Sure, some of the blame can be spread around to guys like Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes. Or even Bono. But the bulk of the blame rests squarely at the flailing feet of Flatley.
His crime? Simple. Flatley made all things Irish trendy. That's fine when it means increased sales of wool sweaters and Chieftains' CDs. It's even fine when parents are forcing their six-year-old sons to undergo the hellish ritual that is Irish step-dancing lessons. (My cousin Sean is still scarred by our taunts that he had to go dance with the girls while we played football. It could explain why he drinks so much.)
But when the trendiness starts to interfere with Irish pubs--well, now you're stepping on toes. Ever since the name "Flatley" became synonymous with "nancy boy," Irish-themed restaurants and bars seem to be popping up all over town.
The problem with many of these new joints is that they smack of some divine marketing plan, devised by an Andover- or Harvard-educated WASP who would rather piss on my immigrant great-grandfather's grave than have a drink with him. You know, the asshole who chirps about market research, branding, demographics, and repositioning, and comes up with Irish Pubs Inc.
Don't get me wrong: There's nothing distasteful about a clean pub with dark wood trim and decent food. Nor is there anything inherently glorious about a dark and dusty joint on Lorain that offers a choice between Guinness, Budweiser, and pretzels. But there's a critical difference in the clientele, the character, the atmosphere. It's an indescribable vibe that separates the pretenders from the authentic. Or as authentic as one can get five thousand miles from the real thing.
With its current surfeit of Irish pubs, Cleveland racks up a few hits, a few misses, and a lot of averages. The tricky part is that a below-average Irish pub can still be a good bar. Take Muldoon's on E. 185th Street. It bills itself as an Irish pub, but aside from a few shamrocks in the window, there's nothing particularly Celtic about the place. Still, it offers good food, a wide selection of beers, and a nice crowd.
And I'll admit my bias. For my money, drinking in a bad Irish pub is still better than downing Bud Lights at Shooters. So who better to cruise Greater Cleveland, sampling the best and worst Irish pubs our fair city has to offer? It wasn't an all-inclusive journey, but then, even Ulysses has a few holes.
Here's a sampler, in no particular order.
* Pride of Erin, 12228 Lorain Avenue. An unpretentious neighborhood spot that hits all the right notes--the flag of Maigh Eo (County Mayo, of which the near West Side is a virtual extension), the Caffrey's on tap, the old-timer at the end of the bar drinking orange juice. The barmaid is friendly, and the Irish feel is authentic, not like the roach-infested watering holes that slap a neon shamrock in the window and call the place Chugging O'Micks.
* Fado Irish Pub, 1058 Old River Road, the Flats. Fado might be the best bar on Old River Road, which is sorta like being the sexiest healthy single in a leper colony. It has a wonderful deck, the music is good, and the interior is intricately detailed. But for God's sake, the place is a chain. The last Irish guy who tried to franchise bars was Brian Flanagan, the character Tom Cruise played in Cocktail. You can have fun there, just don't feel good about it.
* The Blarney Stone, 13334 Lorain Avenue. If a bar is defined by its clientele, the Blarney Stone is schizophrenic. In the afternoon it's full of older guys, half of whom were born on the auld sod. But by the end of the night, it's hopping with a younger crowd more interested in jamming to Blues Traveller than the Pogues. A good time, though not particularly different or more Celtic than most other places in town.
* Flannery's Pub, 323 Prospect Avenue. The first time I went to Flannery's for lunch, our waitress cheerily greeted me with "Welcome to Flannery's. Our special today is shrimp served on a bed of steamed rice." Say what? The place is spacious and pleasant, but often overrun with Jake-bound accountants who feel naked without Chief Wahoo garb. The bartenders are friendly, but to quote my buddy Sweeney: "It's like going to a T.G.I. Friday's that serves Guinness."
* The Harp Pub, 4408 Detroit Avenue. This pub, which just opened last month, gets the "Nice Try" award. The interior is imported, and there's a sweet view of Lake Erie. While the West Side needs another Irish pub like Belfast needs another car bombing, it's nice to see any investment like this on Detroit. Unfortunately, it takes time to develop character. But this place, like the neighborhood, has potential.
* The Treehouse, 820 College Street, Tremont. A good Irish pub that doesn't bill itself as one. The clientele is an eclectic mix of yuppies, artists, hipsters, and locals, but one stroll into the men's room--where a painting proclaims "Up the Rebels," a reference to the pre-terrorist Irish Republican Army--reveals this bar's roots. Most Sundays feature Irish music.
* The Public House, 17219 Lorain Avenue. The epitome of a neighborhood hangout, where the drink prices are reasonable and the clientele is a mixture of ages and incomes. Framed by fliers advertising trips to Ireland this summer, two guys with white hair (my guess: St. Ed's, Class of '59) complained about President Clinton, while two cute girls (my guess: Magnificat, Class of '94) talked about whatever it is cute girls talk about.
* Mullarkey's Irish Pub, 4110 Erie Street, Willoughby. Nice place, but what's with the high school football helmets on the ceiling? Irish pubs are melancholy enough without prompting the customers to relive their salad days.
* Moriarty's Bar, 1912 East Sixth Street. From the great jukebox to the perfect lighting to the classy redhead behind the bar, Moriarty's is a treat. It's upscale without being pretentious. And it has the best framed bar slogan in Cleveland: "This bar is dedicated to those merry souls of other days who again will make drinking a pleasure, who achieve contentment long before capacity, and who, whatever they may drink, prove able to carry it, enjoy it, and remain gentlemen."
W.B. Yeats couldn't have said it any better himself.