A drink with the Bull McCabe

The night I met the Irish actor Richard Harris was not unusual for me. It’s not that I’m used to meeting celebrities—not at all. I simply mean that I was doing what I usually did that night and our paths happened to cross.

You could say Richard Harris met me that night.

There used to be a rather famous Irish bar on 2nd Avenue in the mid-50s called Eamonn Doran’s. The difference between a rather famous Irish bar and a merely well-known one is this: when the owner of this establishment—a stout, white-haired backslapper with flush cheeks named, of course, Eamonn Doran—died in 1997, an 800-word obituary appeared in The New York Times. This is a tribute afforded exceedingly few saloon keepers.

Eamonn Doran’s was, as they say, a nice little joint. It wasn’t different in any material way from the other dark-wood-and-brass-fixture Irish pubs that line 2nd Avenue—or did line it, I’m retired now from pub life—but it was homey, and welcoming, even to penniless students of the theatrical arts, which is what I was at the time.

Eamonn Doran’s was the kind of place that put out finger foods on a hot plate at happy hour so young actors could line their stomachs ahead of a drinking session. I’m not going to say I didn’t spend a few bucks in Eamonn Doran’s, but surely not enough to compensate the man for all his buffalo wings.

We were then studying to be actors. Our nightly appointment was in the front parlor of Eamonn Doran’s, right below the framed promotional poster of Jim Sheridan’s 1990 film The Field, starring Richard Harris as the Bull McCabe. There was Declan, as charming a rogue as Ireland ever produced. And there was Ted, a 6’2” former male model from Montreal.

We’d talk about the actors we admired and the women we desired. After a few pints, when our tongues started to loosen up, we’d get brave enough to admit our dreams out loud.

There wasn’t a TV in every corner of Eamonn Doran’s. The bustle and noise from the dining room in the back was hardly a bother. You could have a serious conversation. There was a jukebox, of course, but resort to it was frowned upon. A bartender once told me in no uncertain terms that I was never again to play Black 47’s “Funky Ceili.”

There were rules at Eamonn Doran’s. There was civilization.

It was early evening on the night in question, probably in the winter of 1993-94. When I walked into the place, I found Declan standing at the bar talking to a tall man with stringy, shoulder-length hair and a snow-white beard. I could tell at a glance it was Richard Harris, the Bull McCabe himself. He wore a floor-length sheepskin coat. Declan was chatting to him with congenial familiarity, as you do in a place like Eamonn Doran’s.

My gut reaction was that Richard Harris and Declan were friends. I didn’t doubt it for a minute. Declan had a reputation as a man of the world. And they were both Irish.

I walked right up, fully expecting to be introduced. Instead, as typically happens when an intruder with nothing to say enters an already faltering conversation, things came to a screeching halt. In the moment that it took for me to realize that Declan didn’t know him at all, the Bull McCabe reached his hand out to me and said, “I’m Richard Harris.” I wanted to say, “I know who you are.” But instead I offered my own name. “Matthew Hennessey,” I said. We shook hands.

So it’s like I told you. Richard Harris met me.

Not knowing quite what to do next, Declan offered him a drink. He refused to accept it, so we retired to our usual spot near the window, right below the poster with the face of the man we’d just met. The Bull McCabe turned away from us, away from himself, and back to his pint.

The presence of a famous person distorts the energy in a room. You behave differently, even when you’re on home turf. We had a hard time settling down while Richard Harris was standing right over there. We struggled to have a normal conversation.

In those days there wasn’t Facebook or Twitter to announce to the world our sudden and unexpected good fortune. We weren’t carrying digital cameras with us, as people do now, so we couldn’t capture the moment with a photo. But we knew it was going to be a great story when we spread it around the student lounge of the acting school the next morning.

“Richard Harris was in Shake Hands with the Devil with Jimmy Cagney in 1959. Last night he was drinking in a pub with us.” That’s called apostolic succession.

Personally, I couldn’t wait to tell my dad that I had met “the man called horse.”

Then…“He’s coming over here,” said Ted.

Everybody be cool.

“Lads,” said Richard Harris, leaning into our group. “I’m sorry I said no to that drink. I’ve a plane to catch. But you’ll let me buy you a round.”

“You don’t have to do that,” we protested.

“It’s already done,” he said, nodding toward the bar. The bartender had set up three foamy pints for us. “Have a good night fellas. It was lovely meeting you. Good luck with everything.”

“You too. Thanks.”

And with that, Richard Harris exited into the New York night, his long Western coat breezing behind him.

As we collected the pints, the bartender let us in on the reason why our original offer of a drink had been refused. Richard Harris’s brother had died that day. He’d just gotten the news and was on his way home for the funeral.

That put a bit of a pall on the rest of the proceedings, but when the Bull McCabe buys you a pint it is a precious pint indeed. Every drop was savored.

Almost everything about this story has been destroyed in the intervening years except my memory of it. The pub is gone. Sadly, a Walgreens now occupies the spot on the east side of 2nd Avenue, just south of 53rd Street, where Eamonn Doran’s once stood. For a while there was a touristy spin-off of the great pub on 34th Street, near Madison Square Garden, but it too has closed.

A pub calling itself Eamonn’s currently operates on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. It could be related to the original, as could a young cousin on Church Street in Tribeca, but these pretenders are of dubious provenance.

Richard Harris died in 2002, predeceased by my own acting career. While I no longer dream of footlights, I’ll never forget the night the grizzled patriarch of my particular clan—that of the artistic Irish rogues—blessed us with his presence and his pint.

I have ever after felt consecrated to the life, one with the tradition. That was the night the torch was passed.

That was the night Richard Harris met me.

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