What makes a pub Irish? Our writer asked this question only to be met with derision. Apparently it is an attitude, an Irish flag hanging on the wall, the sound of live Celtic rock and breaking glass, and/or the cloud of cigarette smoke that still lingers in the air. You name it—ideally with something starting in “Mc”or “Oʻ”—and St. Patrick bless you, it is done. Below, meet the four Irish pubs that call Honolulu’s urban core home.
Text by Harrison Patino
O’Toole’s Irish Pub
With its old brick walls adorned in Red Sox memorabilia, O’Toole’s Irish Pub wouldn't look too out of place in the streets of Boston. And yet, at the corner of Nu‘uanu Avenue and Marin Street, O’toole’s has been a Chinatown staple for decades.
Known for its rich history just as much as its rich selection of whiskeys, O’Toole’s is nearly as old as the neighborhood that houses it. Built with brick used as ballast from incoming merchant ships in the 1890s O’Tooles was originally a warehouse and stable for the Foster’s Boatbuilding Company before the skyscrapers and six-lane highways sprang up.
Now, O’Toole’s is just as much a center for Irish culture as it is a classic neighborhood bar. The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick—Hawai’i’s largest Irish cultural group—convene at the bar’s connected meeting hall, while in the bar, live music plays nearly every day of the month to the accompaniment of Irish beers on tap and healthy selection of Irish whiskey.
The bar itself is owned and operated by veteran Honolulu barman Bill Comerford, who also owns and operates Anna O’Briens, Kelley O’Neil’s, and the Irish Rose Saloon. Comerford is staunch in his belief that Irish drinking culture is right at home with the aloha spirit, noting the emphasis on hospitality that the two share.
As for the prevalence of Irish bars in the Chinatown neighborhood alone, Comerford doesn’t think this is anything too out of the ordinary. “You’ll find the Irish operating bars everywhere. Comerford jokes. “Everywhere in the world, you can go to Moscow, you can go to China, you can go to Japan, and you’re going to find Irish bars. It’s just what we do, and we do ʻem better than anyone else.”
O’Tooles is located at 902 Nuuanu Ave.
Murphy’s Bar and Grill
If O’Tooles is the working-class neighborhood joint, Murphy’s is the businessman’s bar, or at least it looks that way. Boasting stained glass, antique beer advertisements, whiskey posters, and various bits of collectible Irish ephemera, the place feels like stepping into a bustling uptown bar from the ʻ30s or ʻ40s.
Built in 1890 as the Royal Saloon—and of the same brick ballast as O’Toole’s, across the street—the building possessed one of the original six liquor licenses on the island and has been either a bar or restaurant for the entirety of its existence. The place even withstood the great fire of 1900 that decimated the rest of Chinatown.
While Murphy’s is a great place to grab a drink, it also boasts a menu of classic bar food and traditional Irish meals like shepherd's pie and corned beef and cabbage, all the better when washed down with a pint of Guinness.
The building is also said to be haunted, but Don Murphy, the bar’s namesake and owner since 1987, doesn’t lend any credence to these rumors. As far as he’s concerned, Murphy’s is just a neighborhood spot that’s been doing the same thing for years.
Murphy’s is located at 2 Merchant St.
JJ Dolan’s, a dimly lit neighborhood staple, has been serving up cold beer and New York style pizza for the better part of a decade. And while there is no JJ Dolan, co-owners John Joseph “JJ” Niebuhr and Danny Dolan are Chinatown through and through.
The bar came to be when Dolan, the manager of O’Toole’s at the time, and Niebuhr, who worked at Murphy’s barbacking and making pizza (when it was still on the menu), decided to team up and start an Irish bar of their own. After all, “Every town needs an Irish bar,” as Dolan puts it. “Or a few of ʻem.”
As it turns out, pizza and beer make a good couple. Since 2008, JJ Dolan’s has been warmly received by Chinatown regulars, especially when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, though beyond changing all the taps to Irish beer, they don’t do much in preparation. And as far as Dolan is concerned, they don’t need to. “We just clear everything out and get ready for the madness.”
JJ Dolan’s is located at 1147 Bethel St.
Ferguson’s Irish Pub
Before Ferguson’s was the beloved Irish pub it is today, it was The Clubhouse, a zany neighborhood bar with a parrot that hung around the rafters. When John Ferguson bought the downtown Honolulu property in 2000, he cleaned the place up, got rid of the parrot, and turned it into Ferguson’s Irish Pub.
When Ferguson passed away in 2011, his good friends and fellow barmen Don Murphy, Danny Dolan, and JJ Niebuhr took it upon themselves to keep the bar running as he would’ve wanted. As a result, the bar, housed on the ground floor of the stately Dillingham Transportation Building, was remodeled and revamped. What stands now is a classy, upscale establishment with a beautiful, fully stocked bar and a spacious courtyard area—a labor of love and a fitting tribute to the bar’s namesake.
Ferguson’s is located at 729 Bishop St.
The 29th Annual St Patrick’s Day Block Party takes place at “Honolulu’s Irish Corner,” aka Nuuanu Avenue and Merchant Street, on Thursday, March 17 starting at 6 p.m. Live music by Doolin Rakes and Pirahna Brothers. For more information, visit murphyshawaii.com/st-patricks-day.