Oak Park author's new book highlights Chicago-area Irish pubs

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing Reporter

He who drinks and drinks with grace, is always welcome in this place. He who drinks more than his share, is never welcome anywhere.

— Saying on the wall of Shinnick's pub in Bridgeport

Hearing over and over again a humorous and meandering story told by a real, or honorary, bearded Irish guy with a brogue in an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day is one American tradition.

But that isn't the only way the Irish celebrate it. For years in Ireland, Lá Fhéile Pádraig (St. Patrick's Day) was a religious homage to Saint Patrick (c. AD 387–461), the most commonly recognized of the patron saints of Ireland among Catholics.

Yet here, and most everywhere else, March 17 is an all-out salute to being Irish, if only for one day a year. To celebrate it, collectively, we eat corned beef and cabbage, don something green all day, take in performances of traditional music and step-dancing performed by curly red-headed girls, and of course, savor pints of brown, tan and "green" ale, beer or stout in Irish pubs.

On a recent blustery day in Forest Park, Mark Hosty, general manager of Healy's Westside, waxed poetic about his "local" (what pubs are called in Ireland). His partners, Terry and Dick Healy, the pub's owners, relocated Healy's Westside eight years ago to 7321 Madison St.

In the late 1960s, the first Healy's Westside settled in just up the street, and the original family-owned Irish pub, just known as Healy's, was established in Chicago in 1954, he says. It was a treasured and popular neighborhood place, Hosty says.

Healy's Westside, along with about 50 other family-run Irish pubs in Chicago and the near suburbs, are spotlighted in a new quick read, Images of America: Chicago's Historic Irish Pubs (2011, Arcadia Publishing) by Mike Danahey, a Chicago Sun-Times Media Group reporter, and Allison Hantschel, an Oak Park author.

Hantschel has also penned It Doesn't End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal (2008, Heritage Books) and is currently co-publisher of First Draft, a journalism and politics blog. Administrative director of the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park is another of her jobs.

Chicago's Historic Pubs is available online and locally at Borders Books for $21.99, she says.

At first glance, this paperback could be the launching pad to an entertaining pub crawl though that wasn't their intent.

"Chicago's Historic Irish Pubs is really about how the immigrant experience was sort of filtered through these famous old and new Irish pubs," Hantschel says. "For example, when there were railroad strikes, because the workers would be locked out of their places of business, the pubs became the de facto headquarters for organizing labor."

Other interesting factoids that can be gleaned from these pages are profiles of pubs ranging from Sauganash and Cahill Bros., which are no longer with us, to venerable Irish joints such as Shinnick's in Bridgeport, where loads of South Side White Sox fans and others tend to hang out.

"I've tipped more than a few pints myself at Shinnick's, but it's best to be a Sox fan if you go in there," Hosty muses. "Really, the key to an Irish pub, I think, is the hospitality and the warmth, and that is what we have tried to capture at Healy's."

In Ireland, he continues, a pub is always a meeting place, a social center, and it is called "your local" because the pub is a central hub where everyone can go and catch up. It's the social network that supports the fabric of the community.

The historic escapades at Healy's sound unbelievable, but they're true. Also included here are the doings and details of a few new Irish establishments in the Chicago area, including Chief O'Neill's Pub, 3471 N. Elston, Chicago, where the owners' intent is to preserve the heritage of historic Irish music, as well as provide music lessons to the next generation. All-Ireland musicians Brendan and Siobhan McKinney opened it in 1999 to celebrate Chief O'Neill's life, his achievements and to keep his musical tradition alive and well in the city he loved.

"We chose what we did based on putting out a general call to people to see who was interested in telling their story," Hantschel says. "We did not leave anyone out, but it is not an exhaustive catalogue of Irish pubs."

Other pubs in Forest Park, for instance, with a focus on Irish heritage are Molly Malone's, 7652 Madison, and Kevil's, 7228 Circle.

"We really didn't think there was going to be as much material out there as there was. By the end of the project, we were saying, 'Oh, I don't want to cut that,' but we couldn't fit it all in."

Sometimes they got lucky. "We wandered into Shinnick's actually looking for Sheehan's, which doesn't really officially exist, but Shinnick's is a much better story."

With a name like Hantschel, you won't be surprised to hear that she's "not Irish at all. I'm German. So we do know our beer. Mike is the Irish half of the partnership. We have spent a lot of time in Irish bars and wanted to know more about the places that people like to gather in. I looked at this as a chance to hear a lot of family's stories. We thought we would get a lot of drinking tales, but we really didn't. We ended up with a lot of stories about people's parents, and their grandparents, and about the way people grew up in this city in the past. That was very fascinating to me."

Healy's history

Prominently cornered at Madison and Circle, Healy's Westside usually draws a diverse mix of families, nearby working-class neighbors and cavorting groups of Chicagoans who jump an el, Blue or Green, to join in on the fun, St. Patrick's Day or any other.

In the Irish way, Hantschel regales with a few tales about Patrick, the first member of the Chicago Healys to emigrate to America from Ireland. In 1853, he opened Patrick's on Pratt in Baltimore, a historic American Irish pub still going strong today.

Eventually, Patrick brought the rest of his family to the United States, via his pub. In 1922, Mike Healy arrived, later opening the original Healy's, at the corner of Madison Street and Kostner Avenue on Chicago's West Side in 1954. His sons, Terry and Dick, tended bar for their Da.

"Boy, when you get Terry and Dick talking about the things that would happen at Madison and Kostner, oh my God, there are 50 stories," Hantschel says. "They really got to know their customers, often giving them names like 'Terrible Tempered Tommy' and 'Calamity O'Shea.' But the ribbing was all done with love."

One of the more outrageous stories featured in the book is about the patron who had a sore tooth, was complaining about it to the guy on the next bar stool, and his companion, being a well-meaning mechanic, went to his truck to retrieve a pliers. With the patient's permission, he pulled the tooth out in the back room of the pub.

"The joke since then," says Hantschel, "is that the original Healy's was a 'full-service' pub."

Another time, a group of local coaches pulled off an intricate prank which involved inventing a fake university (named for the tavern where the plot was launched) to score free tickets to the NCAA basketball championship.

Sooner rather than later, they were exposed and McGuire University, was discovered, exposed and banned. Now, says Hantschel, the basketball-loving pranksters still travel to the tourney, but on their own dimes.

In the '50s and '60s, Hosty said, people used to say when you "got off the boat, it docked at Healy's" because every "off-the-boat Irishman" went to Healy's to get a job.

"An Irish pub is part of the social fabric that goes back hundreds of years for us," says Hosty. "When you wanted to know what was going on in your town, needed a job, you just went to the local pub."

The proprietor of Healy's Westside (and a Forest Park village commissioner) adds that when anyone comes into his Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day, or any other day of the year, they will feel welcome. 'Tis the Irish way, he says.

"You can strike up a conversation with just about anyone here," Hosty says. "There are no strangers at Healy's Westside, only friends you haven't met yet. On St. Patrick's Day, we have a great history, and just get packed, so come early if you want a table by the window because on St. Patrick's Day, there are no reservations — just a lot of fun with family, neighbors and new and old friends."

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