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February 2017 - McCormick Place

In the wake of last month’s tragedy at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, it seems banal to write about a wake for an Irish pub. But the closing of Maguires Hill 16 in Fort Lauderdale was a melancholy event for many in South Florida. There was a lot written about the closing, about the surprise despite the fact that rumors of a sale had been circulating for months. Yet nobody expected that new owners would close down a site with a 50-year history on just one week’s notice. Also missing from news reports is the most compelling part of that history—how a location in a once somewhat seedy, off-the-beaten-trail location, which had been a redneck hangout frequented by bikers, became an iconic entertainment location with an extraordinarily broad following.

That story dates to 1989.  The bar on Andrews Ave. was then known as Fridays Downtown, but you wouldn’t confuse it with the trendy TGI Fridays chain we know today. Alan Craig had a car restoration business on a nearby street and he used to bring his workers in for happy hour. Craig was also a musician and singer. Back in Dublin he had participated in what the Irish call “sessions,” where musicians got together in pubs on weekend nights.

“One night I brought the guys in and somebody had a guitar, and I played some Irish songs,” Craig recalled recently. “The owner said why don’t you put together an Irish night on a Friday night. Nobody was in there after nine o’clock. It was a ghost town. So I did. It was an Irish night, just for fun. Nobody got paid. In a few weeks we had 50 people there, and then the next week 75. It just kept growing. And the owner says why don’t you buy the place and turn it into an Irish pub?”

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Craig did, using the name of a Dublin landmark, but it was not totally to the liking of his then wife, Hilary Joyalle, who had worked in the restaurant  business in Ireland. But she soon changed her mind as week after week the crowds increased, and they began serving lunch and dinner, making the place as much a restaurant as a bar. Craig teamed with Mick Meehan, another Irish native, and they put together the Irish Times, which became one of the best Irish bands in Florida. The music reputation spread beyond the state, even across the sea. Some of the top names in Irish music, groups such as The Commitments, performed at the pub.

The timing was perfect. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had popularized traditional Irish music in the 1960s and ’70s, singing rebel and drinking songs largely unknown in the United States. They inspired Irish and American songwriters. When Alan Craig, with his gravely voice, sang “Fields of Athenry” it was a relatively new song by Pete St. John. The mournful ballad recalling  the Irish famine era of the 1840s was often requested by Maguires audiences. It has since become a sports anthem in Ireland, sung at soccer games by the entire crowd.

In 1999 the bar was sold. The new owner stayed only briefly, selling to Jim and Martina Gregory, who owned bars in Ireland. They bought Maguires only after they were able to also acquire the real estate, including the large parking lot, which the Craigs had not owned. That ownership was central to their recent sale to a local group expected to develop high-rise buildings in the neighborhood, which is seeing extensive redevelopment.

The Gregory family remodeled the place and expanded to outdoor seating. From its first days it had attracted a journalism crowd. Over the years they were joined by courthouse types and law enforcement people—sheriff deputies, police from several cities, and even plainclothes federal marshals. Political figures often had lunch there. Musically, the entertainment became less Irish, but the food and décor remained old country. The burnished wood and walls crowded with photos from Ireland’s past made for an exceptionally cozy atmosphere, even by Irish pub standards.

The Gregorys also made it a popular sports bar. From its early days it had attracted European soccer and rugby fans, along with Gaelic football telecasts, and the new owners enlarged its sporting footprint. Recent Sundays saw fans from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens gathering to root for their teams. The large local Notre Dame club met for Irish football, and Louisville brought in a crowd for both football and basketball games. Those fan bases are among the many saddened by the closing.

The former owners admired the new owners’ management, says Hilary Joyalle, who for 13 years has owned The Field Irish Pub on Griffin Road in Dania Beach: “Jim and Martina didn’t do the Irish music as much, but they kept the spirit of the place very much alive.”

Surely to goodness, they did. And  the day after the official closing, the normally crowded lunch time parking lot was empty, except for a few workers completing the shut-down operations. Above the Maguires sign, the Irish and American flags were stirring in the chilly wind, and a sentimental soul might think he heard the raspy voice of Alan Craig awakening ghosts of the past.

Low lie the fields of Athenry

Where once we watched the small free birds fly.

Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing.

It’s so lonely ‘round the fields of Athenry.