Sadly, there are just a scant few days left to grab a cheap domestic draft at this sliver of old New York. The Cove will close its doors for good at the end of this month. It’s “going the way of Mars Bar and CBGB,” says bartender Lisa Ramsay.
Ramsay has been a patron of the Cove since the 1990s. Since 2008, she has tended the long bar that resembles an old lunch counter in a very narrow den of linoleum and faux-wood paneling (space is so tight that barflies have to suck in their guts when someone needs to walk to the bathroom).
The Blarney Cove opens for business at 8 a.m., and the sense of community among the daytime drinkers is thick: either the patrons are old friends, or they are talking like it within 20 minutes.
“This was a real for-locals pub in the 80s,” says longtime patron Gladys Ortiz. “Everyone knew each other’s names. There was a big crowd of regulars, guys who’d get here at 8 a.m. and drink till late afternoon, play cards, play the ponies. There were a lot of Bills: Big Bill, Little Bill, Bill S., Bill T., Bill G…”
Sitting next to me is a man in his early seventies wearing a straight-billed hat and a red flannel shirt. Bill Cawsey, a patron since the mid-80s, is having a glass of Bud with just a few chips of ice in it. He looks like he could be drinking at a pub in western Idaho.
The Cove wasn’t always so laid-back: in the 1970s, it had a reputation as a bit of a bloodbath – the place to go if you were looking for trouble or just a good old-fashioned Saturday-night punch-up. “It was a macho place to come at night,” Ortiz admits.
“Hell, a guy died downstairs once,” Cawsey mentions offhandedly. “He was on those speedballs, you know. You can’t mix things like that with booze. Your body doesn’t know whether to go up or down, and so it decides to take a little break. In this case, his heart took a break.”
For years the bar was managed by “Popeye,” a take-no-shit ex-cop with a thick Brooklyn accent. “He would give someone a nickname about three seconds after they walked in the door,” says Ramsay. Popeye retired several years ago, but stories about him are still swapped by the old guard. “He was just really social, but also, he could handle any of the crazies that came in,” Ramsay remembers.
Ortiz chimes in with her best Popeye impression: “Get outta heah, ya bozo!”
The crowd has mellowed since the late 1960s when the Cove opened its doors, but the bar itself is unchanged. On the wall, above 20 or so photographs of men, a plaque is emblazoned with the words “Mid-Day Gentleman’s Club: Charter Members.” It’s the wall of fame: the gang from the tavern’s golden age, 20 years past. Almost all are gone now. It seems that when Popeye went, he took a bit of the joint’s soul with him.
“We get mostly retirees, and some full-time alcoholics, but not like it used to be,” says Ramsay. “There used to be a bigger after-work crowd, but that isn’t so big anymore. The nighttime crowd is a bit younger…one bartender works at NYU, so she brings along these 21-year-olds sometimes.”Occasionally a pack of young college guys will come in for a few cheap ones before moving on to a meat-market. And it’s always guys: I’ve never seen a woman under 45 in the place that isn’t a bartender.
But when Ramsay gets on the subject of what drew her to the bar in the first place, the social atmosphere is at the top of the list. “It was a place where you could feel safe, you didn’t have to keep your guard up all the time. A real neighborhood spot. And anybody would dance with anybody.” Indeed, while I’m there a woman in her late sixties sways about the bar to the strains of old Irish drinking songs and 70s rock ballads.
I ask if any of the “Charter Members” from the wall of fame ever drop in. “Like I said, most of them are dead now,” says Ramsay. “But there is one guy who still comes.”
The owner of the bar passed away a couple years back, leaving the bar to his wife. “I think she is just so stunned that it’s actually happening,” says Ramsay.
Recently, a message appeared on the Blarney’s Facebook page announcing that its home “has been leased to another company. The stretch of land on 14th Street where the Blarney resides will be forever changed.” The single-story building at 510 14th Street was leased, along with several other storefronts along the block between between Avenues A and B, as part of a $35 million, 99-year deal. Plans for development haven’t been announced by the mystery leaser, East Village 14 LLC.