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Where the Poetry and Beer Flow in Unison

Entrepreneurs: About 27 new Irish-owned pubs have opened in Boston in the last three years. But these are not your father's pubs, and the proprietors are a different breed.

June 22, 1998|PAMELA FERDINAND | WASHINGTON POST

BOSTON — So here's your man, David Wheatley, reciting a bit o' poetry for the pub crowd, his left hand stuck in a dark suit pocket, his right clutching a sheaf of white papers. A nearby mirror embossed with "Harp Lager" bounces his reflection back into a packed room wrapped in whispers and a mist of cigarette smoke.

"Which lasts longer, poetry or drink? What's a poem, if not a message in a bottle?" asks Wheatley, a 27-year-old Dubliner with a soft accent and a victory in a 1994 national Irish poetry competition.

His audience grins, sipping from pints of liquid verse and content in another night in one of the many Irish pubs in Boston where poetry, music and theater flow as freely as creamy Guinness stout and dispel the image of the dingy immigrant watering hole.

An estimated 27 new Irish-owned pubs have opened in Boston in the last three years, offering traditional music sessions, weekly set-dancing, rock concerts, avant-garde menus, art exhibits and film screenings. The new Boston Irish pub scene is not only reinventing one of the culture's oldest staples. It also is redefining what it means to be an Irish immigrant in this most Irish of American cities.

Those who are shaping today's scene came here by choice rather than economic necessity, immigrating largely in the 1980s and taking shifts behind other people's bars to learn the trade. They are well-educated with more entrepreneurial spirit and less emotional baggage than their desperate ancestors who fled famine, persecution and poverty decades ago. And they are determined and optimistic enough to resist the "Celtic Tiger," a booming Irish economy that has lured thousands of their compatriots home.

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Although it numbers only several hundred, the effect of this new Boston breed has been particularly great in a city where an estimated 25% of the population claims Irish ancestry. As popular social haunts, the new pubs attract the same peculiar mix of students and housewives, executives and barflies as such establishments always have. But they have infused the old quaintness with a hip edge and expanded the concept of Irish heritage to mean more than just green beer and "Danny Boy" on the jukebox.

The new generation is purveying more than a pint. From South Boston to Somerville, they are also selling a modern Irish way of life:

The Phoenix Landing screens independent films Monday nights and runs acid jazz and techno music evenings. The Burren offers set-dancing lessons, and the Brendan Behan is promoting a "photographic novel" slide show. The Druid in Cambridge, with rocking music and Celtic-theme murals, opens its doors to theater troupes. The revamped Kinvara, one of the oldest pubs in Boston, hosts weekly trivia quiz nights, while Michael Sherlock's hosts poetry readings and charity auctions. Ned Kelly's has featured magicians.

"The new Irish have energized the community," said Ciaran Byrne, the Irish vice consul in Boston. "They know how to run a good bar, create a good atmosphere and get good music. It's a big scene."

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