McSorely’s Old Ale House, New York, Est. 1833.
McSorley’s Old Ale House, one of New York City’s oldest bars. A visit to McSorley’s provides one with a window into the history of New York’s past. From its humble origins as an Irish workingman’s saloon, this is one of New York City’s oldest bars, serving everyone from Abraham Lincoln to John Lennon. Eventually, and only after being legally forced to do so, McSorely’s began to serve women in 1970.
Irishman John McSorley opened his neighbourhood saloon in what was part of the ‘five points’ part of Manhattan, which gained an international reputation as a densely populated, disease ridden, crime infested slum. It was a fiercely tough neighbourhood with gangs that fought to take control of the district and made famous by Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Gangs of New York’.
John McSorley wished to take a piece of Ireland with him to America when building his saloon. His wish was to create an atmosphere which mirrored that of his own Irish culture. During the time of the saloon’s construction, many immigrants were arriving in from overseas. As a result, New York City began to see these immigrants bringing pieces of their culture with them, and indeed McSorley too was committed to making his own Irish culture stick through the development of his saloon. After work, a stop at McSorley’s was a relief for the working man, as it allowed him to escape the harsh grind of what then was their daily life in New York. McSorely’s was prized as a place where all could feel at home as they mingled and exchanged stories and memories of the ‘aul sod’.
The bar catered mainly for the working man. Carpenters, tanners, bricklayers, slaughter house butchers, truckers and brewers populated the neighbourhood, and McSorely’s was their “local”. The pub sold ale in pewter mugs at five cents a mug and put up a free lunch, which consisted of crackers, raw onions, and cheese. Together with this free lunch McSorely offered tobacco and a rack of clay and corncob pipes. The purchase of an ale entitled a man to a smoke on the house and McSorely’s pipe rack still holds a few of the communal pipes.
Today, a visit to McSorley’s is a fascinating, educational experience and a walk through social history. From the ceiling to the sawdust covered floor, it is covered in old photographs and antiques. Hundreds of years that capture many of the greatest moments of Irish and American history are catalogued there. During World War I, McSorley’s began a tradition of giving troops heading off to war, a turkey dinner and of course, pints of ale. The turkey wishbones were left in the pub as a good luck charm and those who returned from war would proudly reclaim their own wishbone. Sadly, the unclaimed wishbones still serve as a sad reminder of those who never came home.
Amazingly, not one single piece of memorabilia has been removed from the walls since 1910 and there are many items of historical paraphernalia such as Houdini's handcuffs, which are locked to the bar rail. Still hanging on the wall are a pair of rusty convict shackles belonging to a customer who fought in the Civil War and who brought them back from a Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia. Eventually, McSorely has covered every square inch of his wall space between wainscot and ceiling with pictures and souvenirs. Today, new customers climb up on chairs to view these and one can indeed spend hours studying them.
You will find there is no cash register behind the 160 year old bar counter at McSorley’s. There has never been one, and to preserve its timeless history, there will probably never be one. In place of a cash register there hangs a sign showing the backside view of a pig, which reads “We Trust Here”. Next to this, and dating from 1865, can be seen an original “Wanted’ poster for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The coal burning stove, a fixture standing for as long as McSorley’s has been in business, is today still in perfect working order. It has provided heat for generations of patrons on cold winter days and casts its warm fiery glow over the entire bar.
To this day, McSorley’s is the only New York City bar that still uses saw dust on the floor. It is another time honoured tradition that McSorley’s has carried on since its foundation and harks back to when many customers chewed tobacco and spat on the floor. The sawdusts purpose was simply to absorb not only the beer spills, but also the spittle!
As you venture further into this alehouse, you will come across the legendary backroom, a spot where beer flowed freely during prohibition. McSorley’s ale was produced mysteriously in a row of washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer named Barney Kelly. The smell of malt and wet hops would fill the air and Barney made a practice of weakening this beer into the so called ‘near beer’. Throughout prohibition Barney always referred to his ale as near beer, a euphemism which greatly amused customers. One night a policeman who knew Barney stuck his head in the door and announced, “I met an old man up at the corner wrestling with a horse. When I asked him what he’d been drinking he replied, “Near beer in McSorley’s”. The prohibition ale here would have cost you fifteen cents or two mugs for a quarter. McSorely disregarded prohibition and ran his saloon wide open. His saloon didn’t have a peephole door and neither did he pay any protection money. McSorley’s was never once raided. Perhaps being patronised by a number of local politicians and police officials probably had something to do with that!
Today, McSorley’s gives individuals a chance to step away from the never ending changes to New York City. McSorley’s refuses to modernise and, untouched by time, the pub stands to remind the community of just how New York City has changed since 1833. The same photographs hang on the walls, the same appliances sit in their original position, and its locals continue to live the same experiences as many generations before them did despite the pubs now ultra modern surroundings.