There are Irish Pubs, and then there’s J. Patrick’s Irish Pub in Baltimore, a homely, unpretentious, corner bar with the reputation as one of the best Irish pubs and Irish music venues outside the Emerald Isle. This reputation is based largely on the pub’s ever-present owner and proprietor, Joe Patrick Byrne, an avid fan of Irish music and connsumate barkeep who died this Saturday of cancer. Joe was 81.
As one prominent Maryland citizen put it, J. Patrick’s was “a real gathering place for the Irish-American community of Baltimore, and it had the feel of a rural country bar, the type you find outside of Dublin. It was both warm and inviting.”
“And Joe was a very hospitable man with a big smile. For years, he cared for his sick wife and he cared for the people of the neighborhood,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
I first visited J. Patrick’s eight years ago to celebrate a friend’s birthday and I was so taken by the pub’s singular atmosphere that I have celebrated my birthday there every single year since. Part of the attraction is the free birthday shot of Midleton’s Rare Irish Whiskey, sacredly proffered from a wooden box by Joe himself.
But the real reason I keep going back is the instant fellowship and welcoming atmosphere cultivated by Joe. One patron put it this way in Joe’s obituary:
“He used to say, ‘If you walk in here a stranger and are one a half-hour later, it’s your own fault.'”
Chatting with Joe I quickly learned that my great-great-great-grandmother shared the same name as Joe’s mother, Mary Byrne, so obviously he took me as extended family. American born, Joe had a deep affinity with his Irish heritage and was a devoted patron of “real” traditional Irish music. He allowed no other music in the bar, including famously turning away Gov. O’Malley’s Irish rock band, O’Malley’s March, for being a little too rock and roll. Joe also made a point of never installing TV’s in the bar to maintain an atmosphere dedicated to good conversation, music and dancing. In the back of the bar hangs a sign explaining the bar’s one golden rule:
What I and other patrons of J. Patrick’s didn’t know was that Joe was also a dedicated caregiver to his wife, Geraldine, who lived with Parkinson’s disease the last 30 years of her life. At his funeral Joe’s family shared how he was able to be in two places at once, running the bar until closing seven days a week but also sneaking upstairs to his apartment every 45 minutes to be with Gerry.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed my birthday shots, the best gravy fries ever and the ever-constant Irish music, ranging from world-renowned Irish performers to weekly open Celtic music circles.
The fate of J. Patrick’s is uncertain after Joe’s death. I plan to do everything I can to support the bar but one thing is certain – the bar, and Baltimore, will not be the same without Joe Patrick Byrne.