McSorley’s Ale House hasn’t changed much in the last century: its floors are still lined with sawdust bought from the same Long Island-based family for the past 80 years, black-and-white photos line its walls containing centuries of history, and a centrally located iron fireplace still burns wood to keep it warm during the winter. But in 1994, Teresa Maher de la Haba became the first McSorley’s bartender with a soprano voice.
McSorley’s was famously a gentlemen’s club until 1969, when two members of the National Organization for Women sued the bar under the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was successful and, with the women’s movement in full swing in 1970, Lucy Komisar entered the bar. A famous photo shows her standing outside the pub drenched in beer, hands on her hips, and being gawked at by a group of giggling men behind her. She had come to drink an ale, but left wearing one. Although Lucy never became a regular, women kept coming back, eventually leading to the construction of a women’s restroom in 1986.
As Teresa started her shift on a recent fall day, she folded down a black trash bag and tied it around her waist, eliminating the possibility of spilling beer in unwanted places. She tied her thick, white hair up and rolled up the sleeves of her white button down shirt. “How’s everyone doing?” she asked the guys with a youthful, warm smile.
Teresa’s father Matthew was the third owner of McSorley’s; the Irish immigrant began working at the bar in 1965, bought it in 1977, and just recently passed away in January. Although he’s sorely missed by family, friends, and locals, Teresa admits she’s thankful he didn’t have to deal with the drama of 2020. When the ale house shut down during state mandated coronavirus precautions, it was the first time the business closed its doors for a prolonged period of time. Teresa said her dad’s motto was simple: “Keep the doors open.”
McSorley’s, along with every other restaurant and bar, has been financially hit because of the pandemic. But Teresa doesn’t want to fixate on comparing regular years’ numbers to this year’s. She’s confident that the ale house will bounce back in time. Luckily, McSorley’s owns the building, so they don’t have to worry about negotiating rent with a landlord. The ale house itself is a relatively small place, just two rooms to keep you cozy. But the bar recently built an outdoor seating area. With the new outdoor patio, the crew is hoping business will be booming by next summer. But as of now, shifts have downsized by almost half, and the oldest employees have chosen to sit this season out in order to remain healthy.
“People are still coming in,” Teresa said, “but you also just want to see New York come back. Because what’s New York without all the people?”
While growing up, Teresa was often the only girl in the room; she would often find herself peering out at the rowdiness from the kitchen. Teresa is the second of five daughters, and she gradually took to the restaurant business. McSorley’s always felt like her home away from home. Maybe it was the exciting crowds and energy of tourists and locals alike, or maybe it was because she was related to almost every staff member, including her father.
“My dad was always like, ‘Why don’t you work for me?’” said Teresa. “And I’m like, ‘And do what?’ He’s like, ‘I’ll put you behind the bar.’ And I was like, ‘No way.’ And then I went behind one Friday afternoon and I haven’t left.” Teresa was born and raised in Queens, and when the restaurant was forced to close this spring, she would sometimes drive over to McSorley’s just to check in. She missed the bar’s energy.
Some men ripe in age have given her a hard time. “A couple of people will be like, ‘Oh, my God, John McSorley would be rolling in his grave if he saw you,’” said Teresa. “You know, stupid stuff like that. I’m just like, whatever.”
Teresa said that the female-to-male ratio among staff is just about 50/50 now. Richard (Richie) Walsh, a McSorley’s employee since 1979, said he guesses that women make more sales than their male counterparts these days.
Some see Teresa as a feminist icon, breaking into a man’s world with grace and ease. But she doesn’t necessarily see herself that way. “You know what it is? I feel like in a good way, I have it all,” she said. “In a family business, I run it; I’m married, I have two sons, I feel like I’m kind of satisfied in every area. I think it’s not easy to juggle everything, but when it’s everything you love, you make your sacrifices here and there.”
Three current employees have worked at McSorley’s since the 1970s. The “fresh faces” of the group have worked for 12 to 15 years, and Teresa herself has been a bartender for 27. Her sons are just 16 and 18 years old– too young to commit to taking over the business just yet, but Teresa said they’re interested in the possibility.
“Teresa’s dad and my mother are first cousins,” said Richie. “We’re from the same village in Ireland: Kilkenny.” While some of the crew grew up in Ireland and have Irish accents, Teresa and Richie sound authentically New York. Richie said one of his favorite parts of working at McSorley’s is seeing the same people there on St. Patty’s day for the last 40 years.
Shane Buggy, Teresa’s cousin who grew up in Ireland and moved here in 2008 after college, said, “You can say all of the McSorley’s family and everything that everybody’s gone through at this bar between the Great Depression, Prohibition, a pandemic, you name it, and Teresa’s actually done it all this year, in one year, between the bar being closed and the pandemic. She’s taken it on her shoulders and rolled with it, and she’s been very good to every one of us.”
Though the culture has changed only slightly in the last 50 years, the atmosphere has mostly remained the same. Locals sit in corner seats playing cards and shaking hands with waiters, relishing in the glory of being known by bartenders who ask “How are you?” and “What’re your kids up to?” During my visit, it was a much slower Friday than typical for the famous pub, but it allowed for good conversation. Lined on the walls were the ale house’s past, shedding light on history dating back two centuries.
Sitting by the fire was Johnny Schultz, one of the boys from the 1970 photo of Lucy Kosimar. Johnny, who was 17 when the photo was taken, has lived a few doors down from McSorley’s his entire life. He worked at the pub for decades, and he’s been theoretically adopted into the Maher clan. At 65, he sits on his walker by the heater most days around 2 p.m. and has a chat with Teresa and the crew.
As the day wound down, someone ran to get everyone coffee. They pointed to pictures and told me who was who: the past owner Harry Kirwan with his son Danny on one wall; Mike Bloomberg on a wall around the corner; Matty, Teresa’s dad, above the bar. Richie pointed out that many of the tables inside are 150 years old.
“The fact that we’re here after 166 years,” said Teresa, “it’s amazing how many people are just curious to know if we’re still here. So even though you might only see some customers once a year… They’re just like ‘Oh, thank God, you guys are still around.’”
The sun was setting outside, and McSorley’s was going nowhere fast.