Saturday, June 11, 2022

Wilmette Notes: Irish Eyes

     As it happens, there are a few cans of Guinness in my refrigerator right now, leftovers from the Hanukkah party. Hopefully, by summer's end, I'll find some guest to press them on. The fine Irish stout, and the men and women who serve it, have inspired many a tale, and prompt today's essay by our Wilmette Bureau Chief. 

By Caren Jeskey

     Neil shared on his Facebook page this story by Maureen O’Donnell about a legendary Chicago bartender John Colgan, who died recently at the age of 63.
     In the piece, columnist Maureen O’Donnell pointed out that “Mr. Colgan had given up drinking, ‘as it interfered with his passion for music and the need for a clear head in order to pursue his ambition of recording a CD.’” He was known for regaling patrons with beautifully sung Irish ballads as he poured creamy-topped pints of Guinness.
     I am grateful that the thought of drinking a Guinness does not sound good to me today. On many a heavy drinking day in the 90s, my friend Jayne and I routinely closed the 4 a.m. bar Raven’s, on Clark just south of Fullerton. Sometimes bantering with the bartender Jimmy was our night out, but more likely we’d have shown up at one or two in the morning after the shenanigans of the earlier part of the night had lost their luster.
     We’d belly up to the bar in jean skirts and cowboy boots, and chain smoke cigarettes. Drinks miraculously appeared, one after another, sent over by drunken patrons who must have wondered where all their money went as they sobered up the next day.
     When I read about John Colgan I remembered what it was like to have Jimmy in our lives. He seemed sober, but I’m not sure if he was. He was warm and kind, and we felt that we were coming home when we got to Jimmy’s bar. We always felt safe, and I believe we were. Coming and going from there was a different story, I’m sure. It’s amazing what we — well, some of us — can survive, if we are lucky, when we are foolhardy.
     I have a friend who’s a big drinker with a red nose who lives in Ireland, a musician of course. Whenever he comes to town we demand that he break out his guitar and lead us through the song "Will Ye Go Lassie Go." We all sing together and he stretches it out as long as he can for us. We depart feeling connected to our friends, and hopeful.
     Summer is finally upon us here in Chicago— my god it took a long time.
     “And we’ll all go together to that wild mountain thyme. All around the blooming heather will you go lassie go?” As I listen to John sing Safe in the Harbor and the Corries singing about wild mountain thyme I can almost believe that the world is a beautiful, lilting, safe place.


  1. Thank you for the songs; they bring joyful tears. I love to sing, but have not inherited the musical bent my mother had, but rather the sentimental affinity for Irish music my father displayed, even though in sober moments he excoriated the Irish for their failure during World War II to darken their lights in order to help Britain in its fight against German bombing.


    1. So glad you listened. I'm really into the Corries now!

  2. Nice contrast to last week’s column. There will always be good things to do. Good enough to distract from the not so good things.

    1. Yes. Being sick with COVID made me more blue than ever! Feeling better today.

  3. My 4 o'clock bar was the infamous Oxford Pub on Lincoln, near Belden. It was a very popular dive bar in the late 70s,and much like the bar in "Star Wars"--and it drew patrons from all over the city and suburbs. Somehow, I never got busted while driving back to Evanston. Once, during an ice storm, I had to drive all the way home with my head poking out of my VW Beetle, whose windshield looked like a bathroom window.

    The Oxford vanished, very suddenly, in the early 80s. A suspect in the Tylenol murders was investigated and cleared, but the media attention affected his state of mind. Blaming his situation on the bar owner, he mistakenly shot another man to death on a North Side street in 1983, and did 15 years. The shooting so unnerved the bar owner that he sold his business and disappeared. The buzz I heard was that he'd fled to South America.

    The Oxford was closed, gutted, and renovated...into just another yuppie hamburger joint. After that, I limited my carousing to the more friendly confines of Wrigleyville.

    1. What a story! Glad you made it out alive.

  4. My father had a terrific voice, but he also had stage fright, unless he had a few pops. But for that he was a crooner equal and similar to Bing Crosby. I inherited one of his skills along with the fear of public speaking. Couldn't sing a lick, even the Catholic nuns gave up on me, but I could empty your fridge in short order. Fortunately I had the hangover gene and one day in 1986, waking after an average outing at the Georgetown Hotel, I realized that I didn't have enough fun to feel that bad. I followed dad into sobriety and have never regretted it.


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