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A sad farewell to Makem’s, the people’s pub

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Terry Golway

The plain truth of the matter is that Tommy Makem hadn’t been much of a presence lately in the mid-Manhattan restaurant that bore his name. Then again, he was always there, for it was Tommy who made the place what it was: a wonderfully warm piece of East 57th Street, a gathering spot where the Irish community’s mighty and famous mixed easily and gladly with those from less-rarefied precincts, and, in the true spirit of Tommy’s politics, everybody received equal treatment. It was the custom of the house.

You’ll notice the use of the past tense. Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion has closed after 16 memorable years of nurturing friendships as well as Irish and Irish-American culture. They held a wake for the place on Monday, June 29, and Tuesday, June 30. Many of the regulars stopped by for a final look at the place, and there were a lot of hugs and not a few damp eyes. As of today, July 1, the place existed only in fond memory.

You could identify the oldtimers, because they referred to the place as “The Pavilion.” Before Tommy bought it in the early 1980s, it had been called “The Irish Pavilion.” According to local lore, the place got its name from an owner who was scandalized that there was no Irish Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens in 1964. So the dark bar with the low ceilings near the corner of 57th Street and Lexington Avenue served as an Irish Pavilion in exile. Or so legend had it.

I didn’t discover the place myself until March 17, 1983, just after Tommy Makem took it over. I wandered in after watching Michael Flannery lead the St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue, never suspecting that it would become my home away from home for the next decade and a half. Besides the conviviality, the place was notable for its unabashed celebration of Irish culture. Tommy adopted the triple spiral – the mysterious artwork that adorns the entrance stone to the graves in Newgrange – as the bar’s signature symbol. Period prints graced the walls. And, of course, there was memorabilia from the days of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

During the Christmas season that same year, 1983, I wandered yet again into the Pavilion and found Tommy himself on stage for what became his annual Christmas show. It was by turns uplifting, hilarious and spiritual – it was the basis for Tommy’s annual Christmas show on public television, and his Christmas album. I didn’t miss a Christmas at Tommy Makem’s until Tommy himself stopped doing the show a couple of years ago.

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Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, Tommy performed regularly on the small Pavilion stage with Ronnie Dedario at his side, always in front of a packed house. He played some of the old songs, but also introduced new material. Those of us in the audience knew that Tommy demanded of us the same attention he devoted to his art – and when patrons at the bar displayed their ignorance of the house custom, Tommy paused, squinted into the distance, and advised the offenders that they had but one tongue, and it would be a terrible thing to lose. They got the point.

Back before the boom in Irish culture, the Pavilion was a showcase for traditional music from both sides of the Atlantic. And as times changed, the place changed with them: I recall seeing the raucous Kips Bay Ceili Club there years ago.

But music was only a part of what made Tommy Makem’s special. There was between patron and staff a camaraderie all too rare in business-like midtown Manhattan. Henry Counihan, the manager for many years, and his successor, Pat Brady, ran the place so that even when it was crowded and bustling, it had a palpable intimacy. And people like Pam Murphy, who worked there nine of those 16 wonderful years, personified the place’s character.

In the years after I first wandered into Tommy Makem’s, I brought countless friends there, and they, too, became regulars. Most weren’t Irish, but they appreciated the place’s intimacy and its mission. and it was there that I had a drink with the woman who became my wife – it was, it turned out, our first date. Some years later, at Pam Murphy’s insistence, we brought our first-born, Katherine Duggan Golway, for a celebratory lunch. Young Conor Duggan Golway didn’t get the chance to meet the old crowd. He’ll have to hear about it from his sister.

It seems that I have spent a fair portion of my life at Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion. No, make that a good portion. To Henry, Pat, Pam, Kate, Jack and all the others, and to Tommy Makem, thanks for a lifetime of memories.

(Terry Golway is deputy editor of the New York Observer and author of “The Irish in America” and “Irish Rebel,” a biography of John Devoy.)

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