O’Shea’s on Clematis in West Palm Beach celebrates its 20th birthday Saturday

Punks to lawyers bends an elbow at popular pub

The oldest continuously operating Irish bar in the United States, Patrick’s of Pratt Street, opened in Baltimore in 1847. That’s 147 years before Guinness started flowing from the taps at O’Shea’s Irish Pub in downtown West Palm Beach.

Ireland’s oldest Irish pub? That claim goes to Sean’s Bar in Athione, which dates back to AD 900 — 859 years before Arthur Guinness started brewing his stout at St. James’ Gate in Dublin and more than 1,000 years before O’Shea’s started serving it on Clematis Street.

Compared with those great-great-Irish-granddaddies, O’Shea’s is a pub infant. It was born in 1994 — a mere 20 years ago, but still an occasion worthy of a party.

Owner Maurice Costigan is celebrating the pub’s 20th anniversary with a massive street bash today — not so much because O’Shea’s is downtown’s longest continuously operating traditional bar but because the pub survived a rocky start and blossomed into a home away from home for powerbrokers and everyday folks alike.

Hundreds of people, including a core of longtime regulars and former bartenders, are expected to jam into the 500 block of Clematis Street at 3 p.m. for a celebration that will rival St. Patrick’s Day. There will be Irish dancers, a bagpiper and a half dozen bands that have played O’Shea’s over the past two decades.

Mostly, there will be lots and lots of reminiscing — over pints of Guinness and Murphy’s and the newly debuted O’Shea’s Anniversary Stout — about how people who first enter the pub as strangers often wind up joining one big extended family.

“O’Shea’s is the closest thing we have to Cheers. Everybody knows your name. There are no pretenses,’’ says Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Tim McCarthy, a regular since the bar’s first year.

Jimmy Fallon, years before taking over as host of “The Tonight Show,” drank at O’Shea’s a couple of times after doing stand-up gigs in town. So did singer Ben Vereen during a run at the Kravis Center, and A Flock of Seagulls, the 1980s New Wave band after playing a gig across the street at Respectable Street.

But O’Shea’s is really about folks like Willie Parsons, a gentle 66-year-old O’Shea’s caretaker who walked to South Florida from Atlanta in 1981 before being hired as the pub’s first employee.

And Faye Hewlett, retired psychiatrist, who dresses up as Santa for the pub’s annual Christmas party and as St. Patrick every March 17. And Marc LaMonica, a regular who has wound up hosting the bar’s Pub Quiz every Wednesday night.

‘‘O’Shea’s is about normal everyday people. Nobody cares who you are at O’Shea’s. It brings people together and it keeps people together,’’ said Audrey Farrelly, who managed the pub from 2002 until she left in 2013 to take over Serenity Garden Tea House.

It starts families, too, which is why many partygoers – including Nick and Marie Flade and Mike and Laura Alonso (two American guys and two Irish girls), to name a few— will be wearing T-shirts that read “I met my other half at O’Shea’s.’’

“It’s a simple, good gathering place. Yes, the furniture is a bit scratched up, but we’re a pub. We don’t want to be high-end. We’re a home away from home,’’ says Rachel Costigan, an Englishwoman who runs the pub with her Irishman husband, Maurice.

No one has invested more time and sweat into the place as Maurice — or “Morris” as his first name is pronounced back home in Cork, Ireland, where he left in the summer of 1990.

He arrived in America for the first time on Labor Day in 1990, in Boston. In a matter of months, he’d bounce from Beantown (where he lost his wallet) to California (where he was down to his last dollar) to Seattle (where the climate reminded him of Ireland) in a fruitless search for work.

A friend recommended South Florida. “I figured I at least could be out of work but wearing shorts and a T-shirt,’’ he says.

He arrived in Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 1991 and met up with an old Irish friend named Sean Cotter. A year later, they launched a furniture moving company called Absolute Care Movers.

He started hanging out at an Irish bar in Boca Raton called The Blarney Stone, where he started to feel at home for the first time since arriving in America. He met his future wife there and he got know the bar’s owner, a former Irish priest named Sean Quilter.

Costigan also started toying with the idea that maybe one day he might open his own Irish pub, one that might remind him of The Black Sheep in Schull, Ireland, which he frequented in the years before he left for the United States.

“I said to Sean, ‘Keep an eye out and if you see something open up, let me know,’’’ Costigan, 49, recalls asking Quilter.

One day in 1994, Quilter called Costigan and said, “I might’ve found the place.’’

He brought Costigan to the 500 block of Clematis Street, where Sewell’s Hardware store was surrounded by derelict storefronts with boarded-up windows in a section of downtown frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes.

They walked to a door that over the years had been the entrance to a restaurant, a coffee shop and a nightclub. Now, it was a fledgling Irish bar that had opened in early 1994 by up-and-coming entrepreneur Rodney Mayo and his friend Kevin Shea.

They named the bar by putting an “O” in the front of Kevin’s last name. “They felt it was short and sweet and memorable,’’ Rachel said.

When Costigan walked in and saw Dade County pine floors and the bar rail with peeling wood, he knew it was the bar he wanted.

“It looked more like an Irish bar you’d find in Cork or Dublin than any other Irish bar I’d been to in the United States,” he said.

But the bar’s early months were a struggle, mainly because of the block’s environment. Mayo and Shea agreed to sell the bar to Costigan, Sean Cotter and Sean Quilter in late 1995.

After starting out with just four varieties of beer on tap, the trio started to attract a small but growing core of regular customers. The slow success allowed the bar to expand in 1998 into the next-door eastern space that had been occupied for 60 years by Bill’s Tuxedos.

“I remember many (regulars) complained that the pub would lose its charm,’’ Maurice recalls.

Instead, the pub started to thrive. Costigan eventually bought out Quilter and Cotter, then bought the building. But there were other ups and downs — recessions, hurricanes, battles with the city over parking spots and permits, competition from other Irish bars that have since closed.

There were some years that the proceeds from St. Patrick’s Day, the busiest day of the year for just about every Irish bar, saved O’Shea’s from closing, Costigan said.

“To go through so much and still be there, they deserve a lot of credit,’’ said Bill Fountain, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority from 1989 to 2003.

Costigan and Mayo, who in 1993 launched the popular Moonfest Halloween celebration, are “pioneers for introducing the 500 block to the rest of Clematis Street. It was no doubt the step child of Clematis Street (in the 1990s) until those two guys came along. Now, it’s the place to go,’’ Fountain said.

Mayo said he has no regrets about giving up so early on O’Shea’s.

“My plate was pretty full at the time,’’ he recalled. “Maurice and Rachel have developed a family over there. They’re there every day. They’re serving drinks. They’re hands-on bar owners. There have been a lot of Irish bars that haven’t made it. But they have. Just (by) the way they treat people.’’

Of all the scenes that have unfolded at O’Shea’s over the years, Costigan’s favorite is the one about the lawyer and the punk.

It was the middle of a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon many years ago. The place was empty except for a suit-and-tie lawyer — McCarthy, before he became a judge in 1998 — sitting at the bar chatting with Costigan.

“In walks a guy with a mohawk, safety pins in his face, wearing a kilt. He sits a couple of seats down. They start talking to each other. I’m watching them. They have one beer, two beers. They end up having each other in knots laughing and carrying on for two or three hours. I was marveling at it,’’ says Costigan, who tells the story to new employees.

“My point to my staff was this: That punk would never, ever have sat down next to a lawyer and gotten along like that had he not come to O’Shea’s. To me, that’s what O’Shea’s is about.’’


O’Shea’s Street Party: 3 p.m. today, 500 block of Clematis Street, downtown West Palm Beach.

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