Jimmy Houlihan, left, who has retired from bartending, pictured with Pat Fenton in 2016 beside a mural of Farrell’s Bar, Brooklyn. The mural by Milica Katalinic is located at the Irish Village in Cape Cod, Mass. Pictures from the recent party in honor of Houlihan at the famous bar in Windsor Terrace will appear in Wednesday's Irish Echo.
By Pat Fenton
The wonderful, raspy, Brooklyn voice of Jimmy Houlihan was on the other end of the phone recently. “You know, Pat, I’m 80 now and I decided that it’s time to retire from bartending.”
He’s been working behind the stick in Farrell’s Bar on the corner of 16th Street and 9th Avenue in our old neighborhood Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, for almost 55 years. He’s a part owner of the saloon with Samantha Horan, his late partner Timmy Horan’s daughter.
Since 1972 he’s been taking the long ride in and back from Bay Shore, L. I., on the Southern State and the Belt Parkway. And after giving it a lot of thought he decided that it was time for him to announce “last call.” He’d be coming in to serve a final round behind the stick that weekend and he wanted me to stop by.
Driving back to Windsor Terrace on the parkway from Massapequa, L.I., was like driving through old movie frames of my life. It always is. Whenever I pass the behemoth presence of the rows and rows of old factory buildings below the Gowanus Expressway I can see myself at 16 years old, a drop out from Manual Training High School in South Brooklyn, working the assembly line of the Ann Page Company in Bush Terminal.
I see signs for the Brooklyn army base where at Christmas time in the summer of 1961 at 20 years old, a young recruit fresh out of the Military Police Academy in Fort Gordon, Ga., I boarded a massive troop ship called “The Rose” and shipped out to Mannheim, Germany, for two years. I would never be that innocent or that far away from Brooklyn for that long again.
In the late 1940s and into the ’50s and the early ’60s, we were all blue-collar registered Democrats in Windsor Terrace. We rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, we went to the last Mass of the day at Holy Name of Jesus Church on the hill every Sunday, and we attended Holy Name parochial school.
Up on my book shelf next to works by Hemingway and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” I have an old grade school reader from Holy Name School called “This is Our Town.” I think they used to call them “see and say” books. Every now and then I open it up and thumb through it. It’s filled with stories about civic duty and wonderful illustrations of flowing, American flags, and nuns in black and white habits and police officers and firefighters helping people, and stories that actually begin with, “once upon a time.” And that was our town, too.
But there was also another side of Windsor Terrace that gave it the duality of an old Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien movie. In the late ’50s there were street gangs with names like the Bartells, the Shamrock Boys, Skid Row, the Tigers, the Jokers and the Gremlins. There was the bank robber Willie Sutton who was known to frequent some of the many Irish saloons of the neighborhood when he was still wanted by the police.
Jimmy Houlihan came out of that Windsor Terrace and he never forgot it. His father was a butcher who worked for the A&P supermarket. He also worked part time as a bartender in an Irish saloon out in Bay Ridge. Jimmy remembers spending time and watching him as he worked and he knew then that was what he wanted to do.
Like most of the young people in the neighborhood, he took all the civil service exams when they came out. And he passed high on all of them, but he still kept thinking about the job his father had as a bartender.
In 1965, Eddie Farrell hired him to work in his bar. But he did more than just teach him how to tap a keg of beer in the cellar. He taught him something he himself had learned after years of working behind the bar at Farrell’s, always be companionate, help people who need help no matter who they are, no matter where they come from.
It was something that would be passed on to two other bartenders Eddie Farrell hired, Danny Mills and Timmy Horan, who along with Jimmy Houlihan would eventually buy the bar from him. To this day the traditions he taught the three of them still continues in Farrell’s.
Instead of barring them from ever again drinking in Farrell’s, Jimmy became known for taking some of the younger customers off to the side and patiently pointing out to them some of the things they were doing that were wrong. And how they were hurting themselves.
Many of them with his help eventually got off of drugs and alcohol. They got jobs or enlisted in the service. And on this last day many of them either showed up or called from across the country to thank him for changing their lives.
I parked the car in the old schoolyard of Holy Name and my wife Patricia and I walked down 9th Avenue. It was only three o’clock in the afternoon but already hundreds of people had made their way into the bar.
After pushing our way through the side entrance we managed to make our way through the crowd and over to a place next to the stairs that lead down to the cellar. Mike O’Donnell, who has been tending bar in Farrell’s for many years, came over to me and told me that Jimmy would be here shortly. He’d be coming in from the bottom of the steps next to where I was standing.
His wife Eileen came up first. Then Jimmy Houlihan put on a starched white bartender’s apron for the last time and slowly walked up after her. Magee Hickey and a film crew from PIX 11 News were following him. So was another film crew led by producer Jay Cusato, who is filming a documentary that tells the history of the bar called “Why Farrell’s?”
He stopped for a brief moment when he saw me, and then he slowly made his way through the crowd. Later on he would tell me that he was so moved by the turnout that it brought tears to his eyes. In the middle of it all was the writer Denis Hamill who represented all the years gone by with Hooley and the generations of the Hamill family who drank here, starting with his father. Billy Hamill.
The TV camera boom of Pix 11 News lowered down as he took his place next to the taps in front of the stacks and stacks of large quart beer containers one more time. Magee Hickey started to interview him but he was obviously so choked up he didn’t say much. Looking out at the other side of the bar he swept his arms out and said “54 years back here and I have never saw better people than these people here.” And then he added, “I’ll be around. I may not be back here behind the bar, but I’ll be around. It’s all good.”
Jimmy Houlihan comes out of a fading blue-collar America we will never ever see again in our time. This one’s for you, Hoolie!