It’s hard to believe but it’s been 15 years since I’ve celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Sure, I’ve hoisted a pint of Guinness Stout and dined on corned beef and cabbage on March 17 this past decade and a half—as any gal blessed with the surname Finnegan is required to. But I mean, really celebrate, the way the clan and assorted friends and relatives did in the days of the old Sha-Tee.
You see, the Sha-Tee Tavern in New Jersey was my Dad’s bar, a shot-and-beer joint he operated for nearly 35 years. Open seven days a week, for up to 19 hours a day, the Sha-Tee was more than just my father’s business; there were days I swore it was my sixth sibling. Like children in many family-owned businesses, my brothers and sisters and I were expected to help out at the bar. As kids, we cleaned bathrooms on weekends, vacuumed and mopped floors. Mom worked in the kitchen, preparing burgers and sandwiches. And when my two brothers were old enough, Dad taught them how to tend bar.
Dad rarely enjoyed a day off. The independent bar business was, and is, a grueling one. But it was a profession that so well suited my father. It paired his consummate ability to make people feel welcomed with his shrewd business sense. But mostly, it gave him the opportunity to surround himself with people. Regular customers, folks just passing through, motorists looking for directions—it made no difference. Once Dad poured you a Bud or a Johnnie Walker, you were always a welcomed guest.
I recall so many family occasions and milestones that were celebrated at the Sha-Tee: birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings, the births of grandchildren, even funerals. It was at the Sha-Tee where Dad insisted on buying the first drink for each of his six children when they came of age.
Adorned in Green
But no occasion was bigger than St. Patrick’s Day. At a time when corporate-owned Irish pubs and grills were sprouting like shamrocks in the Old Country, the Sha-Tee was the real deal. First-generation Irish-American, Dad wore his heritage proudly. And if there were any doubters, Mom—his own Irish import from County Longford—made it authentic.
Come early March, the Sha-Tee would be adorned in green—streamers, cardboard shamrocks, balloons, you name it. On the 17th, there was the sweet smell of corned beef mixed with the stronger scent of cabbage. Plate upon plate of the specialty, complemented with good old boiled potatoes, appeared from the kitchen, where Mom manned the stove.
Green beer was the aperitif; Irish coffee the night cap. “Danny Boy” and “The Unicorn” blared from the jukebox. Bagpipers, fresh from New York’s Fifth Avenue, played. Tables were pushed aside to make way for a dance floor. (Yes, there were even step dancers in those days, long before the emergence of Michael Flatley.) But perhaps the highlight of each St. Paddy’s Day celebration was at day’s end when Dad—decked out himself from head to toe in green—finally succumbed to insistence from patrons and friends to join them in a toast. Hoarse and exhausted, he would offer a simple, “Happy Days.”
While St. Patrick’s Day is often a highlight to many social calendars, for my father, it frequently represented a key fiscal turning point. Long, cold winters often kept patrons hunkered down at home, so it was his hope that St. Patrick’s Day would usher in the season of sociability. Dad would often predict his business fortunes for the remainder of the year—indeed, the nation’s overall economic prosperity—based on his cash register rings on March 17.
Well, those St. Patrick Days of my youth must have been bountiful. Dad and Mom put six kids through college. Their fourth child, ironically, went on to become a beer writer. And while the Sha-Tee has since been sold and Dad has passed on, the Finnegan clan still makes a point of getting together each St. Patrick’s Day, somewhat of a bittersweet tribute to years long ago. Mom still cooks the corned beef and cabbage. Siblings and in-laws catch up and joke over beers. And at some point during the get together, there’s always a toast that serves as a reminder of those many celebrations at the Sha-Tee. “Happy Days!”