Every trip to Boston is a trip to Southie for me, the Irish center of an Irish city. Our son lives there and has for years now. Over that time, we watched it evolve from a character rich, working-class neighborhood into a gentrified millennial enclave. And it is still evolving.
This last trip marked the first time that I stayed in that area. Arriving back in Southie very, very early on Saturday morning, we were greeted by a group of young men who were, in the Irish term, ossified.
My son chose not to beep at them as they wandered in front of the car and proceeded down the middle of the street, avoiding startling, or angering them. While this was not my first rodeo, this was beyond the pale. It didn’t look fun.
Southie has become the weekend party central for the young crowd, and the young crowd is huge. The median age in Southie is thirty-two, and Boston is a city of students. These boisterous celebrations are causing the locals to go to other parts of the city, at least for the evening, or to just stay in.
Walking the streets in daylight, it doesn’t look like that type of place. Most of the bars are restaurants too. In case you have not been, the main thoroughfare is Broadway. The subway stop is at the top of the street and walking down that street, there are any number of trendy shops and restaurants.
In the midst of this, a few of the iconic spots remain. The first one you might pass is Amhrein’s. While Southie never was a “lace-curtain” kind of place, this restaurant and bar has some old-school class, a little faded but it’s there. The burgundy and brass dining room is named for a former mayor, James Curley, and features photos of hearty handshakes between himself and the late former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill.
It has an old Victorian vibe, complete with an ornate carved wooden bar, the oldest carved bar in Boston, and one of the oldest in the US. They serve a pretty typical family restaurant type of fare there now, breakfast to dinner, including a mean Irish breakfast.
What is iconic about Southie is its rough-and-tumble Irishness. It was the stomping ground of the infamous Whitey Bolger and that era’s version of an Irish mafia. That type of thing doesn’t work if the bad guys can’t find a place to blend in. Southie never disappointed in that regard.
Croke Park and Murphy’s Law
While they are getting rarer, the infamous places remain; the Croke Park and Murphy’s Law are good examples. The Croke Park is a proud dive bar. Its nickname is Whitey’s. We still haven’t been in the place. The one night that we had planned on going in for a nightcap, we were met with every Boston emergency vehicle except a fire truck outside the place.
The online reviews range from “it’s a great local dive, great people” to “I think that I would feel safer in a crack house,” so I guess that point-of-view plays a role here. I skipped it again this time, despite walking past and taking a picture.
We did spend a nice evening in Murphy’s Law, another proud Southie dive with a similar reputation. It has been featured in movies and television, most notably the film, “Gone Baby Gone.” It was a Whitey Bolger hangout, but under a different name. It definitely has a veneer of danger, but our evening was quiet enough, talking to the barman and playing darts.
The first time that I went to Southie was around thirty years ago. My host at that time did not want to take me there, warning me that I was on my own if anyone started a fight. That sounds kind of over the top, but that was the reputation of the place. The area is located by the Dorchester harbor, so many of the Irish immigrants became dock workers and the like.
Tough work defines the people who live there. I have heard multiple people comment that they developed a fear of Irish people in general, based on encounters with residents of South Boston. That first time there, we saw the stock characters of many recent movies, like “The Fighter” and “Good Will Hunting,” think wife beater shirts, big hoop earrings, cigarettes dangling out of mouths.
This time, I was really looking for those Irish. Where have they gone? Sure, the local Korean nail salon is called Gaelic Spa and there is an import store which looks a little tired. There is even a building mural that looks straight out of Belfast, with the “English out of Ireland” slogan. Had the people who built this left?
My question was answered one day on another walk, heading down toward the harbor. I was seeing more tri-colors on doors and license plates. We ended up chatting with a few long-time residents, out on their stoop having a cigarette, and my faith was restored. There are some Paddies left, you just have to look harder.
We kept walking, heading down toward the Dorchester harbor to one of the coolest features of Southie, Castle Island. At the harbor, there is a hill with a cement and block fort on the top. On that hilltop, General Washington placed a cannon whose purpose was to drive the British out of that part of Boston in the War of Independence.
Castle Island is not really beautiful, but is pleasant, a nice and surprisingly easy escape from a day in the office. I was a little jealous that this was a twenty-minute walk for most of the residents. While there, you can get a burger at Sullivan’s, a local institution, and picnic outside, looking at the water and fending off the hungry gulls.
Judging by the sidewalks, the Boston mounted police unit is also housed on Castle Island. That instantly made me think of the huge St. Patrick’s Day parade marches on Broadway led by those mounted police. A local diner we visited was covered with photos of parade scenes. Just about anyone who was Irish was in them, from John and Jackie and the rest of the Kennedy clan, to so many other famous people and politicians who marched in that parade. It is a parade so big that it shuts down the neighborhood for the day, leaving nothing to do but enjoy it.
Gentrification has changed the area, but that is not always a bad thing. OK, it has pushed up rents, but it has also brought vitality to the area. Facades come and go, but so far, the kernel of something that settled that place and called it home still lives there.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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