As if answering some ancient Celtic call to battle, the man in the three-piece suit leaps from his table at the Dubliner. Feet flying in high reel, arms waving wildly, he dances to the sweet savage music. Patrons put down their pints, spin around on their stools and clap in time.
This is the essence of Irish Bar. Boil down all the corned beef and cabbage, green shamrocks and Guinness and this is it: the gut-level half-mad abandon of the Irish at full tilt.
In quest of this abandon, thousands of the city's Irish, near-Irish and would-be Irish will queue up this weekend at any watering hole with a touch of old Eire. On March 17, the yearning for a bit of blarney to bless the soul and free the spirit becomes a drunken frenzy. Congressmen and carpenters cram into the Irish bars to slowh green beer, sing "Dannny Boy" and get completely blitzed. Being Irish is optional.
"Saint Patrick's Day has become America's bacchanal," says Jim Hutton, who manages Coleman's. "As opposed to New Year's Eve, which is a hangover from the '20s nightclub era. No one really does that any more. But come Saint Patrick's Day and the weather's breaking a bit, everyone wants to get wild. The most normal people go nuts that day."
This year, there are more places than ever before to got nuts in. Inece last Saint Patrick's Day, at least half a dozen new establishments have set up their taps. Washington now boasts nearly 20 Irish bars, from family places more restaurant than bar, like the Irish Inn and Riordan's, to small sophisticated pubs like E.J. O'Reily's or Gallagher's, through "working men's bars" such as Ellen's or Matt Kane's, to out-and-out saloons that are all Ould Sod and suds: Dubliner and Kelly's Irish Times for example. And each, in its own way, is gearing up for the Saint Patrick's Day onslaught.
"Are those the green vests?" McGuire's owner Joe Lerman asks the Schlitz distributor. "No, those are the Erin Go Bragh signs," he replies, also laying one 18-inch cardboard jopinted leprechaun and a bag of green plastic shamrock pins on the counter. "Joe, aren't you going to get 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish' buttons?" a waitress asks.
A similar packet is drooped off at the Dubliner.Labeled a Saint Patrick's bar kit, it contains two green flags, green and white crepe paper and five green plastic felt derbys. One bartender playfully crowns another with a derby. "Hey, don't put that on my head. I'm Irsh and I don't wear that stuff. That's for Americans," he barks in thick brogue, tearing off the offending hat.
Meanwhile, at Delaney's Award Winning Irish Pizza Pub, owner Jack Delaney has a thousand green plastic hats to sell, 20 bottles of green food coloring to inject into his pizza crust, more than a hundred kegs of pre-colored green beer on the way and two live "leprechauns" who will cavort with customers amidst Day-Glo murals of Ireland and blacklights. "It's the American image of Ireland," Delaney explains. "It's a happy image. Over there it's a religious holiday. Here it's fun. And the green hats and green beer are part of it. This is what everyone wants -- except the small number who grew up in Ireland. Well, let them put up their IRA posters. I'm glad to put up the green."
At another bar, one Irish musician jerks a thumb at the dangling pennants of Counties Cork, Mayo, Kildare, etc. "This is all crap," he mutters. "I can't stand shamrocks. An Irish bar doesn't depend on green beer. It depends on people." Where would he rather be? "Kelly's. Hugh Kelly could make an Irish bar out of a service station."
Hugh Kelly has done just about that. The former Dubliner co-owner, Kelly bought the Luau Hut next door and dubbed it Kelly's Irish Times. The only Irish decor are framed Thomas Nast and Jay Opper antiIrish caricatures, but on any given night the brogues in Kelly's flow thicker than stout.
"No green -- ever," lilts Irish-born Hugh Kelly. "Every year, the American people get leprechauns, shamrocks and green beer thrown at them. I think it's disgusting. The people in this town are well-educated and well-informed. Theater and the arts are booming here and it's about time the Irish scene caught up."
Kelly thinks the new places are a sign of Irish pride. "This town has a great representation of everything from Afghanistan to Turkey. I just don't think the Irish thing has ever been fully exploited commercially. There could be twice as many Irish bars as there are now. I'd love to see another one on the corner."
But at 13th and Massachusetts, Matt Kane, owner of Matt Kane's Bit Of Ireland and for many years the undisputed Irish bar champ, feels his turf's been invaded.
"There was a time when I was the only Irish bar in town. There'd b'e 400 or 500 people lined up outside," says Kane. "All those Paddy's Day people... Where are they now?" he says gesturing around the small faded green bar where a few afternoon patrons quietly sip their beer. "These new guys came in here and saw what I had and then went and opened up their own places. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, I ought to have the biggest head in town." Kane folds his massive arms and like the old fighter he is, snorts, "I was in operation when some of these kiks were still digging potatoes in Ireland."
One place that most likely won't see another Saint Patrick's Day is Ellen's Irish Pub, above Dupont Circle. The building's been bought for offices and condominiums and Ellen has until April 1 to leave. There've been some good times at Ellen's, like the Saint Patrick's Day the green sawdust turned out to be kitty litter. Or the time Ellen herself couldn't get in the place on Saint Pat's and went up the street to the Cold Duck. But this year will be extra special. "That woman's taken care of everyone in the neighborhood for so long, we're going to make this the best Saint Patrick's Day she ever saw," one employee comments.
At Ireland's Four Provinces, Ceil and Barney Tassler are gracefully circling the floor. A retired couple of Romanian Jewish descent, the Tasslers come to the cavernous Four P's at least three times a week. "We just love live Irish music," says Mrs. Tassler.
Live Irish music, whether traditional or the sappy "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" variety, is for many an Irish Bar requisite. Come Saint Patrick's Day, they must have fiddles and penny whistles along with the Behan and Joyce posters, Rooney's Irish whiskey mirrors and Emerald Isle maps. But recall that the true Irish Bar is a thing of the spirit, and the most Irish thing to do of all on Saint Patrick's Day may be to call up a few friends and say as they would in Dublin, "Meet me at my local."