Night Crawler

Sunday morning, along Market Street, stalwart lovers of Eire flatten themselves against the cement gray walls of the Financial District in an attempt to avoid the rain. The weather for today's St. Patrick's Day Parade is a far cry from last year's 90-plus heat wave, which had fair-complected gals running for shade while their beer-soggy beaus shouted down the street, shirtless and brave. Today, the crowd is sparse and a touch sad in their halfhearted attempt to drink cold lager. Still, the passing of a crisp, white marching band begs a few foot-stomps from the sidelines, and at the sight of more raucous floats -- drinkers drinking, compliments of O'Doul's -- a well-bundled elderly couple move into the street to blow their lonely noisemakers.

"No harm in a bit o' rain," says the tiny, shrunken woman over her scarf. "We're used to it. Isn't that right, Jayson?" Her ox-size husband grumbles something about wanting to sit down inside somewhere with a proper pint. The woman laughs and offers a what's-a-woman-to-do wink before leading him off toward the 38 Geary bus line, which will take them straight into the Irish triangle -- Ireland's 32, Pat O'Shea's, and the Abbey Tavern.

On Saturday, Pat O'Shea's held their second annual "Give a Pint, Get a Pint" blood drive, which sounded like good chat fodder -- "Thanks for the blood. Feeling a bit dizzy, are you? Well, have a nice frothy pint of Guinness and a cookie." Or "Didn't you already give today? You did? Well, you are a mighty fine man, Mr. McCourt. Pull up a barstool." Sadly, today attentions seem divided between deep conversation and a hockey game that is televised on numerous screens -- a rather sedate state of affairs for a large pub that is already standing-room only on the eve of the biggest drinking day of the year. Perhaps the presence of four cops just outside the door actually has some influence over the amplitude of Irish inebriation?

"No, don't be silly," says Danny Finer. "Some of those boys drink in here. We're just pacing ourselves is all. It was a rowdy night last and tonight will be rowdier still and tomorrow ... well, did you see the barricades leaning against the wall outside? Those are for tomorrow."

Outside Ireland's 32, where more steel fences have been piled up by busy boys-in-blue (now only busy slugging coffee), a van of flags freshly returned from the parade is unloaded by three fellows eager to get indoors. A blustery wind plays havoc with the banners and the men. From inside, where Irish political fliers adorn every free surface, the large windows reveal only variations of gray. The rain batters against the panes. Here, I can literally smell Ireland, but it is a stark reality that will not be casually infiltrated. The posters on the ceiling -- "Hunger Strike National March in Dublin. Don't Let Them Die," "Plastic Bullets Kill," "Free Joe Doherty" -- seem to say: At least here, leave the Irish to the Irish on this day. And I feel so obliged.

"We try to make everybody feel comfortable and welcome," beams Miles O'Reilly, the ginger-haired proprietor of the 16-month-old O'Reilly's. Situated across from a Chinese funeral home, and down the street from Club Fugazi (home to Beach Blanket Babylon), in the heart of Italian-owned North Beach, there is little doubt that this pub must play host to a wide assortment of nationalities, but this is not in evidence today. Freckles, red hair, and lilting brogues are the rule of thumb, and it is not five minutes before the words "poetry in motion" are applied to a pint of Guinness with tear-jerking sincerity. O'Reilly's is a warm, wood-hued establishment lined with touching black-and-white photographs of the home country, books, brass kettles, a drawing of Our Lady, and snaps of Van Morrison -- "Van the Man" as Liam McAtasney, emcee of the Monday night pub quiz, lovingly refers to him.

As the Pogues and U2 mingle with the music from the Chinese funeral across the street, entire families line up for the traditional Irish breakfast prepared in the O'Reilly kitchen by Stars chefs Larry Doyle and Ciaran McDunphy. McDunphy is hailed by many in the pub as a great poet, but the only words from the kitchen -- which has gone through a month's supply of rashers in less than three hours -- are, "We're busy and we're happy." Sweetly, McDunphy's poetic heart can be found in the food he prepares for reasonable pub prices: Gaelic toast with fresh berries and whiskey syrup; mussels, cockles, fish, and chips in a delicate malt vinegar sauce; rashers, sausage, eggs, and black-and-white pudding cooked almost without grease (Brits take heed). As O'Reilly says, the book on fine Irish chefs may be a thin one, but it's out there.

As the day goes on and the pub reaches capacity, revelers begin to leak out onto the street and drunkenness reaches a singsong pitch. Still, the bartenders -- a staff of hardy-looking, working-class lads -- take care to add lashings of fresh cream and brown sugar to each and every Irish coffee. The only pause in the crowd's round of grins and hugs occurs when a jackhammer erupts across the street.

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