Jim Gallagher, 72, is a longtime bartender and manager at Molly’s Shebeen, the surpassingly cozy Irish pub on Third Avenue near East 22nd Street in Manhattan. Molly’s dates back to 1960, and is one of the many Irish-owned bars that once lined the east side thoroughfare. But one glance at Molly’s old fireplace and mahogany bar, its low ceilings and slanting walls, and you can tell there’s been a bar of some kind here for a lot longer than that. (According to management, a bar has occupied this address since 1895, except during Prohibition, when it supposedly operated as a grocery.) Gallagher’s relationship with Molly’s began as a patron—he worked nearby for a time, at a place called the Silver Swan—until one day, one of the owners decided he would cut it as a bartender.
Since then, the kind and officious Gallagher has treated the regulars as well as he was treated. Everyone gets a greeting the moment they swing open the low-slung door (after almost a quarter-century behind the bar, he knows nearly all the customers’ names), and, as often as not, he’ll have their drink ready before they plunk down on a stool or slide into one of the old wooden booths. Longtime habitués will draw him out from behind the bar for a chat and visit, be it two elderly ladies, stopping by for an afternoon glass of wine, or a table full of professors from the nearby School of Visual Arts, in for their usual Wednesday afternoon confab. Many call for a pint of the bar’s renowned Guinness—one of the best in the city—an order that requires patience and a steady hand in order to achieve the correct head and fill. Between chatting and pulling, Gallagher fetches food orders from the kitchen (including, at this time of year, a Guinness beef stew) and finds time to humor a reporter who is patiently awaiting his own pint. “This time of year,” he says of the Irish stout, “we do about 12 barrels a week.”
How did you find your way behind the bar?
I never did bartending back home. I was always in the hotel business. I was always a manager or head waiter. This was in Northern Ireland. My first job in the U.S. was managing Kennedy’s on Second Avenue.
What was your first job in New York?
My first job was managing Kennedy’s on Second Avenue. Very busy spot. That’s gone now. Second Avenue in those days, the late ‘80s, was booming.
How did you get the job at Molly’s Shebeen?
I had just left a job. I had a cup of coffee in that chair there. I knew the owner very well. But I didn’t know his partner, and his partner was behind the bar. He was talking to the waitress, who happened to be his sister, who happened to know who I was. He turned around and asked me if I could keep an eye on the place for about an hour. He was away about five hours. He came back and said, “Are you interested in a job,” and I said yes. And that was it.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
You got to listen to your customers. All my customers here are practically all regulars. They’re all like family. If one’s hurtin’, we’re all hurtin’. I just turned 72, I’ll be 73 this year. At this age, we don’t ask how you’re getting on, why ask what you’re getting replaced. A knee, an arm, an elbow. A lot of deaths. As a matter of fact, two customers dies last year. It’s just the age we are.
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
Don’t. For the simple reason that the hours are too long and it’s very anti-social. If you’re a night bartender, you have no life because you can’t go out.
St. Patrick’s Day is around the corner. I’m sure you’re busy then. When else is the bar busy?
Believe it or not, we are busy on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’re open. Prix-fixe for both days.
What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had at a bar?
My first Thanksgiving here, about quarter after 11 in the morning, a man and woman came in and sat where you’re sitting. No one else in the place. Two Bloody Marys. Nothing unusual about that. He says, “By the way, what’s your name?” “My name’s Jim.” He says, “My name’s Jim, too. What’s your surname?” I say, “It’s Gallagher.” He says, “That’s my surname. You’re Jim Gallagher and I’m Jim Gallagher.” Then he said, “What’s your middle initial? My middle initial is A.” I say, “My middle initial is A for Anthony.” So then, he turns around and says, “When were you born?” I said I was born in 1947. He says, “So was I. What date were you born?” I walked to the end of the bar and wrote down the date I was born. I said, “There you are, sir. Show me your date.” It was the same.
That’s a chance in a million. Have you ever seen him again?
I see him every Thanksgiving. My boss makes me come in because this man brings a lot of people in.