6 Unexpected Things I Learned From Working (And Drinking) In An Irish Bar

A different kind of education.

Some of my biggest life lessons were learned in an Irish bar.


When I was 19, I moved as far away from home as I could. I wound up in San Francisco. 

The day after I got there, I found myself sitting alone at a dark, imposing bar, thirsting for a drink and adventures, my fake ID burning a hole in my pocket.

It was The Dovre Club: a then-Irish Republican bar with a Norwegian name on 18th Street in the Mission district.

For two years, I spent nearly all of my spare time there.

The Dovre was an old neighborhood holdout populated by cops, writers — including Hunter S. Thompson when he was in The City — longshoremen, ex-pats, political playmakers, and sometimes, the kind of men that you don't name, no matter how much time has passed.

The owner was Paddy Nolan, a 64-year-old former steelworker from Dublin.

Paddy had owned the Dovre for as long as anyone could remember. He let me run errands and work for him in exchange for pints: I was a painter, a postman, a corned beef and cabbage cook, a bartender, and a 5 a.m. drinking buddy. He'd always greet me either by saying, "you're late" or "where the hell have you been?" 

He was my first real friend in San Francisco.

I learned a lot from him.

I learned how to do everything from change kegs to play dice, and although I learned discipline and the finer points of writing and acting in school, I discovered my inspiration at the Dovre Club. 

But what I learned from Paddy and The Dovre Club didn't have much to do with beer or dice. It had to do with how to live

Here's some of it.

1. Be kind.

As we were walking back from a benefit one night, a homeless man asked Paddy and I for some change. Paddy quietly slipped him a twenty and then nodded at me and said, "Try to be good to everyone." He donated as often as he could to the causes he cared about, gave people jobs, and could always be counted on to help a friend in any way he could.

Kindness was the cornerstone of Paddy's philosophy. I have tried to make it mine. 

2. Buy your round.

I don't understand people splitting checks in the bar and it's probably because that the first thing I learned is that if someone's buying rounds of drinks, it's your bar obligation to buy a round as well. It's an unspoken rule, but it must not be transgressed: It's part of the social contract of drinking among civilized people.

Pay back or pay forward kindness. Return hospitality with hospitality. Buy your round... and then some.

3. There's something liberating about moving to a city where you're a stranger.

I left the place I grew up because it had nothing for me. I wanted to get out for as long as I could remember. One day I just packed a suitcase and a box of books and bought a one-way ticket. 

Moving allowed me to completely recreate myself, to walk away from old pain, bad memories, and a life that never felt completely authentic to me. It was a place to heal old hurts, learn new things, and meet new people. It felt like anything was possible: that the world was completely open to me. I could script my life freely, be whatever and whoever I wanted to be. 

Because I gave the name that was on my fake, nobody in the bar ever knew my real name. Instead, Paddy gave me a nickname that stuck: Black Jimmy. 

Ironically, no one ever checked my ID.

4. Shut up, listen and keep confidence.

Bars are full of experts, and the Dovre Club was no different, attracting people of every persuasion, arguing, talking, discussing. I met hundreds of people from different walks of life and I learned something from all of them. 

I also learned very quickly that keeping quiet — that being able to keep your mouth shut about the things you see or hear while working, drinking or otherwise living — is one of the most valuable assets in the world. 

Aude. Vide. Tace. Hear. See. Be silent.

5. You have two families: the one you're born to and the one that you choose.

I was just some kid when I walked into The Dovre. No one there had to take me in, but they did. They fed me, cared for me, and looked out for me. I remember vividly one night when I was out at a charity dinner with three friends, all brothers — longshoremen who worked and drank hard — and one of them saying to me, "Jimmy, I hope you know you're family to us. You're our brother." And they were. I never doubted that they were. 

There was a whole world that no one was allowed into, but I had managed to sneak into just before the doors slammed shut. I was part of something bigger than me and it felt good to be cared about and to have others to care for.

Losing them – and I lost them all over time – was as sharp and profound as losing a family member. 

6. Do all you can when you're young.

Paddy seldom dispensed advice, but not long before he died, he asked about what I was doing in school and what I wanted to do once I got out. I, of course, had no idea. I fumbled for an answer, feeling a little ashamed, expecting a lecture on doing something with my life.

The only thing Paddy said to that was this. "Just do all you can when you're young." 

In the years that have passed since then, there hasn't been a day that I don't think that was the best thing he could have told me. 

Do all you can when you're young.

I did. 

And I still do. 

(Cover image via The Dovre Club on Facebook.)

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Related: sfgate.com


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