A wee bit of Ireland in Normal Heights
By Christy Scannell
On St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), it’s not unusual to see a line of revelers snaking down Adams Avenue with hopes of getting into The Ould Sod — or for that matter, its cross-street neighbor, Rosie O’Grady’s. In its 20-plus years in Normal Heights, The Ould Sod (some call it San Diego’s only “real” Irish pub) has become a favorite stop for those in green, eager to gulp down a pint of Guinness poured by native Irish bartenders.
But what is less known is the community that has resulted from those who frequent the “Sod,” as it’s affectionately abbreviated. When the bar opened in 1989, it brought together co-owners Tommy Quinn and Mick Ward, who had emigrated from Ireland several years earlier. Others eager to escape the poor economy in the 1980s and early 1990s also left the Emerald Isle.
“Immigration wasn’t as stringent as it is today,” said Martin Brennan, a Sod bartender since 1990. He arrived in the U.S. from Sligo, Ireland, on July 4, 1980, and later roomed with Quinn and Ward. “Being Irish was an asset in many places in the U.S. — our forefathers had laid the way for us.”
While many Irish arriving in America during that time chose New York City, Chicago or San Francisco as their final destinations, Brennan said the palm trees and warm weather in San Diego were a huge draw for Irish people looking to make a fresh start. And eventually, they all ended up at The Ould Sod.
“We saw this new Irish community that was relatively small but energized by the influx of highly-educated young people looking to make a better life for themselves,” Brennan said. “We all shared a sense of adventure.”
It was an eclectic mix at the Sod in those days, he said — young Irish workers gathered for pints with older holdovers from the Elbo Club, the previous bar at that location. While the seniors dominated the north end of the bar, the newer inhabitants took over the south end of the pub, including the little annex that was eventually converted into a smoking room. It wasn’t unusual to see young and old sharing a joke or chatting about politics or sports.
“The emphasis in an Irish pub is on conversation and socializing as opposed to the entertainment and matchmaking that are common in traditional American bars,” Brennan said. “The idea is that people from all walks of life can congregate and enjoy discussions.”
As the Sod’s support grew, so did its backing for charities and nonprofit organizations. Some of those were related to causes in Ireland, allowing patrons to uphold their national identity, while others were local. The Sod is the venue for an annual Amnesty International fundraiser and for events that finance Friends of Homeless Veterans, which was founded by Ould Sod customers. Each year the bar hosts the Marine Corps birthday party — in 2010 the event raised $1200 for the children of Christopher Wilson, a San Diego police officer killed in the line of duty in October. Sports teams and an Irish theater group have also received assistance from the Sod and its clientele.
“Helping others has really been at the center of our social activity, which is I think what sets (The Ould Sod) apart perhaps from other places like it,” Brennan said.
He is quick to add, however, that the Sod also emphasizes fun. Golf tournaments, pub quizzes and Padres outings are some of the activities that fill the bar’s calendar. It is also a hub for traditional Irish music — brought about by immigrants’ need to hear sounds from their homeland — as well as performances by popular local singers such as Gregory Page and Sara Petite. Thursdays and Saturdays are dedicated to karaoke, drawing a full house both nights.
These days, however, fewer of those enjoying the bar’s festivities are native Irish. When Ireland’s economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger roared its way into existence in the late ’90s, many of the Sod’s original patrons returned home.
“They had worked hard and saved money, established businesses that they then sold and were able to go back and put a down payment on a house,” Brennan said.
Replacing them were Americans who had grown to love the bar’s part-clubhouse, part-lounge ambience. Brendan Powers, whose grandparents were from Ireland, was one of those attracted to the Sod after moving to San Diego from New York in 1994.
“When I first came out here it was a place that felt like a family environment. It was a place you walked into and ran into a friendly face and had a good laugh,” he said. “It is simply the atmosphere created by the owners and staff that keeps me coming back.”
Even though the bar doesn’t market itself for “matchmaking,” its track record is noteworthy. Owners Quinn and Ward both met their spouses there, as have numerous other patrons, including Cynthia Madruga, who met future husband Roy during an Ould Sod golf tourney called “Paddy Goes Amok” in May 2002. They married in October 2003 and continue to frequent the bar.
“You can go into a regular (bar) and someone you know might not even acknowledge that they had a conversation with you before but you walk into the Sod and it takes a half hour to walk the ‘gauntlet’ to the back because everyone wants to talk,” she said. “When someone’s having problems everyone knows about it and joins to help. It really feels like you can get support there.”
Even at age 22, The Ould Sod is still the Irish kid on the block. Across the street, Rosie O’Grady’s has been displaying shamrocks for 34 years. Rosie’s original owner Ron Stout, who died in 2009, was also a partner in the Sod with Quinn and Ward. The friendship between the two bars has persisted since then, said Michael Rammelsberg, who bought Rosie’s in 2002.
“We’re all friendly and get along well. You’re likely to find me or my son drinking over (at the Sod) or Mick over here having lunch,” he said.
Although Rammelsberg said Rosie’s has gradually withdrawn from the Irish theme, becoming more of an American sports bar, it will be in full leprechaun mode come St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’ll be cooking up 600 pounds of corned beef and cabbage, corned beef tacos and corned beef sandwiches,” he said.
Drink specials, giveaways and recorded Irish music will add to the celebration. Rammelsberg said there is typically a line at the door when the bar opens at 11 a.m. that day and the bar will reach its 115-person capacity by 1 p.m.
For native Irish such as Martin Brennan — who will ride in the 2011 St. Patrick’s Day parade as “Irish Man of the Year” — the annual March 17 American frenzy is a bit amusing, but he is proud to see his heritage honored, even if it is with green beer and silly hats.
“We are one of the few nationalities in the U.S. that gets to have a day of celebration that identifies our culture and the contribution we’ve made, going back to the Revolutionary War. We’ve given a lot to this country but we’ve been more than adequately rewarded, and we like to display it on St. Patrick’s Day from coast to coast,” he said.
Other St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the North Park area include:
• St. Patrick’s Church, 3585 30th St., will host a brunch on Sunday, March 13, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parish hall, featuring freshly made Irish fare such as eggs, sausage, potato pancakes, corned beef hash and soda bread. Cost is $5 with proceeds going to the church’s new preschool. The event is open to the public.
• Ritual Tavern, 4095 30th St., is brining/corning Niman Ranch beef brisket, which will be served with potatoes, cabbage and house-baked soda bread. An Irish-style stout will occupy one of the 12 taps.
• West Coast Tavern, 2895 University Ave., will have its regular menu plus an Irish-themed menu of small plates: Guinness pot pie with filet mignon, lobster fish and chips, bangers and mash trio and Irish mince tartlets with Kelly’s Hard Cider apple sauce. Drink specials will include half-price Irish whiskey flights and discounted Irish beer.
• Students at St. Patrick’s School will mark the day by delivering home-baked cookies to more than 20 nearby businesses.
• Heaven Sent Desserts, 3001 University Ave., will offer the Irish Angel, a devil’s food chocolate cake with Irish cream filling, and the Chocolate Mint Lava Lust, a flourless chocolate cake with a mint chocolate truffle inside that melts as the cake is cut, served with vanilla bean ice cream and a mixed berry compote.
• The Linkery, 3794 30th St., and El Take It Easy, 3926 30th St., will open at noon with themed food such as Reuben tacos and a version of corned beef and cabbage.
• Dancers from the Butler-Fearon-Connor School of Irish Dance in Kensington will be performing at schools, retirement homes, hospitals, parties and church functions throughout the county.
• True North Tavern, 3815 30th St., will have $3 Jameson, $4 Guinness and $5 Irish Car Bombs, plus a TNT St Paddy’s Day T-shirt and beer special for $10.
• U-31, 3112 University Ave., will open at 4 p.m. with $2 green beers and a free buffet of corned beef tacos and other traditional Irish items from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
• Bluefoot Bar, 3404 30th St., will serve $3 green beer, $3 Karl Strauss Red Trolley (Irish Red) and $4 Jameson shots from 7 p.m. – midnight.