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Story and Photography by Chris Poh
some point during the process of writing an article, I begin to
consider a suitable yet catchy title that might impart some sense of
what a place is all about. For this particular undertaking though the
name says it all—McGovern’s. From Boston to
Savannah, the Irish diaspora know the name well and hold this storied
Newark, New Jersey tavern in very high regard.
1936, Frank J, McGovern had made it his mission in life to
provide his customers and fellow countrymen with a good drink, a good
meal, a good time, a good job, and in some instances, even a good wife.
This was certainly the case for one William Scully. Upon his arrival
from Ireland in 1958, he immediately went to work as a bartender at
McGovern’s. And in the course of
the next ten years he would marry the
boss’s niece and eventually go on to become the next proprietor of the
I was first introduced to Mr. Scully and McGovern’s during the late 1970s. My dear friend Casey, who was very active in Irish culture, causes and consumption, insisted that I accompany him to the place. I was somewhat suspect of the possibility that one of the best Irish pubs in America, as he described it, might actually be located in Newark, New Jersey. Like so many other urban areas at that time, Newark was still severely suffering the effects of the racial discord and economic hardships that had plagued most American cities. But just as soon as the affable Bill Scully shook my hand and broke into an Irish ballad, at the request of some guy on the other side of the bar, while placing a pint of perfectly poured Guinness in front of me—I knew that Casey’s great love for this tavern was by no means misplaced. Here was an oasis from hard times where all were welcomed and where everyone got along. The tradition of giving your patrons a generous portion of hope, hospitality and happiness, started by Frank McGovern in the midst of the Depression, continued on for the duration of Bill Scully’s watch.
left to right, Chris Schmidt – Bill Scully – Ken Garten
The new generation of McGovern’s devotees – PHD students from Rutgers – James Thomas, Steve Ivory and Adam Doerrfeld
became a bit of a fixture and more familiar with house policy and
procedures, I realized that there was a definite pecking order to the
place. There was in fact a sacred stretch of bar in the back corner
where only the most seasoned veterans of McGovern’s
held court. One of
those daily regulars was Nora Kern, a jovial full-bodied woman who
could supposedly out drink any man in the joint. It is rumored that
many a man tried and many a man failed, including Mr. Scully himself.
But Casey, who would drive Nora home on occasion, recently confided in
me that this crafty old girl had an ace up here sleeve, or in this
case, an empty bottle of Johnny Walker Black in her purse. It seems
that fifty percent of the shots of whiskey that were purchased for her
by those foolish sporting males found their way into Nora’s home liquor
After a nearly twenty year absence, I once again found my way back to this Irish institution. Nora Kern has passed on, but there was a new crew of regulars sitting on that sacred stretch in the back corner. The tavern is now in the very capable hands of Sean and Pat McGovern, but Bill Scully still makes a weekly guest appearance behind the bar. I was lucky to have caught him this time around. And after a handshake and that first sip of Guinness, it was like I had never left. A sigh of contentment passed over my lips and a single word crossed over my mind—McGovern’s!
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