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The Most Traditionalist Pub in New York

The second time I went to McSorley’s Old Ale House was with my fiancée and her maid of honor. I held the door for them like a good gentleman and then hung back to check my phone like a good Millennial. They made it about three steps into the dense press of bodies before one of the waiters accosted them: “Yuh here to drink, or yuh here to chat?”

It was only when I showed up that he started taking us seriously. The girls didn’t mind. The hostility only added to the charm.

A bit of historical background will be helpful. McSorley’s [1] is an Irish alehouse in lower Manhattan that was founded by Irish immigrant John McSorley in either 1854 or 1861. Over the years, its visitors have included Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth, Hunter S. Thompson, Harry Houdini, Boss Tweed, and Woody Guthrie. I say “either” in regards to the year of its founding because there is considerable disagreement on this issue and on a number of other points. So much of the alehouse’s history is oral or apocryphal, and its traditionalist bent has often placed it in conflict with New York City’s progressive and overbearing regulatory policies.

Here’s one example. In McSorley’s, one would be hard pressed to find a patch of bare wall. Nothing has been removed from the walls since 1910, and the decorations range from tasteful nude paintings to group photographs of mustached men from the 1890s to a wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth. The chandelier above the bar is festooned with wishbones. The story goes that soldiers about to depart for World War I (and possibly some who left for the Civil War; again, this is a purely oral tradition) left them there to retrieve when they made it home. The wishbones still hanging represent the boys who didn’t return.


Whether the story is true or not, soldiers in our interminable modern wars have taken up the tradition, and the old wishbones are treated like relics. The health department had to twist the owner’s arm to get him to dust them in 2011 (thankfully they’re once again fairly dusty), and one New York Times story [2] describes a physical altercation breaking out when a health inspector tried to take one of them.

Much more famous is McSorley’s refusal to admit women until 1970, when a court ruling compelled equal access. In the 19th century, of course, it was expected that no honest woman had any business in a place like that, full of drunk, lascivious men whose breath stank of ale and raw onions. Even Dorothy Kirwan, who owned the place from 1939 until her death in 1974, wasn’t allowed in. Even after the ruling, she refused to be the first woman served, citing a promise she’d made to her father.

The first woman served was Barbara Shaum, who owned a nearby leather goods shop and often went over to McSorley’s after closing time to listen to one of the employees play the fiddle. Instead of focusing on Shaum, though, I’d like to contribute a new bit of oral history. Keep in mind, this story comes to you several degrees removed. Apparently, my fiancée’s father had a friend who was at McSorley’s the day they began admitting women. This friend saw a female television reporter come in and smugly record a segment about that latest triumph for the women’s rights movement. The camera stopped rolling, and she sidled up to the bar and ordered a glass of red wine.

The bartender grunted in response, “Ale.” McSorley’s serves nothing but its own specially brewed light and dark ale (often paired with cheese, crackers, raw onions, and hot mustard) in heavy glass mugs. I’m not sure what would happen if you asked for a glass of water.

The reporter tried again, “How about a gin and tonic?”

Another grunt. “Ale.”

Exasperated, she ordered an ale and drank it. A few minutes later, she asked where the ladies’ room was. The bartender pointed to the sole bathroom in the back of the bar. The reporter’s gaze followed his finger and then turned back to him, horrified.

“Heh,” he said. “If ye can drink wid us, ye can piss wid us.”

The single bathroom, as can be imagined, led to an oft-repeated scenario. A woman, uncomfortable of being in a bathroom with men, would ask her boyfriend to watch the door for her while she went. A drunk would stumble up to the door and demand to be let in. Fisticuffs would ensue. Finally, in 1986, McSorley’s was forced to install a women’s restroom.

The light misogyny my fiancée and her friend experienced on the way in still lingers, but everyone is fair game for the staff’s aggressive ribbing. Last time I went, the waiter asked me how long I’d been engaged, poked fun at me for moving too slowly, and then, as I got up to leave, whispered in my ear, “Keep her yer fiancée as long as ye feckin’ can.”

At a time when the Boy Scouts of America have been feminized to death, McSorley’s stands as a reminder of the bracing effect old fashioned 19th-century masculine energy can have. Some women enjoy that energy and some men don’t, but despite the admission of women, it endures.

McSorley’s is one of the few places I’ve visited that retains a sense of history, of tradition and continuity, of myth and orality. It’s a place where you can be seated next to a complete stranger at a communal table and listen to him tell you all about the mysterious man who, for the last 20 years, has called McSorley’s every Sunday at noon to ask, “Are you ready for your enema?”

It’s a place where culture grows organically in defiance of the leveling, micromanaging impulses of the state. It’s a place, as E.E. Cummings wrote in his poem “i was sitting in mcsorley’s,” [3] where all is “sung and evil,” where the ale “never lets you grow old,” and where you are free to turn to the “shadow” seated next to you and ask “the eternal perpetual question”: “won’t you have a drink?”

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "The Most Traditionalist Pub in New York"

#1 Comment By Earle Capel On January 3, 2019 @ 11:04 pm

let’s nudge this comment section along…have been there decades back,,,loved the saw dust appreciation, the quest for new york nostalgia fur trimming wall of worthies…but… fortunately there are so many great beer tap and brewery ways well outside the nyc orbit where life goes on beyond the drop zone of the metronome weight of nyc curiousity,,,dropped like a rotiserrie chicken and sold again and again,,,, there are lots of other experiential levels to chose from that nyc can be put on tap… it may sound like a soundbite but go west young man,,, even to nj,,,I say this even as I can still appreciate when mc sorelys was a great experience like most everyone who has run into tradition like a flat iron building,,

#2 Comment By JimDandy On January 4, 2019 @ 3:05 am

Yeah, but ultimately, despite the veneer, that place is very, very politically correct, and has been for some time, which is why it still exists in lower Manhattan. Their ancient history is great though. Cheers to ghosts!

#3 Comment By rhine gold cowboy On January 4, 2019 @ 5:35 am

Read the Joseph Mitchell piece.

#4 Comment By mrscracker On January 4, 2019 @ 6:51 am

I’ve never understood why men, or women for that matter, can’t have their own pubs or other establishments.
Back in the day I believe some pubs or saloons reserved one side for men and another for women and families. Makes sense to me.

#5 Comment By Mighty Whig On January 4, 2019 @ 9:12 am

Thanks for this. Haven’t been there in years. Was wondering if it’s still around. The rudest bartenders in the world. Actually saw a guy thrown out of the bar, physically. What a place.

#6 Comment By Ken T On January 4, 2019 @ 10:07 am

Earle Capel:

LOL. I’d rec your comment just for this one line: “go west young man,,, even to nj”.

Reminds me of the old New Yorker cover “A Manhattanite’s view of the world” – where everything beyond the Hudson was just a blank spot labeled “Here be dragons”.

#7 Comment By Ken T On January 4, 2019 @ 10:17 am


I’ve never understood why men, or women for that matter, can’t have their own pubs or other establishments.

In an ideal world, I would agree with you on this. The fact is that places like that are really nothing more than collateral damage in the battles over what really matters – economic equality. If women were equal in the business world, there would probably be no problem. But for years, business men would use “men only” bars, country clubs, etc. as places to be able to conduct business deals with each other while shutting women out. That is why these facilities were forced to open their doors to women.

#8 Comment By MarkedMan On January 4, 2019 @ 11:21 am

I’ve been to McSorely’s a time or three, and liked it, although it was nowhere near as atmospheric as the pre-gentrified Chumley’s. That was literally just an unmarked doorway in a wall the first time I visited it, and the bartender still wasn’t sure it had been a good idea to add stools to what had previously been a standup only place. “Because, by god, you knew someone was too drunk because they slid down to the floor and you could get them the h*ll out of there.” With those credentials established, and realizing full well they won’t keep me from being excoriated by this crew for what I’m about to say: the waiter who harassed your two female friend sounds like a right *sshole, and I hope they responded in true NY’er fashion and told him to stick his head up his *ss.

#9 Comment By Bob K. On January 4, 2019 @ 12:01 pm

“The American Spectator” noted on the masthead of its magazine that (it) “was founded in 1924 by George Nathan and Truman Newberry over a cheap domestic ale in McSorley’s Old Ale House.”

So there is that too!

#10 Comment By Jerry McKinney On January 4, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

Man, sometimes I wish Texas was closer to NY, this is one of them. This sounds like my kind of place.
To the owner – if ever the NY regulatory and tax climate make it impossible to stay, please think strongly about moving to Texas instead of closing. I’ll bet I can get people to chip in to move all the stuff on the walls.

#11 Comment By mrscracker On January 4, 2019 @ 2:47 pm

Ken T ,
There’s a funky old building in a small town near where I live that back in the day used to be a bar which refused entrance to all women.
The women in the community supported that rule because they could rest easy in the knowledge that their husbands weren’t in there consorting with other women. That worked for well for the bar’s business also. Women weren’t discouraging their men from drinking & socializing there.
I hear you about the problems of exclusivity-that annoys me too- but I wonder how much serious business is done in Irish bars? But perhaps I’m wrong.
Hetty Green was possibly the richest woman of her era & if I remember, she defied social convention in her own peculiar ways.

#12 Comment By Bob K. On January 4, 2019 @ 4:07 pm

I went there a few times with friends after going to some Yankee night games.

The Breweries who made McSorely’s Ale changed often. One time that I was there we read that they were allegedly offering Stegmaier Ale brewed in NE Pa where I lived.

We couldn’t get that Ale in PA at that time but Stegmaier could very well have been brewing batches of it for McSorleys,

#13 Comment By Jack On January 4, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

@ Ken T:

Typical liberal nonsense.

The reason that there were men-only bars and women-only spaces in olden days is because pre-modern culture recognized that men and women are different, but complementary, and that they need their separate spaces.

They also recognized that it is good for men to socialize together and for women to socialize together because it helped make men more masculine and women more feminine. You may have noticed that women today often complain about men not being “men” anymore. This is true and part of the reason for it is the absence or marginalization of vehicles for male-only socialization that used to occur at places like McSorley’s.

Today, all spaces have to be integrated in order to fight the hated patriarchy because, of course, all differences between men and women are merely socially constructed [eye roll].

#14 Comment By vegas mike On January 4, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

When I was 17 back in 1963, I used to go McSorly’s a couple of times a month. I remember meeting two people there, the poet Paul Blackburn and a soldier returning from Viet Nam. Nobody just goes to bars anymore. But back in my youth my friends and I would sometimes go drinking in different ethnic neighborhoods. McSorely’s was kind of an old fashioned third place where people from different backgrounds could hang out with each other. Yes, I know they excluded women. But like the previous writer said, it wasn’t the kind of place you’d make important business deals.

#15 Comment By Ken T On January 4, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

I wonder how much serious business is done in Irish bars?
Well, I don’t claim to know the answer to that specifically wrt Irish bars (though I suspect you might be surprised), but it was definitely an issue with country clubs and other more upscale locations. As I said, collateral damage. Once you start making exceptions, where do you draw the line? And if “Irish bars” are left as the only remaining places that can say “men only”, what’s to stop those businessmen who used to make their deals in the country club from simply moving over to the Irish bar?

Your story about the town women supporting the men-only bar does make a good point. And as I said above, in an ideal world i would agree with you. Sadly, that world does not exist.

#16 Comment By IBikeNYC On January 4, 2019 @ 11:19 pm

I was taken to McSorley’s in 1974 or 5.

My boyfriend stood outside the bathroom while I went in.

One of the coolest places on earth!

#17 Comment By Richard On January 5, 2019 @ 9:33 am

When I was 16 my dad took me to NYC. He went to do some business. He took me to McSorleys for lunch and I had a BEER! There aren’t many American male coming of age ceremonies, but getting served a beer at age 16 with your dad has to be one of the best.

#18 Comment By Ron Maxwell On January 5, 2019 @ 10:54 am

Attended graduate school right across the street at 40 East 7th Street, which at the time was NYU’s institute of film. During my first year McSorley’s remained the exclusive domain of males. To my memory, until that time few if any women attempted to enter. That all changed when two young women (were they NYU co-eds ?) handcuffed themselves to the front door handles, effectively blocking all access. Police were called. Publicity followed. Soon after the doors were opened to women. For a brief time many men stopped going but by the time I graduated with my MFA the ‘crisis’ had passed. Women had now achieved the great victory of eating stale cheddar cheese, saltine crackers and onions washed down with McSorley’s pale or dark ale. They also dutifully assumed the down-and-out bohemian pose of the older regulars. But that was then – before cell phones and ear buds. Yuppies, millennials and technology must by now have long transformed the old pup into an altogether different place.

#19 Comment By Martin On January 7, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

@Ken T

And what’s wrong with men doing their own business on their own terms?

#20 Comment By David Wolf On January 7, 2019 @ 3:25 pm

Mr. Quay,

As a fan of both TAC and your writing (your piece of progressivism and religion was top-shelf, sir.) I was disappointed to get most of the way down this great piece and find you falling short of your usual wisdom.

It is clear that your knowledge of the Boy Scouts of America falls far short of your knowledge of Manhattan pub-crawling. The BSA is about as feminized as McSorelys or the United States armed forces: the organization now allows females in the door, but beyond separate johns and sleeping arrangements and even more stringent youth protection standards, the offering has not changed to accommodate young women.

If you would prefer to rely on the reactionary echo-chamber that wrings its collective hands at the evolution of one of the most important youth organizations in the nation, that is your right. Those disposed to agree with you will nod their heads and fill this space with their appreciative comments.

But as a lifelong conservative who has watched his sixteen-year-old son go from being a chubby, timid couch potato to a whip-thin, tough outdoorsman, leader, and athlete precisely because of the BSA, I know first-hand that your comment is a disservice to the BSA, to McSorely’s, and to traditional masculine virtues that transcend pinups and trash talk.

I respectfully suggest that you either use the research skills you are paying Georgetown so much to learn to discern a far more nuanced truth, or that you fill out an application, take the training, buy yourself a set of khakis, and join me in the effort to develop the next generation of the nation’s leaders.

Failing that, do us all a favor and go and find another organization to pick on. Surely there are better targets for your ire and metaphors than the last major youth group in the country that is teaching boys to hike, camp, shoot, build, lead, and explore.

Have a lovely week.

#21 Comment By Evan Maguire On January 7, 2019 @ 4:33 pm

@Bob K., Glad you know your American Spectator History!

#22 Comment By Ken T On January 7, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

And what’s wrong with men doing their own business on their own terms?

Absolutely nothing – IF you believe that a woman’s place is in the home, barefoot and pregnant. If, on the other hand, you recognize them as equal human beings, then you would have a problem with that.