It was barely 10 o'clock on St. Patrick's Day morning, but green beer already flowed from the spigots at Ellen's Irish Pub. A handful of diehard regulars blew emerald foam from overflowing mugs and practiced choruses of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." A delivery man rolled great silvery beer kegs into the rundown bar in preparation for the biggest St. Paddy's Day bash the neighborhood had ever seen.
It wasn't just another St. Patrick's Day at Ellen's Irish Pub, a popular Dupont Circle watering hole in the Ben Bow building at 1636 Connecticut Ave. Unless the saint himself intervenes with a miracle, noted one melancholy pubhound, it would be the last St. Patrick's Day at Ellen's.
Problems began last fall for owner Ellen Donalan, a fiery redhead from County Glaway, Ireland, who took over the pub in 1963 after retiring from 20 years service as a photoengraver for IBM. An energetic woman of indeterminable age who calls almost everyone "luv," Donlan serves as cook, waitress and bartender extraordinaire and plays surrogate mother to hundreds of loyal patrons.
Pub devotees staged demonstrations in October and November when the American Psychiatric Association, then owners of the building, planned to demolish the structure. On Nov. 4, the Joint Committee on Landmarks of the National Capital gave the bar a 180-day reprieve from destruction.
Just four months after regulars held a soggy celebration in honor of the victory that "drinks" had won over "shrinks," the bar's existence was again threatened. On March 1, Donlan received an eviction notice from the new owner of the building, developer Jeffrey N. Cohen, who plans to renovate the structure to use as his headquarters. He said plans might include an ice cream parlor instead of the bar.
With the threat of an April 1 eviction hanging over Donlan's head, the atmosphere on St. Patrick's Day held a touch of nostalgic mourning as celebrants recalled memories of St. Patrick's days past and pointedly avoided talk of St. Patrick's days to come.
"This is a premature wake for a once wonderful neighborhood," said Ruth Fox, who was a pub regular during the 25 years she lived on Dupont Circle. After being evicted twice in three years, Fox moved to Silver Spring last October because she could no longer afford to live in a neighborhood where high-priced condominiums are rapidly replacing low and moderate rents.
"This bar was a home for everybody in the nighborhood," Fox said, with a sad shake of her head as she sipped her beer. "It was a place where you could come and just be yourself and cry or laugh or celebrate."
Pub regulars shared Fox's sentiment that the eviction of Ellen's Irish Pub -- which they claim has the best gossip, the friendliest patrons, the finest music and the cheapest beer (65 cents a mug) -- signals the destruction of the Dupont Circle community.
"There was a time when this neighborhood offered a cross section of everything, and now this is the last low-rent bar where anybody can come in and feel welcome," mourned one local resident. "The Ben Bow is at the heart of Dupont Circle, and now they want to cut out the community's heart."
With its scarred booths, gu
With its scarred booths, gaudy jukebox and dark, dusty interior that smells of countless spilled beers and high-energy jigs, Ellen's ambiance is as far as you can get from the polished wood and carefully manicured plants popular in trendier bars downtown. And therein lies its charm, the regulars contend.
"This is the only bar in town that I would come to by myself and feel comfortable," admitted regular Barbara Gehring. "All the other bars are fancy and expensive singles-type places with an ambiance geared to a suburban mentality. But here anything you do is okay and acceptable and you never make a fool of yourself. It's like home."
"There's a working class mix of people here, and you don't have to wear a three-piece suit, talk politics and feel important," said Charlie Green, who has celebrated St. Patrick's Day at Ellen's for the past three years. "I came because I heard it would be the last St. Patrick's Day, but there's only so much to say about the situation. You just drink."
"It hasn't hit me yet, it's like a death," added his drinking buddy John Membrino. "I think people are resigned to it any trying to have one last fling."
Some patrons retained the spirit of the fighting Irish, however, and refused to declare defeat.
"Here's to next St. Patrick's Day at Ellen's!" one devotee shouted to the evening's standing-room-only crowd, who roared back their support. "Ellen's isn't a bar," he added earnestly. "It's a way of life. They can't tear this place down. I've been coming here for 15 years. It's my home."
Developer Cohen said that "it looks impossible" for the bar to remain and that he will begin legal eviction proceedings if Donalan doesn't vacate by April 1. Cohen said he paid more than $500,000 for the building and plans to put an additional $400,000 into renovation of the old structure, which he wants to begin as soon as possible.
"People think things can stay the way they are forever, but it justy can't be," he said. "I bought this building for myself, and I think I'm entitled to use it."
But Donlan, who will need the luck of the Irish to stay, said she hasn't given up hope. "I'm a rebel," she said. "And I was foolish enough to buy a bar and get attached to it."
While Donlan admitted she is looking around the area for another spot, she said it may be impossible to find one with rent that is inexpensive enough to allow her to continue charging just 65 cents for a beer.
Her brightest hope rides with a prominent Washington lawyer, whose name she did not want published, who has stepped forward to help the pub.
"It's never the last St. Patrick's Day, luv," she said, pushing out her square jaw. "The Irish are always fighters."