Kevin Barry’s: The Most Authentic Irish Pub Outside of Ireland
Yes, there’s an answer to the question of which is the most authentic Irish Pub outside of Ireland – and it’s not in Boston or Chicago as you might expect. It’s Kevin Barry’s in Savannah, Ga. That’s according to Irish Pubs Global Federation, the organization that granted Kevin Barry’s its Authenticity Award in 2016. If you’re surprised that a town famous for its Southern gothic plantations and oceanfront resorts is home to such a pub, read on to learn about the city’s rich Irish tradition and the pub that calls it home.
Pluck of the Irish
The Irish presence in Savannah predates the formation of the state of Georgia. At least nine of the original 114 settlers that came with James Oglethorpe to found the British colony in 1733 were Irish. The families they established gave the Irish a strong foothold in the area early on. Several influential individuals in the colony’s early history were of Irish decent, including its second royal governor, Henry Ellis.
A century after the colony was founded, Irish immigrants provided much of the labor that built the state’s canals and other infrastructure during the 1820s and 1830s. Thousands more immigrated during Ireland’s Great Famine 100 years later and helped build the Central Railroad of Georgia that provided the vital economic connection to other Southern railroad hubs.
“The plantation owners didn’t want their slaves working on the railroad and at the ports because of the chance of escape. We had what was called the Irish ghetto in Savannah. That’s where the Irish migrated to. They actually built the railroads and the ports. They took the jobs that the slave owners wouldn’t let their slaves have.”
-Tara Reese, Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub
Three centuries of an Irish presence have made Savannah one of the hottest hubs of Irish heritage and pride in the United States. The city is home to the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the country, drawing about 800,000 revelers each year. The celebrations tend to last through the entire month of March, and a separate Irish festival has preceded the holiday by a month for the last 25 years.
Another quieter, more reverent event is held each year to honor the Irish immigrants that made Savannah what it is today. “In Savannah every year we have what’s called the Celtic Cross Ceremony. It’s always the Sunday before St. Patrick’s day and the 24 original Irish clans actually gather together and do this whole ceremony for their ancestors,” says Tara Reese, who handles Kevin Barry’s public relations.
It’s that rich historical backdrop that convinced Kevin Barry’s owner Vic Power to choose Savannah as the spot to open his pub. Power’s dream was to establish a traditional Irish pub that would honor Ireland, where his father and grandfather were born, and the heroes that helped make that country what it is today. That brings us to the name.
Dedicated to Heroes
Kevin Barry’s is named after the first Irish volunteer to be executed by the British during the 1920 war for Irish Independence. Barry, at the age of 18, was the youngest of 10 soldiers to be hanged at Mountjoy Jail on November 1, 1920. That group of patriots would become known as the Forgotten Ten. That event helped rouse the Irish people to fight England for their independence, which was officially recognized in 1921 with the Anglo-Irish treaty after a war that claimed 2,000 lives.
A room on the second floor of the pub is named Liberty Hall and dedicated to the Easter Rising of 1916, an event that planted the seed for Ireland’s fight for independence four years before Kevin Barry gave his life. The room is a virtual mini-museum that educates guests about the Irish struggle for independence.
It was Barry’s devotion to his country’s freedom that inspired pub founder Vic Power to name a drinking establishment after him, but the bar also honors the heroes who’ve sacrificed to protect the United States. Adjacent to Liberty Hall is the Hall of Heroes, a room dedicated to all members of the United States Armed Forces of the past and present. The bar has earned a reputation as being a welcoming spot for active service members and veterans alike.
So what characteristics does Kevin Barry’s share with the public houses of Ireland that earned it the superlative for authenticity? The bar’s atmosphere is the one that’s most often cited. Reese, who frequented the pub for years before becoming an employee summed it up for us.
“Having gone to Ireland myself once or twice a year for six or seven years, [Kevin Barry’s] reminds me of being in some little pub over in Ireland. Not in Dublin where all the tourists go, but pubs like in Arklow and Doolin and places that the normal American tourist would not go,” Reese explains.
Guests who’ve reviewed the pub on social media echo Tara’s impression, including one TripAdvisor reviewer who was enamored with its “dank, dark environment that feels like you’re in a 1930s outlaw underground meeting of the Irish resistance … even knowing that the place is truly safe.”
And that’s just the sights that impress visitors to Kevin Barry’s. The sounds that surround pub patrons likely seal the deal. Traditional Irish music is played seven nights a week in the pub’s listening room, as it has been for the 37 years since the pub opened its doors.
“We’ve got the listening room, which has live Irish music every night of the week and the same artists performing there since we opened in 1980. It’s a rotating group of artists. There’s nine different Irish-American and even Scottish performers,” says Reese. Musicians who have performed on Kevin Barry’s stage include legends like Danny Doyle and Harry O’Donoghue.
Pub owner Power has chosen to forgo many modern pub staples in order to maintain Kevin Barry’s authentic atmosphere. You won’t find a television in the pub, nor a public Wi-Fi connection. This is all to maintain the face-to-face interactions between pub patrons in the spirit of the public house tradition.
Visitors to Kevin Barry’s are encouraged to ask their bartenders and neighbors at the bar, “What’s the craic?” That’s the Irish equivalent of asking “What’s the story?” or “What’s going on?”, and it’s a surefire way to turn any stranger into a friend as you enjoy your pint of ale or favorite Irish whiskey.