By Margie Smith Holt
“It looks good, doesn’t it?” Dublin House owner Mike Cormican asked, just moments after the vintage neon sign above his bar—a 12-foot, one-story-tall, green Irish harp—flashed on in restored glory.
It sure does.
About 75 people—regulars, passers-by, some of New York’s bravest—gathered on the sidewalk of 79th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Saturday night to see the sign lit up, providing an impromptu countdown that was delayed just slightly when Cormican came out and joined the crowd to watch, forgetting that he was the one who was supposed to flip the switch.
“That’s Mike!” laughed bartender Nicola Cusack, adding, “It’s spectacular. It’s great to have it back shining again.”
Cormican, who hails from County Galway in the west of Ireland, started tending bar at the Dublin House in 1993. In 2006 he bought the place. One of NYC’s iconic Irish pubs—Guinness and Harp on tap, Irish-born staff pouring the Jameson, the occasional traditional Irish music session in the back—the UWS institution just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Step into its dark, wood-paneled interior and, once your eyes adjust, you might think you’ve time-traveled (as the location scouts for Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel discovered.)
The Dublin House opened as a speakeasy in 1921. (Fun fact: according to The New York Times, the townhouse was once owned by Emily Post. Did the queen of etiquette know about the illicit imbibing?) The neon harp, a mere 89 years old, made its first appearance in 1933, at the end of Prohibition. The bar’s original owner, Dublin-born John Carway, was apparently ready to advertise. Designed by E.G. Clarke Inc. of New York, the original sign said “restaurant” where it now says “tap room.” The harp—when fully lit—is visible blocks away.
“It’s so ancient, it’s so old,” said Cormican. “We’re one of the oldest signs in Manhattan. So it’s a big thing to have.”
The sign had fallen into disrepair but with recession, COVID, and a hefty price tag, there was no money to fix it.
“It’s super, super, super expensive,” said Cusack.
Enter craftsman Jeff Friedman of Tribeca studio Let There Be Neon (described by the Guardian as “the go-to rescuer and creator of custom neon in New York.”) He organized a GoFundMe to raise money for the restoration.
“It’s really a special piece,” Friedman says. “You’ve got a combination of the lettering…and an absolutely beautiful graphic of this harp that is very reminiscent in design and style of the ‘30s and ’40s. It very clearly goes back to that era.”
“He said a lot of people want to keep the sign going,” Cormican recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll set it up.’”
The $15,000 goal was surpassed in 24 hours.
“It was all him,” Cusack said. “It would never have been possible. We’d never even thought about it.”
She interrupts our interview to call out to patrons.
“Thank you very much guys!”
They’re so grateful for all the support, she says.
“I just want to reach out to everybody and say thanks very much. This would not have been possible without people that helped out with the GoFundMe and walked by with donations. It would never ever have happened without Jeff from Neon…We’re really appreciative, really just so happy. I didn’t expect this type of turnout.”
“We’re really proud and humbled by the fact that we’re able to bring the piece back to life. Important things just tend to disappear before you even notice,” Friedman said. “I wish for another 100 years.”
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, as the song goes, but Times Square these days is bedecked in the less lyrical LED. Vintage neon like the Dublin House’s harp is fading away. New York Neon author Thomas Rinaldi writes in his blog of the same name that 3,400 permits for illuminated signs were issued in Manhattan in 1933; the Dublin House harp is one of three signs that remain.
(Be warned: if you’re a history buff, you can easily while away an entire afternoon going down the rabbit hole of NYC’s vanishing neon masterpieces. Best to do it over a pint of Guinness at the Dublin House bar, as this writer can attest.)
Here on the UWS, however, at least one sign of the past shines on, beckoning thirsty travelers and offering, as they might say in the old country, a thousand welcomes.
Cusack thinks it’s a great sign for the future as well. It’s been a rough couple of years, not just at Dublin House but all over the city.
“It’s just a good new start for us, you know?” she said.
“Give me a good write-up!” Cormican urged, as he greeted new guests and cleaned up behind others. “If you can send us some people, I’ll be happy.”