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Grand-Uncle Paddy Clarke: A New York Irish Story

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories

Helen Marie Clarke

“Uncle Paddy, can you walk with me into the big bar area – even though girls are not allowed?”

The last time I was greeted by my white-haired paternal granduncle, Patrick Joseph Clarke, was when I was nine years old, just before he died in April of 1948.  Uncle Paddy was the proprietor of a saloon, Clarke’s Bar on the corner of 55th Street and Third Avenue in New York City that he had purchased in 1904, several years after emigrating from County Leitrim nine years before.

My family and I always came into his saloon through what was known as the ladies entrance on 55th Street, right by the shoeshine stand.  Uncle Paddy was very strict about where ladies could sit – no women were allowed at the mahogany bar in the front, only in the small area near the ladies entrance where round wooden tables were surrounded by steam-bent chairs, set out for diners.

The day that I asked Uncle Paddy to go into the male-only front bar he threw his head back and laughed.

“Sure, Marie, let’s go.”

My eyes examined every inch of the huge beveled mirror at the back of the mahogany bar.  Then I caught sight of two flags – one was American and the other one had green, orange and white stripes.

“What flag is that, Uncle Paddy?”

“Ah, don’t you know, Marie?  That’s an Irish flag.”

Then I looked up at the pictures next to the flags.

“Who are those men?”

Uncle Paddy began pointing at the three pictures.

“That’s Robert Emmet and that’s Michael Collins, famous Irishmen and, of course, you know who the third one is.”

“Abraham Lincoln,” I said proudly. “What does that picture with all the writing say?”

Uncle Paddy chuckled.

“Oh, that’s the Proclamation of Independence from the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland.”

What Uncle Paddy found out that day was that my Irish-American family had not passed on much of the heritage from the old country to their children.  We did not have corned beef cabbage or learn step-dancing and certainly did not know Irish history.  Uncle Paddy’s brother James Clarke, my paternal grandfather, would never answer questions about Ireland.  All he said was he did not like the English and that Ireland was a hard place – he was glad to be in America.

Grandpa came to New York at the same time that Uncle Paddy bought the business in Manhattan and in 1916 he and Grandma Mary Clarke moved into rooms above the saloon with my father John and my uncle Jim.  They lived right next to Uncle Paddy’s room on the second floor of the four storey building that Uncle Paddy never wanted to purchase even though he had the money.  “Why would I want to own a tenement?” he asked.  Instead, he put his earnings into a Port Washington, Long Island home and into stocks that failed during the Great Depression.

To buy his saloon he had saved every dime he made working for the former owner and he arranged with several brewers to get additional funds in exchange for serving their beers and ale.  On the day he took possession of the saloon Uncle Paddy had a sign-maker paint gold letters saying Clarke’s Bar on the front window.  The saloon in the red brick Victorian style building built in the 1860‘s became very popular with the locals who liked Uncle Paddy for his generosity and gregariousness.

In his youth Uncle Paddy parted his jet black hair down the middle and made sure his ruddy face was always clean shaven.  His black jacket was always pressed and covered a starched white shirt with a standup collar and a narrow black string tie.  A white cotton apron covered his black trousers.  Uncle Paddy liked to put a red carnation in his buttonhole.  When he attended Sunday Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church he wore his finest Irish tweeds.

Uncle Paddy was very proud of his saloon.  One time I sat with him and told him his bar was pretty and asked him if the place looked the same when he bought it.

“Yes, Marie, it has not changed much.  My first customers stood at this same mahogany bar, with their feet on the brass railing.  The tables in the back used to have white cotton tablecloths, but I changed them to red and white checkered ones a few years ago. Those steam-bent chairs are the originals.”

All of a sudden the old dog, Jesse, came running towards me on the tile floor made of one inch octagon tiles, edged with black tiles, on which fresh sawdust was sprinkled daily to absorb spills.  He licked my hand as he always did when I came to the saloon.

“Good dog, good dog,” I told him.

Satisfied I was friendly, Jesse scampered away.  I looked around the bar. My eyes wandered to the twenty foot ceiling, extending all the way to the back room, and made of interlocking tin squares with a geometric design stamped onto them.  Dark mahogany paneling ran three-quarters up the wall.  Then I noticed an opening in the wall opposite the bar.

“What is that small window over there, Uncle Paddy?”

“Before there were bottling plants or grocery chains most people drank beer at a saloon and they brought home a bucket of beer.  That window allowed beer buckets to be handed out in order to avoid splashing people.  The customer passed in an empty pail, called a growler, and got it back full of sudsy brew.  Wives could pick up the beer for their husbands‘suppers and not step into the bar. You know my rule, Marie.  No ladies at the bar.”

Finished with my survey of the appearance of the bar, I still had questions for Uncle Paddy.

“Uncle Paddy, what was the neighborhood outside like when you first came?”

Uncle Paddy took me to a window and we looked out.

“Outside the saloon there was that same shoeshine stand where people got their nickel’s worth of polishing.  Beyond the stand were those two steel cellar doors for delivery of liquor and food to my saloon.  Many shops stretched along Third Avenue, mixed in with plenty of saloons, breweries and even a few slaughterhouses.  There were hundreds of us immigrants and we all liked drinking.”

It would be another ten years before I had a conversation with my father John about the years he lived over Uncle Paddy’s saloon.  By then I was nineteen years old and I was a history major at Marymount Manhattan College, studying the Prohibition period in America.  My father and his five brothers, four of whom were born over Uncle Paddy’s saloon, had lived there through the period when Clarke’s Bar had become a speakeasy.  New York City was known as the “city on a still,” indicating the refusal of many of its citizens to abide by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act that implemented the amendment.  Drinking in the city went underground.

Uncle Paddy’s reaction was to say “Prohibition is like a bad cold, it will go away.”   He was right, but it took fourteen years, from 1919-1933, for that to happen.  Meanwhile Uncle Paddy was breaking the law, making bathtub gin at night on the second floor and receiving limousine delivered cartons of Scotch whiskey from Canada that were then lowered through the 55th Street steel doors into the cellar.  He was certainly not alone, as many new illegal saloons were opened during this period and the police looked the other way or accepted bribes.  My Dad told me of an evening when he witnessed Uncle Paddy in a fist fight with a cop who wanted an increase in the payoff.

In the midst of the Prohibition period, 1927, my Grandmother Mary Clarke died of complications of pneumonia.  My Grandfather never remarried or forgot his “Molly” and he was a devoted, but severe, father to his six sons.  My Dad lived over the bar until he married my mother Helen in 1936 and two years later I was born at Leroy Hospital in Manhattan.

In 1937 my grandfather moved with four of his sons to a rented house in Woodside, Queens.

Besides my father, one other son had moved out – my Uncle Tom who had entered a Jesuit Seminary following graduation from Xavier High School.

Uncle Paddy continued to live over his bar.  My Dad said that this contributed to Paddy’s success as a saloonkeeper.  Uncle Paddy had the time to concentrate on his business, especially since he never married.  He was always at the saloon and none of us ever remember him being at family events.  He did not even enjoy his Port Washington home – it was merely an investment.  Uncle Paddy knew his business.  At night he would shake the liquor bottles, allowing him to tell how much money ought to be in the register.  He was firm with customers and usually handled drunks by himself or called the sanitation department to collect the inebriated in one of their water wagons.

In 1944 a major event occurred at my Uncle Paddy’s bar – the Hollywood director Billy Wilder chose Clarke’s Bar to be the setting for a scene in his film “Lost Weekend” about an alcoholic writer.  One of Uncle Paddy’s customers, Charles Jackson, had written the novel and he suggested Clarke’s Bar to Wilder.  After the film was released Uncle Paddy complained about all the sightseers coming to see his bar and he also expressed annoyance at one of the scenes in the movie.  A prostitute is seated at the mahogany bar and is inviting the main character, played by English actor Ray Milland, to take her to dinner.  Uncle Paddy did not want to give the impression that he allowed “ladies of the night” to enter his bar.  He did not even allow ordinary women to sit there.  “Lost Weekend” was the first of several films that utilized Clarke’s Bar as a backdrop.

Uncle Paddy went home to his maker four years after the “Lost Weekend” filming put his saloon on the map and helped transform it from an old local bar to one of the most famous watering holes in Manhattan.  Uncle Paddy’s nephew, Charlie Clarke, born over the saloon, had become his manager after returning from the war in 1945.  He remained in charge under the new owners – an Italian family who put their antique business in the rooms where Uncle Paddy and my father’s family had lived.

During the Lavezzo family’s ownership transformations in the city, like the removal of the Third Avenue Elevated train that ran by Clarke’s Bar,made the property enormously valuable.  And the clientele changed from locals to celebrities, sports figures and the publishing and advertising crowd.  In 2001 a conglomerate calling themselves Clarke’s Inc. bought the saloon and the building in which it sits, by now a New York City architectural landmark, surrounded by forty foot office buildings.   Due to the conglomerate’s investment there are now Clarke’s Bars in Las Vegas, Chicago, Washington D.C. and several in Manhattan.  Uncle Paddy would be amazed.

Since Uncle Charlie was the manager of Clarke’s Bar until the 1990’s my family still considered it “our bar” and my husband John Molanphy worked there for two different stints, once in the 1960‘s and then again in the 1970‘s, giving me a bird’s eye view.  I had always told my parents that there was a story to be told about Uncle Paddy and his saloon as it was the major connection we had with our Irish heritage.  Besides, the ambience in Clarke’s ensured that I always enjoyed a visit in my youth, both before and after it became a celebrated retreat.  Good memories linger there for me and many others.  God Bless you, Uncle Paddy.

About the author

© Helen Marie Clarke for writing.ie

Helen Marie Clarke lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband John Molanphy and is a professor at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. She has her doctorate from the University of Texas and her published dissertation concerns conditions in the Texas prison system in the l980’s.

Helen Marie grew up in New York City in an Irish-American family and attended Marymount Manhattan College where she was a history major.  She has taught history and social science at the secondary and college levels and produced texts related to American history and politics.

Helen Marie’s love of history led her to do research about her granduncle Patrick Joseph Clarke who emigrated from County Leitrim and founded what would become a famous saloon on the east side of Manhattan, at 55th Street and Third Avenue.  Helen Marie’s piece, “Granduncle Paddy” is an overview of the book she is currently writing, entitled Over P.J.’s.  She is also writing an historical novel, Leaving Lissadell, about the adventurous life of Irish heroine, Constance Gore-Booth Markiewicz.

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