Jimmy Houlihan, left, and Pat Fenton beside a painting of Farrell’s Bar by Milica Katalinic.
By Pat Fenton
I remember last spring when I was coming down 9th Avenue on a Sunday morning and I heard someone call my name from the steps of Holy Name Church. It was Jimmy Houlihan with his wife Eileen and the two of them had just come out of Mass. They were heading to Jersey to see some friends, but they drove in early to attend morning Mass. I was back in the old neighborhood working on a piece about Pete Hamill who spent many a fall and winter morning standing on those same steps as a young altar boy.
Moments like that always stir up memories of a long ago Windsor Terrace when it seemed like a part of small town America to me, altar boys going off on cold winter mornings to serve mass at the church on the hill, the sound of church bells pealing out on innocent Sunday mornings when we were young. And mixed in with it would be the sing-song sound of young boy’s voices hawking copies of the Catholic publication The Tablet; “Tablet, Tablet, 10 cents a copy.”
Much of that Windsor Terrace survives now in fewer and fewer minds. But come Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, Sunday the 19th of March, it will live again when Jimmy Houlihan leads the annual Park Slope/Windsor Terrace Irish parade as its grand marshal.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
It is a well-deserved honor to a man who carries the history of a long-ago, Irish working-class Windsor Terrace in his head. It is a history that he has long been a part of since the first day he put on a starched white bartender’s apron in Farrell’s Bar.
In the winter of 1964, Jimmy Houlihan was working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency at the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, guarding Michelangelo’s Pieta; a fitting job for an Irish parochial schoolboy. All through the long, quiet winter in the isolated pavilion out in Flushing Meadows, Queens, he had plenty of time now to think about what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He was 23 years old.
After the fair closed, he went to work behind the stick of Farrell’s Bar on 9th Avenue and 16th Street. He had taken and passed the New York police exam along with the fire department, but he felt that he had found a sense of place tending bar. There was something about standing behind the bar of this saloon – a historic Irish-American saloon that has existed since 1933, just after prohibition ended – that pulled him in. And anyone who has done this sort of work knows that part of the draw is the everyday drama that exists in bars, much like the drama that exists on the boards of a stage.
But there was something else he found. Something he learned early from the owner Eddie Farrell who broke him in; it offered the chance to give something back to the community that gave you so much. Long before anyone ever heard of “GoFundMe”, Eddie Farrell was raising money to help those in Windsor Terrace who needed help, help with paying the rent, help with sickness in the family, and help with getting a job.
Jimmy Houlihan kept that chartable spirit of Farrell’s Bar alive. In 1995 he heard that all 33 class rooms of the parochial school he went to, Holy Name of Jesus (now St. Joseph the Worker), needed to be painted. The school didn’t have the money to do it. So he got together with an FDNY Firefighter, Charlie Kawas, and they organized a volunteer list of over 300 people to help the school out.
Many of them were patrons of Farrell’s and another neighborhood saloon, McBears. In one day, like a scene from a Garrison Keillor short story, they showed up with paint rollers and drop cloths and painted the old classrooms whose cloak rooms they once filed silently through as young students. The writer Denis Hamill described it as “a Brooklyn version of an Amish Barn raising.”
The story spread all the way to Washington. Here’s a short extract from the tribute U.S. Rep. Chuck Schumer entered into the Congressional Record in 1995: “Anyone from Windsor Terrace knows that Farrell’s saloon, the bar where ‘Houlie’ works, is also a solid neighborhood landmark well known for its involvement in community events.”
At 1 p.m., on March 19, when Jimmy Houlihan steps off at 15th Street and 9th Avenue and marches down towards 7th Avenue, the history of a parish that was once the hub of one of the largest Irish working-class neighborhoods in New York will live again in his head.
As he turns off onto 7th Avenue, he will pass by a history of old Irish saloons that the fathers of the sons of the Irish who grew up here once drank in, once heard news of factory jobs in.
He’ll go by 11th Street where Rattigan’s bar once was, and past 9th Street where Diamonds was, a saloon that the Brooklyn born actor who played John Dillinger, Lawrence Tierney, drank in when he worked as an iron worker and hung out in the neighborhood. He’ll pass the railroad room, cold water flat at 378 Seventh Avenue where Pete Hamill lived as a young boy, a tenement that would live on forever in his books.
The parade will end in front of the old Sanders theatre at 15th Street and 9th Avenue as it always does. Then come Monday morning, Jimmy Houlihan will go back to what he always does, managing one of the last Irish working-class saloons left in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, Farrell’s Bar. Pity the “hipsters” of the neighborhood have no idea of the humanity that exists behind its doors.