Cincinnati’s Early Irish Saloons Had No Time for Green Beer

They were too busy battling the German bars for supremacy among the city’s drinkers.
From Cincinnati Enquirer July 5, 1903. Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand.
Artist Winsor McCay (later famous for his “Little Nemo in Slumberland”) captured the essence of Cincinnati’s Irish saloons in this drawing published to illustrate one of Finley Peter Dunne’s “Mr. Dooley” humor columns.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand.

So ubiquitous are the photographs of mustachioed men with feet up on the brass rail and plug hats screwed firmly upon their noggins, that you might be forgiven if you concluded that all Cincinnati saloons were identical. This is not the case.

For evidence, let’s turn to a meeting of the General Protective Association of Saloon-Keepers convened on Tuesday, April 24, 1883, to discuss a new state law taxing dispensaries of alcoholic potations. Although the meeting convened at a German hall, the president, J.J. Abbihl, introduced the agenda in English. According to the next day’s Commercial Tribune:

“As Mr. Abbihl spoke in the English language, Mr. Albert Springer made a motion that the German language be used in the discussion, but it was agreed to make the explanations in English on account of the importance of the meeting.”

Although the German beer garden holds a sacred place in the gilded memories of Cincinnati, a fair number of local pubs were helmed by Irish and American barkeeps. Any discussion of group meetings involving saloon keepers is clear to distinguish between “German saloon keepers” and “American and Irish saloon keepers.” (Of course, in their segregated neighborhoods, there were also Black saloon-keepers, but they weren’t allowed to join the protective associations.)

In general, the Irish saloons hewed closer to the river, and you can see this among the watering holes listed in the city directories. You find O’Brien’s at Third and Ludlow, O’Herron’s at Plum and Ann, McCoy’s on Front Street, McSweeney’s at the southern end of John Street, and Connor’s way down on Central.

While the Germans colonized Over-the-Rhine, that wasn’t always the case. The WPA Guide to Cincinnati relates that O’Bryonville, with its Irish namesake but early nickname as “Dutchtown,” accommodated Germans and Irish in (not always happy) comity:

“Thenceforth the name Dutchtown also was applied to the community, and many arguments were started over the bars between Irish and German customers who were constantly striving for social supremacy in the little community.”

This distinction was underlined in 1877 when saloon-keepers throughout the city gathered to pressure Cincinnati’s brewers into maintaining standard prices. Throughout Cincinnati, you paid 5 cents for a tall glass of beer, except in a few disreputable dives where suds were dispensed at two glasses for a nickel. The saloon-keepers realized that there was only one way the dives could afford two beers at that price—some brewery was selling stock at a discount. In those confrontations, the German saloonists met at one location and the Irish and American barkeeps met at another. Although they endorsed the viewpoint of the German proprietors, the Irish and Americans elected their own delegation to confront the brewers.

It is clear, from newspaper coverage, that the drink menus differed between German saloons and American and Irish saloons. William C. Smith, in his wonderful little book, Queen City Yesterdays: Sketches of Cincinnati in the Eighties, makes a distinction between the beer-centered German establishments and the Irish and America saloons that purveyed mostly the harder stuff. Smith avers there ought to be a strict differentiation between beer saloons and what he calls “boozing kens.” His description offers a physiological excuse for Irish and American drinking patterns:

“On a shelf next to the wall various brands of liquor were in evidence, some labeled and others in plain bottles, the quality of the latter known only to God and the proprietor. These emporiums were patronized by the Irish and American inhabitants who believed their stomachs to be lined with a substance that beer might corrode, whereas whiskey apparently acted only as a preservative and polishing agent.”

That distinction is fortified by a joke that, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer [September 23, 1917], was so old it caused Cain to slay Abel:

“An Irish saloon keeper hired a new bartender. A man came in and got a drink of whisky and then said: ‘I’ll pay for this Saturday. My name is Murphy. The boss knows me.’

“‘Wait and I’ll ask the boss,’ said the bartender. ‘Oh, boss,’ yelled the bartender up the stairs. ‘Is Murphy good for a drink?’

“‘Has he had it?’ asked the boss. ‘He has,’ replied the bartender. ‘He is,’ replied the boss.”

Not all Irish and American saloons sold whiskey exclusively. Perhaps the premier Irish saloon in Cincinnati was Andy Gilligan’s Café on Vine Street directly opposite the Enquirer building between Sixth and Seventh streets. For nearly 30 years, Gilligan was famous for his luxurious beard extending from his chin to his belt buckle. On warm days, he was a living Vine Street landmark, basking in the afternoon sun as he stood outside his café enjoying a good 15-cent cigar.

Gilligan ran book on local prizefights, but the cops usually looked the other way. He was known as an easy touch for actors down on their luck and a frequent host to heavyweight boxing champ (and prodigious drinker) John L. Sullivan. Despite his largesse, Gilligan left an estate worth a respectable $75,000 in 1905 dollars. Decades after his death, The Cincinnati Post printed a remembrance:

From Cincinnati Enquirer October 16, 1898. Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand.
Saloonist Andy Gilligan was certainly the king of Irish barkeeps in Cincinnati, as famous for his gargantuan beard as for his generosity to actors down on their luck.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand.

“Do you remember when no St. Patrick’s Day was complete without a peek at Colonel Andy Gilligan and his long whiskers resting on a great green sash in the Hibernians’ annual March 17 parade?”

During World War I, as Prohibition loomed, evidence accumulated that all of Cincinnati’s saloon-keepers were in the same, sinking boat. As anti-German hysteria swept the city, nationalist firebrands were quick to point out Irish saloons catering to a German clientele. According to The Post [September 14, 1917]:

“James J. Dolan runs a saloon at Richmond-st. and Central-av., which he calls ‘Zum Guten Happen.’ Now that German has nearly been put out of the schools, somebody, no doubt, will start a movement to put it out of Irish saloons.”

A similar situation obtained at an Oakley saloon managed by Patrick J. McHugh, called “Auf Wiedersehen.”

No discussion of Irish saloons can conclude without a mention of green beer. Before 1917, of course, “green beer” meant improperly aged suds. A 1908 Wiedemann advertisement advised against drinking green beer because “it has practically no flavor and will cause biliousness.”

As for the annual emerald-hued St. Patrick’s Day quaff, blame the Elks. In 1917, in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, Cincinnati’s Elks lodges consumed green beer in abundant quantities. According to The Post, the verdant libation was concocted by a German brewer.

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