St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the globe, and not just because the world loves a good party. The history of Irish emigration has planted Irish heritage far and wide, and a project taking stock of how one corner of Irish culture translates overseas has put New Orleans’ own Finn McCool’s Irish Pub in the international spotlight.
The Banks Street pub in Mid-City made the list of the top 10 Irish bars in the world outside of Ireland released this week by the Irish Times newspaper in Dublin. The Irish Haven in Brooklyn is the only other bar in the U.S. to make the list, which includes nominees on each continent except Antarctica. The Irish Times plans to name its No. 1 bar later this month.
“We’re beyond delighted, and I think it’s a real tribute to the customers — they make this place what it is,” said Stephen Patterson, who runs Finn McCool’s with his wife and fellow Belfast native Pauline.
The top 10 list is part of the Irish Times’ ongoing Generation Emigration project, which documents Irish life around the world as a tough economy has sent yet another generation of young Irish people overseas.
Conor Goodman, the paper’s features editor, said the Irish pub abroad is an important part of the expatriate experience.
“There’s an Irish pub in about every major city in the world, and these places typically serve as a social club, an unofficial job center, a place for people to come together for cultural activities, to start a football club, to do things to keep them together as a community,” Goodman said. “We are looking for authenticity. We wouldn’t want a place someone arriving from Ireland wouldn’t recognize or find alien. But it goes beyond how it looks or what they serve.”
The Internet is awash with online polls and surveys for the “best” in this or that category, and Finn McCool’s frequently urges its customers to vote in these contests. This accolade came about in a different manner, however.
The Irish Times sought essays nominating great Irish pubs outside of Ireland from its readers around the world, presumably Irish expats and others interested in keeping up with daily news from Ireland, Goodman explained. It received more than 1,500 nominations for bars in 41 countries.
To cull these down to its top 10, the paper convened a panel of experts in Dublin that included its own writers and officials with the Irish Pubs Global Federation, a networking group for pub owners, and Diageo Ireland, the beverage giant that brews Guinness Stout.
“We had some pretty good expertise in the room,” Goodman said. “Everyone on the panel was very impressed by the essay describing Finn McCool’s and in particular with the work the people there did after (Hurricane) Katrina, with everything they’ve done for the Irish community and the New Orleans community as a whole. It was clear they play a role that goes beyond serving alcohol.”
The nominating essay for Finn McCool’s came from Stephen Rea, another Belfast expat who teaches writing courses in New Orleans and is the author of the 2009 book “Finn McCool’s Football Club,” a narrative of the pub’s post-Katrina experience told through the lens of its soccer team.
“It’s such a subjective thing — name the best pub. Five people will come up with five different answers,” Rea said. “You can say what you want about the atmosphere and the friendly service and the like, but it’s what a pub stands for that really makes the case. I think it’s the history and the back story that got the attention.”
The Pattersons moved to New Orleans in 1990, a time when violence was rampant and job opportunities were low in their hometown near Belfast. They worked in local bars and in construction until 2002, when they and their business partners at the time were able to open a bar, converting what had been a shabby neighborhood joint called Joe’s 19th Hole into Finn McCool’s Irish Pub.
Three years later, the flooding after Katrina wrecked the pub. A rebuilding effort got underway that fall, and Finn McCool’s was able to reopen on St. Patrick’s Day in 2006 while much of the surrounding Mid-City neighborhood was still in tatters.
On Monday, the Pattersons were fielding phone calls from media outlets in Ireland and congratulatory notes from friends while also preparing for the pub’s annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities. It’s a block party that offers a playful mix of the traditional, like Irish food and music, and the not-so-traditional, like a procession they’ve dubbed “the wee parade,” which has plenty of fanfare but a route reaching only from one door of the pub to another. (Full disclosure: This writer participates in this parade.)
Pauline Patterson framed the honor as recognition of the broader Irish community in New Orleans and the local organizations that highlight the city’s Irish heritage. Last year, for instance, New Orleans hosted the International Irish Famine Commemoration for the first time.
Back in Dublin, Goodman said the Irish Times’ next step would be to dispatch researchers to visit each bar on its top 10 list and produce reports for its panel to consider when selecting its top pick.
The researchers will make unannounced visits to get a feel for each bar in action and also conduct interviews for their report.
“It’s as much about the search and what you find along the way as picking one winner,” Goodman said. “I’m just as interested in the top 10 as in whichever gets picked first.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.