
• Family run
• Traditional sessions
• Cream of potato & leek soup topped with scallions; house brined, slow-cooked corned beef sandwich; fish & chips with house-cut fries and Peddler’s homemade ketchup, served traditional style in newspaper
1111 Riverside Drive, Methuen
• A full traditional Irish breakfast from 7 a.m., seven days a week, complete with rashers, Irish sausage, black and white pudding, and bread
• Good community feel in authentic setting
• Traditional sessions
• Owners and management from Sligo and Galway
298 Cabot Street, Beverly
Name is short for The Irish Independent
• Duck gravy poutine and mac and cheese made with cheddar, gouda, and parmesan
• A beer selection that takes you through Ireland, across Europe, and back to the North Shore
• Late-night menu until 12:30 Wednesday through Sunday
• A collaboration with Mingo Galleries every Thursday night; “Under the Influence” features a playlist, curated each week by local artists and musicians
• Indo sessions with North Shore legendary musicians John Aruda and Mike Miksis
Olde Main Street Pub
121 Essex Street, Salem
• An intimate bar setting that is separate from the dining room with a cozy fireplace
• A big selection of local brews including a fun take on Guinness, the Bent Water Porter out of Lynn
• Korean-style duck wings with kimchi from Maitland Mountain Farm, fried lollipop kale
• A great pour of Guinness
• Walkable in downtown Salem
120 Washington Street, Salem
• Traditional sessions
• Walkable in downtown Salem
• Steak fries with curry sauce
• DJs and dancing on weekend nights
The Port Tavern
84 State Street, Newburyport
• Trivia nights
• Outdoor seating in good weather and fireplace to warm when it’s cold
• Beloved pulled pork nachos
• Huge selection of craft beers
RF O’Sullivan and Sons
151 Central Street, Lynn
• A great addition to downtown Lynn as a second location for the original Somerville establishment
• Considered burger heaven with a wide selection of amazing, juicy burgers, from the Dirty Bird to the Cape Codder
• A good pint or a root beer float