Irishmen, my high school French teacher used to tell me, are a lot like politicians--they're no good unless they're behind bars. Now, Brother Jacques had no great love for the Gaelic race (he was convinced St. Patrick's Day is a socialist scheme to subvert American youth), but he had a good point. If you're going to spend your life, or even the better part of a Saturday night, trying to keep your balance atop a barstool, there's nothing like a pugnosed barkeep with a brogue to keep you company. It may be hereditary (no one, not even Captain Kangaroo, has fully explored the properties of green genes), ethnocultural (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the noted ethnicist and cream-pie connoisseur, spent a good part of his early life treading the boards at his mother's tavern in Hell's Kitchen), or just environmental (Euell Gibbons used to mix terrible daiquiris, they say). Whatever, it's a scientific fact that Irishmen make the best bartenders.
And why shouldn't they? A good bartender is a blend of many qualities. He should be spherical (to keep the center of gravity low when he mixes his martinis), have good hands (for hustling his customers at pool) and good feet (for dancing on the tables), not to mention the mind of a philosopher (for dealing with drunks at midnight, and their wives at 3 a.m.) and the soul of a poet (for writing dirty limericks). The Irish obviously have a tremendous cultural advantage in all of these field; William Butler Yeats, sources say, would have made a phenomenal barkeep if he'd been about 25 pounds heavier. As it is, the average Gaelic male has just the right blend of good humor and patience to excel in the field. (In my own day, for instance, I once let a customer drink two bottles of Worcestershire sauce before calling a stop to the fun; and I didn't even charge the old sot.)
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean much for the average Cantabrigian barfly. Most suds houses in the Square have about as much Celtic atmosphere as the locker room of the Polish national hockey room of the Polish national hockey team: no shamrocks on the walls, no Irish Rovers on the juke box, and a suspicious tendency to switch channels when the Irish Spring commercials come on the T.V. Maybe that says something about the Cambridge inebriate set, which apparently has no appreciation of the value of good talk and a friendly atmosphere in which to wither one's brain cells. Obviously a sad case.
The lone, lucky exception is Cronin's, a solid, old-fashioned Irish watering hole on Mt. Auburn St. If your grandmother was Irish, the inside of the place should ring a bell. The comfortably dilapidated fixtures and peeling wallpaper, relics of the days when Jim Cronin kept shop on the present site of Holyoke Center, are straight from all those visits you used to make on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The bartenders fit all the necessary criteria, too. Not only do they make good, moderately-priced drinks, it's also possible to escape from them into a back room replete with the best juke box in Cambridge (it's not all Irish Rovers). Casual drinkers can also order food--the onion rings are first-rate--but for the purists, the atmosphere at Cronin's should be food enough for the soul. Only a dart board and Brendan Behan, singing dirty songs in the back corner are missing.
Unfortunately, the ethnic strain runs out elsewhere in the Square. Jonathan Swifts' boasts Guiness stout on tap which obviously merits a few brownie points from the IRA, but there's something wrong. Maybe it's the music--no bagpipes--or the bartenders--too many straight noses and not enough freckles in that crowd. It's even worse at the Wursthans, where you may be able to pick up a bottle of Harp Lager, but the accents are all wrong. And the only thing Irish about Father's Six is the in-house entertainment: every few days you're treated to a re-enactment of the Irish civil war. Come to think of it, most of those Cambridge cops who come in to break things up are Irish, too.
For those who go for a different ethnic appeal, there's always the Hong Kong. one of the few places in town where you can get hold of Kirin beer, a Japanese treat. The rum drinks are also lots of fun; they're the only things you can order there with more of a kick than the food. And the culturally neuter might want to look into the undeservedly obscure Georgie's on Mass. Ave. near the Law School, which boasts terrific Bloody Marys and an even better bowling machine, not to mention a giant-screen color TV for Monday night football. If you can take the conversation, which often runs to torts, and the inexcusable lack of pizza on the menu, it's definitely worthwhile.
Nothing, however, beats the appeal of the old Irish pub. As they say in Dublin--if you aren't Irish, you should be. And if you care about where you drink, you probably are.