"IT wasn't the first drop that destroyed me," the late Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O'Brien) once observed, "but the last." Today no one could have agreed more with Dublin's Irish Times' illustrious columnist than Hugh Kelly.
Admitting to feeling "more than a bit rough," the young Irish saloonkeeper sat slumped in a chair outside the D.C. Alcoholic Beverages Commission hearing room. While waiting for the transfer of ownership that would legally transform a former Polynesian heaven at 14 F St. NW -- known as the Luau Hut -- into an eternal Gaelic waystation called Kelly's Irish Times, he spoke about what it's like to be the endower of temporal relief for the teeming Irish masses in Washington.
"I've got great dreams and plans for this place," Kelly says in his soft, musical Irish lilt. "After my partner and I, Jim Dolan, are finished redecorating, we'll have spent $250,000 and the Irish Times will be a showcase in the fine, old tradition of first-class Dublin saloons, like Mooney's and Mulligan's."
Right now, though, Kelly's bar is hardly a showcase. In fact, only an Irishman could look past an exterior of half-boarded-up windows in their bamboo moldings, tangerine tiles, tattered blue Tahitian canopy and a front door bearing a carved head of what must be a South Seas fertility god and see a pub.
Kelly is a publican (a pub owner) in the best tradition of Ireland, where the "local" (the neighborhood bar) is as central to life as the church and the publican as prominent as the priest. A publican is not only the dispenser of drink and social discipline, but the man to whom one turns to for advice, a friendly ear, sympathy or a helping hand.
"The pub's social purpose was clear enough," Kelly said. "And it still is, perhaps even more so in America where we're all so alienated from one another, living and working in such a compartmentalized, impersonal, plastic society.
"I feel nothing should exist if not to perform a social good in a society -- not a factory, business or organization -- and the pub provides this function. Granted, the physical act of consuming liquor may be bad for your health, but unfortunately that's the only social tool many people have in common with each other. Drink in out society has become essential for rejoicing or despair -- a birth, a death, a sacking or promotion -- and an evening out. People will say to each other, 'Come on, let's quaff a few drafts' instead of saying 'Hey, I'd like to spend some time talking with you.' The publican's job was to provide that communal meeting point outside the home for the exchange of business and friendship. The pub became a safe refuge, a sanctuary. So much so, that they had to close them down Sunday mornings so that the mobs would go to mass."
The Irish Times is the second Irish drinking establishment Kelly has coowned in Washington. The first, the Dubliner, which opened in March 1974, is next door. Before the Dubliner, an 'Irish bar' in D.C. meant Matt Kane's Bit of Ireland, a tough, blue collar/Marine hangout. Kelly offered Washington's Irish the first alternative, in surroundings as well as entertainment, by introducing Irish traditional instrumental music. The move launched a phenomenal enthusiasm in the capital area for the unfamilar but beautiful wild and pagan music that's so fundamental to the Gaelic culture.
Kelly obviously takes his role as custodian of his customers' cheer and well-being seriously, almost to the point of religious fervor, as he launches into a lengthy discourse on curing mankind's ill through the philosophy of an Irish publican. He acknowledges, though, that when he first came to the United States right after graduating from high school in June 1963, he hadn't yet realized his earthly vocation. As the eldest of five children born to a farmer and his wife in County Longford, Ireland, Kelly's expected inheritance and indeed his "only career option other than the seminary" was the farm. But he wanted no part of it; like millions before him he fled the restricting potato fields of Erin for the "freedom" of America. After false starts in New York and other U.S. points Kelly found himself tending bar in Washington. Then he met Danny Coleman, who invited him to buy into the Dubliner, forming a partnership that lasted nearly four years.
At the Dubliner, Kelly came into his own. The pub gave him the opportunity to exploit his talents: "I'm practically parasitical on people -- I thrive on them having a good time and introducing them to the things I love." This spontaneous attraction to people was returned in kind by Kelly's customers and today he has become almost a cult figure among second-generation Irish-American Washingtonians, especially college students.
Repute of that sort often leads to gossip and the circumstances surrounding Kelly's departure from the Dubliner and establishment of a competing business right next door has generated its share of it. Street rumor had it that the parting was poisonous and that the relationship between the two is anything but friendly. But Kelly and Coleman deny this, however, claiming now that they're "the best of competitors" ("I give him half his ice," Coleman said). When pressed, though, Kelly admits that he feels he was "forced out of the Dubliner" and that "he sold out against his wishes." But ever the optimist Kelly says that "the curse has been turned into a blessing."
Though heavily mortgaged and working long hours, Kelly says he has few worries except his inability to get Guinness on draft, "an appalling situation that's been going on for the last eight months." It seems with the plethora of Irish bars in town and a shortage of the brew available for distribution, Guinness stoutly refuses to open any new accounts. "It's shocking at first, the thought of an Irish pub without draft Guinness," he says shaking his head in disbelief, "but never mind, we'll get by." He still has bottled Guinness and some surprises as well.
"Here, try this," Kelly says, placing a pint of some mysterious dark brew in front of me. It's black, wet and inviting, but it's not Guinness. "Don't say anything until you've tried it," he orders. "It's delicious," I admit. "What is it?"
"Beck's, from Germany. The stuff's ambrosia; lighter than Guinness but with more punch. We're the only ones in town who have it... imported especially for the Irish Times. Pretty soon I'll wean Washington off Guinness and on to Beck's," he says going off behind the bar, chuckling to himself, plotting and planning great things. Or was he chanting incantations?
Perhaps it's the authentic atmosphere or maybe it's the magically endowed brew, but suddenly I'm back in Dublin. And is that Myles na Gopaleen? hovering beside Kelly? Their voices mingle into one. "Thirst and theology are not incompatible," the voice says, "et spiritual spirituous sanctum, forever and ever. Amen."