Remembering Derry Hegarty’s Irish Pub

Remembering Derry Hegarty’s Irish Pub

Between 1820 and 1975, about 4.7 million people immigrated to America from Ireland. Today, over 31 million Americans report having Irish ancestry. No wonder the Irish pub is so popular in the US – over 4,000 of them grace our cities according to a Forbes report (and most all of them will somehow house those 31 million on Saint Patrick’s Day).

While some of those places are what Anthony Bourdain called “fake-ass” (you know the ones he was talking about), many are legit – opened by Irish immigrants who just wanted to give their cities or neighborhoods a taste of life in the Emerald Isle.

That’s what Milwaukee’s Derry Hegarty did in 1972, when he opened his eponymously named pub on Blue Mound Road.

Born in County Cork, Ireland, Hegarty immigrated to Milwaukee in 1965 to be close to family members who’d already moved there. Opening a pub wasn’t only an opportunity to be his own boss, it was also the chance to teach people a bit about his country’s culture. On this second mission he succeeded in spades.

Sure, Derry’s place had all the usual trappings of a traditional pub from his home – it had the right beer, the right whiskeys, and the right décor – but it also served as a classroom, quite literally. Derry firmly believed “a country without a language is not a country,” and so he hosted Gaelic lessons for a small group of interested patrons, serving as their tutor as well as bartender. In 1975 he was also the first pub to bring in traditional Irish music, something still not easily found in Wisconsin’s largest, and most blue-collared city.

Naturally, Derry was also a huge supporter of Milwaukee’s Irish community, like its municipal group, the Wisconsin Shamrock Club, and the city’s annual Irish Fest. And, of course, his bar was THE place to go for Saint Patrick’s Day festivities (though he had corned beef on the menu throughout the year).

His goodwill went beyond just attending to the Irish American population of the city, he was also a huge sponsor of local sports, knew all the area politicians by their first names, and went to church regularly (famously tying up his pet goat – a gift from another local pub owner – outside during mass).

Derry loved baseball, and was only a stone’s throw from the Milwaukee County Stadium, which housed the Brewers until 2000. On game day – especially for home games – the pub was a madhouse, and it hosted fans going to or returning from the game. Derry even offered his patrons rides to the stadium in one of his two mini-bus shuttles, one dubbed the “Paddy Wagon,” and a smaller one called “Half Pint.”

Derry’s pub was cozy but spacious, with a banquet room that featured a full bar and seating for up to 300 people. That made this the destination for countless wedding receptions, political victory parties, and community events. In some shape or form, if you lived in Milwaukee from 1972 through 2011, there’s a good chance you passed through Derry’s front door.

Derry's interior

Entering under the neon green shamrock above the entrance (of course), and after letting your eyes adjust to the dimness, you’d see a collection of bric-a-brac that could only accumulate after forty years at the same spot – an Irish flag next to a Brewers’ pennant, dollar bills signed by local celebrities, and pictures of the city’s sports heroes. And if the shamrocks didn’t tip you off that this was an Irish pub, then surely the signs advertising stouts (not lagers), and signs written in Gaelic would. And all this topped off with a beautiful bar dripping in dark, luxurious mahogany.

As in all places like this, the crowd was mixed but friendly. Lawyers sat next to bikers sitting next to college kids. The people were warm and quick to smile or laugh, with Derry keeping them entertained with his quick wit and wry sense of humor. Drinking dark beers with an order of fish and chips, or having a whiskey on the rocks, it was easy to pass away an afternoon at Derry’s pub.

Sadly, Derry Hegarty passed away from cancer in 2011 and the bar was sold. First it became another Irish Bar, but then that too was sold and it is now home to a craft beer taproom. Directly across the street, though, is a cemetery, and from the front door of the old pub, you can see a headstone with “Hegarty” written on it. Even in death, Derry made sure that he would never be far from his old place and he’d always be able to keep an eye on it.

For this reason alone, I’m sure there will be another Irish pub there sometime in the future – that’s what Derry would want. And, when it opens, let’s hope it’s as authentic, warm, and friendly as Derry’s place was. So, here’s to Derry and all the Irish immigrants like him who came to this land of opportunity and who, like him, took that opportunity to open a neighborhood pub – a bit of Ireland in hometown USA.