Sep 10, 2014

At the Green Hut, the city's long Irish heritage is preserved in authentic kitsch that'll steal your heart

Former owners remembered
Doc’s report:

An unemployed Irishman with a hangover approaches a construction site manager on Chicago’s South Side, looking for work.

Sizing him up skeptically, the boss man asks, “Well, Mick: Can ya tell a girder from a joist?”

The Irishman mumbles: “One wrote Faust and the other wrote Ulysses.”

I’m the Irishman in that punch line.

I grew up in the Polish South End, with Dan Nowak, our deceased friend who co-founded this blog under the pen name Baldo. I miss him every day.

But as kids, we were aware that there were Irish north of 16th Street, on Columbus, around St. James Parish. Their boys wore green for sports and their mascot was The Irish, like Notre Dame. Some of their freckled girls had red hair. Some of their surnames didn’t end in “ski” or “weicz” or “wojewoda” and could actually be pronounced as they were spelled. Let’s say, for example, “Lynch” or, even, “Paveglio.” Who’s the victim?

They had the St. Patrick’s Day parade -– biggest in the state in the late '50s –- led by Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams -– with whom I share a surname. His signature green bow tie {the white “polka” dots notwithstanding) underscored his ethnic and political affiliation with John Kennedy.

The state’s oldest high school marching band –- Central High’s -– highlights the event. One year, Notre Dame’s marching band joined in.

Then I left for 30 years - to Chicago, where the Irish control everything that works in The City That Works. Everything, in other words, except the drug traffic and professional baseball teams.

Paddy wagons, after the diminutive for “Patrick” -– my off-blog legal first name -– were full of drunken Irishmen. Samuel “Cardinal” Stritch ran the archdiocese. Richard J. then Richard M. Daley, ran City Hall. And, during Prohibition, Dion O’Banion lost the North Side to Al Capone. The hard way.

It was Butch McGuire’s for the singles scene, Hackney’s for open-face corned beef and cabbage on dark egg rye, and O’Rourke’s for Mike Royko and Roger Ebert (R.I.P. to both the journalists and the bar).

Someone would recite Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Someone else would sing “Danny Boy” and identify it as “Londonderry Air” –- and tell you where in Londonderry his ancestors came from (and remind you not to end a sentence with a preposition). Then someone would tell a joke about English colonialism with the admonishment to kiss his “London derriere.”

They’d reference Yeats’s solemn anthem to the IRA, “Easter 1916”: “A terrible beauty is born.”

To this day, they dye the Chicago River green on St. Patrick’s Day, and hold their Irish shot and shell -– a Guinness and Hennessy –- better than anyone I’ve ever met. The men, too.

So, with that cultural context, I visited Paddy’s Green Hut with Harry and was at first struck by the commercialization of the Old Sod: the shamrock icon stitched into a vertical flag
Outdoor sign
(green on top, then descending to white, then orange), which should be horizontal, with the “colours” vertical and green at the hoist. I mean, would you stitch Uncle Sam into the stars and stripes and hang it vertically in your bar?

Celtic kitsch, you think. Bought at a “Blarney Stone” or “A Wee Bit of Your Irish Cliché Here” boutique. (“What’s green and lies by the pool? Paddy O’Furniture.” That’s the 55th time I’ve heard that one. Want to go for 56, asshole? I got George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Eugene O’Neill in my corner; see you after the Notre Dame game.)

Shamrocks on everything: a pale green shower curtain in the men’s room toilet accented with green shamrocks. Men’s room door: “Fir.” Women’s: “M’nai.”

Green paint splashed on everything: rugs, ceilings, walls, awnings, entrances, bar stools.

The predictable maps of Ireland’s counties, family names, Dublin’s taverns.

The view from the entrance features a string of twinkling green lights over a row of shamrocks over a row of Guinness posters.

“Paddy’s,” with a shamrock for the apostrophe, accents the cooler.

Celtic kitsch, you think.

But, wait. Always wait for our historic city by the bay to love you back. Bay City’s rich ethnic tapestry is authentically woven, and the Irish strand is among the tightest and brightest.

To the left of a smallish bar, there’s a collage of badges from local police and fire departments, and a picture of a policeman, the deceased brother of one of the former
The building's owners, back to 1884
owners. One is reminded that the “paddy” in “paddy wagon” refers not only to the drunken occupants, but also to the enforcers of the law driving the wagon, who are often Irish, the cop on the beat, keeping the peace.

I remembered the proud Irish firefighters who spoke after 9/11 in New York and the Boston Marathon.

And I remembered being the only Irish Catholic in my 6th grade class at St. Hyacinth’s to cry when, in 1960, we watched a newly elected president recall his immigrant grandparents being discriminated against for domestic work in late 19th century Boston’s upscale neighborhoods with signs in their lace-curtained windows: “Irish Need Not Apply.”

When I proposed to my North Shore Chicago girlfriend in 1986 and told my future in-laws I was Irish, one of them had the discourtesy to ask: “Shanty Irish or Scotch Irish?” (As their heritage was German and Russian, I should have replied: “Pro-Hitler or Pro-Stalin? Who’s your favorite 20th century genocidal maniac?”)

The Irish are big on their heritage, and the Green Hut has a wall with photos of its former and current owners: Denny O’Donnell in 1934 (O’Donnell is my maternal grandmother’s maiden name); then Betty and Gerry Witzke in ’48, until Denny Hayes bought it in '73. Hayes sold it to the brothers Jerry and Kevin Rickers in 2001. Patty and Dave Corcoran have owned it since 2010.

My friends and Google tell me that the Hayes years (1973-2001) were the Irish heydays of the Hut, but that may be a factor of my age, and, as a result, my friends’ heydays. Who didn’t
Denny and Marie Hayes
love their 20s, 30s, 40s?

Denny Hayes is, my sources tell me, a politician and raconteur and just a great guy. A popular teacher at nearby Central High School, he established a bar so welcoming that, to this day, alumni from that school and neighboring All Saints High School gather there on Thursday nights.

Hayes is also a proud Irishman, reconstituting the Ancient Order of Hibernians, serving as president of the Friends of Celtic Culture, standing for political office as a precinct delegate, co-founding the Bay County Sports Hall of Fame, and, in 2012, with his wife Marie, leading our St. Patrick’s Day parade as grand marshal. After the parade in 1990, he hosted then-Gov. James Blanchard and his rival, future Gov. John Engler.

And he introduced Guinness on tap to the Saginaw Valley.

If someone were to ask me: “Tell me about Bay City,” I’d show them the hut on Webster I was born in, the hospital Madonna and I were born in, the Chevy plant that men returning from WWII worked in and where I worked third shift to finance my B.A. at SVSU, and the ice rink Terry McDermott trained on for his 1964 gold medal. Then I’d tell them to talk to Denny Hayes (whom I’ve never met, but intend to). (To avoid ending that sentence with a preposition, should it be: “but with whom I intend to meet”?).

The Green Hut isn’t Celtic kitsch. It’s sure and begorrah authentic Bay City, for at least two reasons.

One, I popped in three days after my visit with Harry and had a Guinness: It was the best $4 I ever spent. I was the only patron, at 2:30 p.m. on the last Sunday in August. The bartender
Bay City Players through the front window
poured the stout into a pitcher to let it build a head and warm for two minutes. Then she poured it into the pint glass to finish the head. Then she served it to me on the Hut’s beautiful dark oak bar, and went into a back office and left me alone.

It was a perfect 17 minutes: temperature, aroma, flavor, color –- just perfect. It made me wonder why life -– or women –- can’t always be like that. And I’ve had Guinness in England, Scotland, Wales and Chicago’s South Side.

I’ve been everywhere, man, and Bay City’s the real deal.

The second reason is that the two young people who accompanied Harry and me, Lisa and Ian, were simply delightful, as newlyweds tend to be -- articulate, engaged, bright and funny. They’re earning their graduate degrees in social work at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

They’re precisely the people I hope will run Bay City in the future. Harry and I did our best sales job for Bay City as a great place to spend your life, buy a house, make friends, launch your career, raise your kids -– whatever your plans.

The Green Hut supported our case.

The Green Hut’s the real deal, man.

So is Bay City. And my girl, Margie.

See the hairy guy's report on the Green Hut: Beer, euchre and Irish scenery but no more muskrat, regardless of the season  

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