Philly food and drink scene

After its hardest year, a family-owned Irish pub celebrates the arrival of St. Patrick’s Day

McShea’s is more than ready for its 25th season in Narberth.

Theresa, John, and Aileen McShea in their restaurant

Theresa, John, and Aileen McShea in their restaurant

Johnny Santone

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A mile outside Philadelphia last weekend, as McShea’s Restaurant & Bar in Narberth prepared for its twenty-fifth St Patrick’s Day celebration, proprietor John McShea breathed a sigh of something close to relief.

The fourth of five children in an Irish Catholic family, McShea was surrounded by his own. His older daughter Aileen, a 2-year-old when the spot opened, was now his bar manager. The younger Theresa, barely a thought when the doors opened 1996, was there as well, having worked at the tavern during breaks from studying at Temple.

“St. Patrick’s Day is Christmas 2.0 to us,” said Aileen. “It’s the beginning of our season.” She and her father recalled their preparations last year. Corned beef, cabbage and shepherd’s pie in the kitchen? Check. Extra Guinness and Irish whiskey behind the bar? Check. Irish band and Gaelic dancers? Check. Everything seemed like it would go off without a hitch for the bar’s busiest week.

As everyone now knows, the week did not pan out as expected. St. Paddy’s celebrations were cut short by COVID-19’s arrival in the region, which slammed into the hospitality industry and brought it grinding to a halt.

Instead of celebration, McShea’s faced an unprecedented mandatory shutdown. Confusion was more prevalent than information in the beginning, and the timing was devastating. But it’s said that hardship does not build character, it reveals it — and the McShea clan was ready to show theirs. The Monday after the shutdown, March 16, became a different kind of planning session at the bar.

John would contact local food banks, while the daughter took to social media with the message “Full Irish meals to go” so that the larders stocked for St. Pat’s would not go to waste.

As it was throughout the industry, the next three months were a struggle at McShea’s. “Adapt” became the mantra. “We became a to-go restaurant overnight,” said Aileen. No idea was dismissed. They mounted a movie screen to the top of a van. “Car-hop, Mario-kart night, dinner club,” said Theresa, recalling all the pivots. “Dad even built a dressing room for drag brunch.”

One year later, John, Aileen, and Theresa had a much brighter pre-St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Some things do look different. COVID provisions have replaced some of the traditional Irish decor and family photos. A tented “beer garden” fills the back parking lot. But other things are continuing according to tradition. Corned beef, cabbage and shepherd’s pie in the kitchen? Check. Extra Guinness and Irish whiskey behind the bar? Check. Irish band and Gaelic dancers? Check.

Family was the rock that got them through it all, said John, smiling with obvious pride. “We wouldn’t be here today without my girls.”

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