Places that Matter

McSorley's Old Ale House

Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Established in 1854, an icon of old New York
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

McSorley's Old Ale House was opened as The Old House at Home in 1854 by John McSorley. McSorley was an Irish Quaker immigrant from County Tyrone, who had arrived in New York City in 1851 during the Irish potato famine. A decade after the bar opened on East 7th Street, the building in which it is located was renovated into a five-story tenement, and McSorley moved upstairs from the bar with his wife and children. In 1888, the McSorleys purchased the entire building. 

By the 1880s, McSorley's Old Time Ale House (as it was then known) was a favorite Manhattan watering hole. In 1882, a play called "McSorley's Inflation" opened at the Theatre Comique on Broadway. The production featured a bar owner named Peter McSorley, and songs by the Irish-American songwriting duo, Harrigan and Hart.  

Although the bar was popular as an ale house (its ale came from the Fidelio Brewery on First Avenue, founded in 1852), from 1905 to 1906 the owner experimented with hard liquor sales. However, the venture never caught on. In 1908 a new sign reading "McSorley's Old Time Ale House" went up over the door to the bar; the word "Time" was later removed. The bar offered ale only until the beginning of Prohibition, when in 1920 McSorley's sold "Near Beer." Supposedly, its real alcohol operations were conducted from the basement until Prohibition was repealed. 

For more than one hundred fifty years, McSorley's has welcomed customers from all walks of life. During the nineteenth century, German and Irish immigrants from the neighborhood would stop by for a drink. Craftsmen, Wall Street brokers and politicians have likewise passed their time in the bar. By the second decade of the twentieth century, McSorley's was a favored hangout for painters like John Sloan, George Luks, and Stuart Davis. Between 1912 and 1930, Sloan generated five paintings of the saloon, one of which, McSorley's Bar (1912), hangs in the Detroit Institute of Art. Artists working in other media also frequented the bar. In 1925, poet e.e. cummings wrote a poem entitled, "Sitting in McSorley's." Woody Guthrie is known to have played guitar at a table near the front door, and in 1940, writer Joseph Mitchell visited the saloon and subsequently immortalized the bar when he wrote an article about it for the New Yorker. In 1943, his articles were compiled into a book entitled McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. However, for the first century of business, the diverse crowds at McSorley's did not include women. Females were strictly prohibited from entering the bar until the National Organization for Women (NOW) sued for admittance in 1969, and in 1970, McSorley's opened its doors to female patrons. 

Since it opened in 1854, McSorley's has been owned by three different families. In 1911, John McSorley's son, Bill, took over management of the establishment. In 1936, Bill sold the bar to police officer Daniel O'Connell. When O'Connell died in 1939, he left the bar to his daughter, Dorothy O'Connell Kirwan. However, in keeping with McSorley's philosophy of "Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies," Dororthy had promised her father that she would not enter the establishment. She therefore made her husband, Harry Kirwan, the manager. In 1960, the O'Connells' son, Danny, took charge of McSorley's and hired Irish bartender Matthew Maher, who subsequently purchased the bar in 1977. 

McSorley's is the oldest Irish ale house in New York City. While their food and beverage selections have contributed to their longevity, the venue also offers a visual feast of memorabilia. According to local lore, none of the decorative newspaper articles, photographs and celebrity curiosities, like Harry Houdini's handcuffs, have been removed from their respective places since 1910.