Posted: March 15, 2012
By Chris Orchard
A huge chunk of the Davis Square bar and restaurant landscape is owned by people who were born and raised in Ireland.
Ask the owners why so many of their countrymen have started restaurants and bars in Somerville and you get a bit of a shrug. "I have no idea," said David Flanagan, a co-owner of Foundry on Elm and Saloon, who comes from Dublin. "I'm new to Somerville myself." He said Irish people are known for working in the industry. "It's part of our culture."
If one thing connects Somerville's Irish restaurant and bar owners—other than being from Ireland—it's that they have a keen eye for sensing when a neighborhood is becoming popular and for filling niches in existing markets. At the same time, their efforts have helped shape neighborhoods and make them popular to begin with.
The Rockwell College connection
You can't talk about Irish restaurant and bar owners in Somerville without talking about Ken Kelly, a wireless communications consultant who, with fellow Irishman Conor Brennan, took a shot opening a pub in Teele Square in 1999 and is now an owner or part owner of The Independent, Precinct, Foundry on Elm, Saloon and a soon-to-open Davis Square Theatre (formerly Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theatre).
Kelly, from Longford in the Midlands region of Ireland, came to the United States at the age of 18 to attend college in New Jersey. He says his Somerville restaurant career all got started in the late 1990s when he and Brennan, from Dublin, were having a pint at The Thirsty Scholar.
The two went back a few years, as they both attended the same boarding school in Ireland: Rockwell College in County Tipperary. Flanagan, Kelly's business partner at Foundry on Elm and Saloon, also went to Rockwell.
According to Kelly, over that pint at The Thirsty Scholar, Brennan asked if Kelly had any interest in opening a pub, and they eventually opened PJ Ryan's.
After that, Kelly opened The Independent in Union Square in 2001, followed by Toast in 2003, which became Precinct in 2008, and then Foundry on Elm in 2010 and Saloon at the end of 2011.
Brennan doesn't recall that specific pint at The Thirsty Scholar, but he said, "We could have had a similar conversation at The Druid, The Field or The Littlest Bar."
Brennen does remember when discussions over pints led to something concrete. He was flying home to Ireland when he received a phone call from Kelly. Kelly told him, "I've written a check." The check was for about $500, and it was a good-faith payment to secure the building that's now home to PJ Ryan's. Kelly then told Brennan he had two problems: "One, I don't have $500 in my bank account. Two, we might get it."
The Irish come to Somerville
It's hard to imagine Davis and Union squares without their Irish-owned establishments—most of which aren't "Irish" in theme and appearance at all (you wouldn't call Precinct, Orleans, Foundry on Elm or Joshua Tree "Irish" bars). Most of these places have sprouted up only in the past 10 to 15 years.
Margie Duignan is the manager of Orleans, which is Irish owned and part of the Superior Dining Group, which also owns the Warren Tavern in Charlestown, Porter Belly's in Brighton, Barlows in Boston and Devlin's in Brighton.
Duignan is from County Meath outside Dublin, and she came to Boston 18 years ago, when "things were pretty bad in Ireland."
"I got here on a Wednesday, and I was working on a Friday," Duignan said. She walked into the Green Dragon near Faneuil Hall, asked for a job, and they told her to show up two days later.
At the time, all the Irish places were in South Boston, Dorchester and Brighton. Somerville wasn't really on the map. "I know Sligo was there," she said of Somerville.
As the Irish-owned bar scene expanded into Cambridge and Somerville, Duignan's career followed. After the Green Dragon she worked at The Field, The Druid and The Cellar in Cambridge before coming to Somerville.
Brennan thinks bar owners followed revitalization. Boston "reminds me a lot of Dublin," he said, in that there are little neighborhoods and squares that radiate out from the center of the city. "[In] Somerville, 15 years ago, there was a big change, and I think we recognized that change," he said. "You could see this was coming."
First on the block, an owner from an earlier generation
There is a sense of camaraderie among Somerville's Irish bar and restaurant owners, they all admit, that stems a little from being Irish but also from working in the same industry and in the same neighborhoods.
They all point to one Irish-owned Davis Square pub as the grandaddy of them all: Sligo.
If there's one man who's seen Davis Square change over the years, it's Tom Mannion, Sligo's owner since 1989, who said he ways 18 when he moved from County Mayo to America: "I come out here in '57 … [when] it was unlimited how many people could come here from Ireland," he said.
Like Duignan, Mannion got started as a bartender in the city, working on Canal Street and Portland Street and ultimately, in 1971, buying a bar in Allston called Tim and Tom's.
At that time, he would never have thought to come drinking in Somerville, he said. It was too rough, and bar owners were subject to shake-downs from the Winter Hill Gang.
When Mannion bought Sligo, which was previously owned by an Irish couple from County Sligo—before them the place was called Mahoney's, and before that it was Pat Connolly's, and it's been a bar since at least 1932, Mannion said—"there was a bar they called Cadillac." When that closed, "I was the only bar in the square."
The Red Line came to Davis Square in 1984, but still, "I was here a year or two before it started to pick up," Mannion said. On Saturday nights, "it was like a ghost town."
Then The Burren opened. Owned by Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello, musicians from Ireland, The Burren changed everything, Mannion said. "After The Burren came in, people started coming in."
"That brought all the Irish people who like Irish music into the square," and it also brought "all the people who would like to be Irish," he said.
Somerville Patch left a message on the phone and in person with The Burren, but did not hear back from its owners.
Mannion's own story is remarkably similar to those of the younger generation of Irish restaurant owners, except "the kids who come today are educated; they're college kids," he said. Also, Mannion has learned to recognize when a fistfight might break out, which isn't something one expects at Davis Square watering holes these days.
And while Sligo's appearance hasn't changed much over the years—thousands of people have carved their names into the walls and tables—it's customer base has. It now gets a college crowd.
"The students, they are the best bunch," he said.
"The Irish like to get into the bar business," Mannion said. "It's not as easy as you think. You've got to like it."
"An awful lot of bars have opened in the last 10 to 15 years," he said. So many of them are thanks to the Irish.