When Paul Crilly became a first-time bar owner, some questioned whether his Morrissey’s Irish Pub in south Minneapolis would last six months, especially given the history of short-lived bars and restaurants in its W. Lake Street space.
Two years and 70- to 100-hour workweeks later, Crilly and his three partners will celebrate the Lyn-Lake neighborhood tavern’s second anniversary on Saturday, days before St. Patrick’s Day. In May, they are expanding into a neighboring spot with a tea and coffee room.
“We get a lot of neighborhood folk, from 21 to 71 [years old] and everything in between,” Crilly said of his pub, which is known for taking care of service industry compatriots.
The location, 913 W. Lake St., has been the home of a series of short-lived places including Favor Cafe, Restaurant Miami and Restaurant Viva Brazil.
The struggles of opening and running a bar in any location pale in comparison to what the affable Irishman grew up with. Along with his six siblings, Crilly, 52, was raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, where British soldiers shot and killed 14 protesters on Bloody Sunday in 1972 when he was a child. As a teenager, he better remembers the hunger strike led by Irish republican prisoner Bobby Sands, whose death sparked riots and heightened tensions between Irish nationalists and British forces.
“You didn’t really know any better at the time,” he recalled. “When you grow up with it, it’s normal.”
“The Troubles,” as the decades of fighting from the late 1960s to late ’90s were known, were an ugly part of modern history that contrasts with Morrissey’s convivial atmosphere. But it’s one Crilly’s bar doesn’t shy away from. Not only do photos of riot scenes adorn the walls but the bar takes its name from Johnny Morrissey, the alias used in the early 1920s by Crilly’s Irish Republican Army grandfather.
“I used to always ask him did he ever shoot anybody,” Crilly said, “and he’d never tell me.”
By the late ’80s, Crilly had enough of the conflict and moved to the United States, first living in Boston and doing construction work before settling in New York City where his brother, who like their grandfather, tended bar and helped find him a job. A hotel and tourism management major back home, the quick-witted Crilly fell in love with the lifestyle — socializing and leaving with pockets full of cash. While working in a Midtown Manhattan steakhouse, he befriended Dermot Cowley, who now owns O’Donovan’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis and Jake O’Connor’s in Excelsior.
“We used to pretend we were gravediggers when we were chatting up the girls,” Crilly said of their years partying together in New York City. “It didn’t really work.”
In 2001, Crilly followed Cowley to the Twin Cities and tended bar at O’Donovan’s before managing Jake O’Connors and eventually Kieran’s Irish Pub. During his stint at O’Donovan’s, he met two of his Morrissey’s partners —Roy Connaughton and Scott Schuler, who became a regular while opening the Seville Club next door.
“When you get to know [Crilly], you realize how funny he is,” Schuler said.
Sitting at a table in his cozy pub, Crilly offers short, at times vague answers to probing personal questions, such as the reasons behind two broken marital engagements. But his eyes light up when flashing his barroom humor or pointing out his mouse and pig nipple tattoos in a bare-chested staff calendar picture.
“I’m one of the few Irish guys you’ll meet who doesn’t drink at all,” Morrissey’s general manager explained. “A guy said to me, ‘That’s like a Chinese guy who doesn’t eat rice!’ I couldn’t argue with him.”
It’s been four years since Crilly took an “early retirement” from alcohol, offering only that he knew it was time to quit. However, working in a bar hasn’t been challenging, he said. During busy nights, Crilly can be caught sneaking sips of tea while greeting regulars and working the floor. Booze or no booze, it hasn’t affected his commitment to hospitality.
“The Irish as a race have been friendly, so we always encourage the staff to be friendly and welcoming,” he said. “But at the same time, we’ll get you out of here as fast as we welcome you if need be.”
Having seen that bare-chested calendar photo, we wouldn’t test Mr. November.
Morrissey’s Irish Pub
Where: 913 W. Lake St., Mpls.
Medallion hunt: Noon Sat. (see page 21).
St. Patrick’s Day: With Hounds of Finn, Minnesota Police Pipe Band and more, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Tue.
Info: 612-465-8555 or morrisseysuptown.com.