There was McCawley’s and its blinds that hadn’t been cleaned in decades. One block over was Connie’s Corner where Chris the German bartender would always announce, “I know your family, Nolan,” cause we lived around the block and Chris served my parents, aunts, uncles and all. On the next was Val’s, used to be Casey’s, where my father went with my mom and his three sisters when he got off the subway after three and a half years in Africa and Europe fighting Hitler. One more over was Boops where young somewhat tough guys hung out. All on 10th Avenue.
On 9th Avenue, there was McNulty’s which was across the street from The Shamrock, which was down the block from O’Neill’s. Hilltop I don’t remember but Langtons was on the circle (Bartel Prichard Square) and you have to count McFaddens Legion Post since everyone belonged. There were others of course, Parkside, Franks Prospect Avenue, Devaney’s, Sullivan’s, Fitzgerald’s, Fogarty’s and many more. Rattigan’s which Pete Hamill always mentions. Most were small, somewhat dark and worn, just a place to sit and have a beer, maybe a shot, talk about sports or politics or local stuff with friends, on the way home from work, on weekends, after Mass on Sunday.
And then there was Farrell’s. Gleaming brass, polished wood, clean plate glass windows, bright, crowded with men in ties, some wearing hats, smoking, drinking cold Bud from stem glasses or shots of whiskey in one gulp. The other saloons you could flash your brother’s draft card and for 15 cents they’d serve you a glass of beer. Not Farrell’s. They knew you, your family, your father, mother, grandparents. After all they were from here—Holy Name—played ball in the schoolyard, the park with your uncles, cousins. And if by chance Eddie Farrell, Hooley, Danny Mills and the other bartenders didn’t know you, one of your Dad’s friends would have one leg on the foot rail. So you waited till you were 18 and then summoned sufficient courage to go in and plunk down your money. You were a man.
Growing up with a bar on nearly every corner didn’t seem strange since we knew nothing else. Sure there were black neighborhoods and Italian and Jewish, but except for CYO basketball and baseball games, we didn’t go there. We stayed on the familiar streets where our parents were born, married and died. In those innocent days, we passed these bars on the way to school, to church, bouncing our basketballs or our Spaldeens, peering in to see the Yankee score. After all, we were Irish and drink was what we did—at wakes and weddings and every county ball.
Of course as teenagers we snuck beers and at 16 or 17 would go to the Parkside or Connie’s or some other dive with obvious phony proof and be served. But once we turned 18, were legit, it was Farrell’s. No one had the dough to go away to college so we attended Brooklyn or St. Johns or St. Francis and lived at home. Friday and Saturday evenings we’d meet in Farrell’s, have a few cold ones before heading to the Fillmore East, a frat party or the park to smoke dope.
In the late 60’s, early 70’s, Farrell’s was always crowded with iron workers, cops, Irish guys off the boat and the many young with hair creeping toward shoulders and political views inconceivable. Vietnam split the neighborhood with us college kids vehemently opposed and our parents and those who worked with their hands in support. It was Vietnam that drove all our families, who adored JFK, to Nixon in 68, turned those born and bred Democrats into conservative Republicans. “The Democrats are for the masses, the Republicans for the classes,” old Mr. Flynn would chant. I’m sure he went to his grave never voting Republican but between the filthy anti-war protestors and liberal elitist Mayor Lindsay, the whole neighborhood changed from working class Democrats to Nixon/Reagan Republicans. And never returned.
“I went to college,” sneered the burly construction worker. “Red Hook.” The blue collar guys despised us. We had it all—education, a few bucks, wheels, unlimited potential and we were burning the flag, cursing the President, hating America. We’d walk into Farrell’s wearing our End the War buttons and guys our age but working full-time would chant, “Four More Years,” in honor of Nixon. Soon the whole bar would join in clapping and yelling “Four More Years” and Hooley would stop, a slight smile on his face, chuckling. It was Farrell’s where we mixed, the scruffy college kids and the veterans, the union guys, those who spent years abroad fighting for freedom. “I don’t get it,” said Richie Van Pelt who walked with a limp courtesy of the Viet Cong. “I lost a lot of good friends over there.”
You shouted, cursed but never fought. And as our hair got longer, our jeans rattier, we were met with bewilderment and disgust but still got kickbacks every 4th beer. We were stupid or nuts or brainwashed by those Commie professors, but we were neighborhood and essentially family. And when anti-war reformers like Joe Ferris ran for the Assembly, he was supported by most around the bar. Sure they disagreed on the issues, but he was a stand-up guy, one of them and that’s all that mattered.
The bar was clean, the beer cold and when you walked through the doors, you knew nearly everyone. They’d get red in the face at our peace symbols, but then ask about your father or aunt or grandmother who they saw at church on Sunday. Men at the bar, women in the back only. When Joe Hajjar’s Texas girlfriend innocently approached the bar, men booed. Legend has it that Shirley Maclaine, Pete Hamill’s date, was the first woman served at the bar. Years later my mother was passing and my friends jokingly dragged her in the back, C’mon Mrs. Nolan have a beer. She said this was the first time in her 60 odd years that she was ever in Farrell’s despite living all her life within 4 blocks.
We didn’t really know Eddie Farrell in those times. He worked days and we were at night with Jimmy Houlihan and the rest. But we knew how he would silently reach into his pocket if someone needed rent money or to pay a doctor. There was always a fundraiser for an ill infant, someone injured on the job, the nuns. Eddie had quiet dignity and class, white shirt and tie serving beer or whiskey with a shy smile. Eddie set the tone, not only with his pleasant demeanor but with his style and selflessness. His bar was not just a place for a drink. Along with the church, it was the neighborhood center not only where people met, but where guys could come when in trouble or in need. Eddie would arrange a loan, a lawyer, a job. Come back on Thursday, talk to Tommy, he’s a foreman, maybe he knows someone who could use you. And if Tommy couldn’t help you, then he wrote a telephone number on a napkin and you called Jackie. If Eddie Farrell says you’re OK, that’s all I need to know. And as guys my age gravitated to law, medicine or Wall Street, connections were made, favors done, knowing that if you took care of your own, they’d someday take care of you.
But it was social too. Softball, football teams were sponsored, trips to Giant football games in Chicago or Philly or DC. Busloads traveled to the Preakness or the Belmont. In Farrell’s you learned the neighborhood news, who died, passed the fireman’s test, bought a home in Jersey.
Eddie’s acts of generosity were done without publicity. Yet on one occasion the guys threw him a racket at McFadden’s Post. The huge hall was packed, seemed like the entire neighborhood was there. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie they shouted when he arrived somewhat surprised, embarrassed, blushing. People just wanted to say thanks for helping so many, for being humble and just a nice guy.
For when I think about Farrell’s now 40 years after my first beer, that’s what I remember most. Nice guys. Eddie who I came to know quite well before his sudden death in 1995. I became a lawyer and he called me on occasion to assist. Jimmy Houlihan whose goodness and generosity mirrors Eddie’s. Timmy Horan, Danny Mills and the late Vinny Brunton, FDNY, who moonlighted as a bartender and was killed on 9/11. Nice guys who do good. And this tradition continues, raising money for Holy Name or Bishop Ford in Vinny’s name. Helping their own.
All the other bars are long gone and probably for the better. Farrell’s remains although it has changed over the years. When I stop in, I recognize a few faces but not most. The neighborhood of families living paycheck to paycheck has been replaced by writers, lawyers, doctors living in homes that cost a million or more. We used to joke that we had to do better than our parents, we had live in a better home than mine on Sherman Street—bigger, no bunk beds, a backyard where you could have a catch, a shower rather than a cold narrow bathtub. The piercing irony is that now most can’t afford Windsor or Fuller Place or even the once smelly tenements on 15th St or 16th Streets. Had we foresight and a bank book, we could have bought half the block for what it cost to buy one home today. Only when we left did we realize what we lost.
There are stools now and some of the beer is bottled, an anathema to the purists. But Hooley, Timmy and Danny are familiar faces, still raising money, throwing rackets. A few years ago, Farrell’s ran a reunion at Bishop Ford and 1200 showed up, desperate to maintain the link to those same streets where they were raised amid sacrifice but with love and laughter. And one of the younger guys who lives in Michigan runs a blog called “Container Diaries,” after the styrofoam cups that hold Budweiser. Photos and memories are published all beginning with “Remember the time…” And we do.
It is to Farrell’s that we return. For Farrell’s remains as it did in our carefree youth when our parents sang and laughed and lived. Where we knew everyone and everyone us. Same bar, same glasses, same Hooley. We have our own lives, our own families, kids grown, successful. Yet we continue to return, now mostly in our thoughts. A familiar sound or name or memory. It’s a Friday night, early 70’s, three deep at the bar. Bayer or Jimbo or Pick walks in. We grab a beer, we laugh, we’re happy.
After the publication of Farrell’s in Mr. Beller’s, I read in Irish America magazine that a Patrick Farrell
won a Pulitzer Prize for photography for The Miami Herald. It mentioned that his family owned a bar
in Brooklyn. I emailed Patrick the story in case he was related. I received his reply in Dec. 2009.
I also received an email from Thomas Farrell, (Patrick’s brother), a lawyer in Florida who also
thanked me for the story.
Thank you. I just sat here with my father, Eddie’s older brother Jimmy (he’s 88), and read your beautiful
story as I watched the tears well up in his eyes. Your descriptions were so dead on and brought back so
many memories. We were especially touched by your description of Eddie. Growing up in Florida kept
us away from the bar and the great times it offered, but my father never stopped talking about it and
when Uncle Eddie would visit with Farrell’s T-shirts in tow, we’d wear them until they became tattered
rags. My full name is Edward Patrick Farrell, I was named after Uncle Eddie, thanks for the wonderful
reminder of him and where my father grew up.
– Patrick Farrell
My dad’s still doing well and your article brought a tear to his eye. When I mentioned the article to him
at Christmas, his face lit up. That’s a Christmas present that’s a worthy competitor for best Christmas
present. Seeing my 2 year old’s face light up with wonderment on Christmas morning probably still wins
but it’s very close.
– Thomas Farrell
Ken Nolan is a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.