For 25 years, more than they’ve officially been open, the Old Brogue Irish Pub in Great Falls has been a favorite spot of the St. Patrick’s Day faithful. Coming from as far as the Carolinas, as close as down the street, wearing buttons from each year the celebration has been held, patrons begin to arrive long before the 9 a.m. opening of the tent, before the 10 a.m. opening of the bar and restaurant, and more than eighteen hours before the bar’s 1 a.m. last call.
“We’re here the whole day,” said Carmelita Williams, one of the Old Brogue’s managers. “We got here a little after 7 a.m. and the same people who are always here camping out were here at 6:30 a.m.,” she said.
Citing a “loyal following,” she said patrons return to the Great Falls watering hole from all over the region.
“We have people who lived around here and moved away take vacation to come back for St. Patrick’s,” she said. “Some of our customers are insurance agents or have other types of businesses that close their office today and the day after.”
“I love St. Patrick’s Day,” said Martha Mary Alden, who has been working the holiday for more years than she can count.
“It’s a long day, but I like seeing the people who only come in once a year,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t usually come in, who only come in on St. Patrick’s.”
INSIDE, WORKING her 10th St. Patrick’s event, Sharon Meagher said she worked at the Brogue for about seven years but returns for this one day every year.
“The best part is all of us getting together every year,” she said. “Sometimes people are in a long line before we even open. It depends on the year and the weather.”
Workers at the Brogue are kept on a strict no-alcohol policy during their shift to ensure everyone does their job correctly, she said.
“Every year I tell myself I won’t work, I’ll just come in and enjoy it, but I don’t think I’d have as much fun,” she said with a laugh.
Surprisingly, the long lines, crowds and out of town visitors don’t turns as much profit as one might suspect.
“By the time I finish paying the extra labor, filing permits, renting the tent, buying the plastic cups, there’s a lot of extra expenses,” said Mike Kearney, owner of The Brogue. “I spend $1,000 in plastic cups alone.”
And all this frivolity without a drop of green food coloring.
“We have all the best Ireland has to offer on tap and in bottles, we don’t need to add food coloring,” he said. “There’s usually a line to get in starting around 5:30 p.m. when people start getting out of work.”
For the first 15 years of its existence, the Old Brogue was the only Irish pub inside the Beltway, Kearney said, which may be why some of the patrons come back year after year.
“We have six employees who have been here more than 12 years,” he said. “My youngest manager today has been here for 16 years. Maybe that’s why people come back, they know our staff. It’s a big extended family here.”
He said it would be safe to expect between 1,500 to 1,700 people for the celebration and a very tired staff at the end of the day.
“Most of us were here until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., went home to sleep a little, got back here at 6 a.m. and will be here until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. again tonight,” he said. “We have a saying around here, March the 17, sleep the 18th.”
TWO FAITHFUL PATRONS, Dennis Shea and Terry McGowan, have been celebrating St. Patrick’s at the Brogue since the early 1980s.
“This is probably one of the best true types of Irish pubs in Northern Virginia,” McGowan said.
Both men had taken the day off from work to gather with friends and family at a long table toward the back of the building.
“This is a religious holiday that I’ve never had to take off work,” McGowan said..
“I’ve gone to a few other places before, and the music will all be the same, but what separates this place from the others is the people and the atmosphere,” Shea said. “The ownership does a real nice job.”
The only other place McGowan said he’d rather spend the day is a tiny bar in Boston called the Wee Irish Pub.
“This is the holy grail,” Shea said. “There’s a loyal fan base, and we’re always here.”
Joe Woodward and Bob Weschler have been racing each other to the door at the Brogue for about five years.
“We met in line a few years back, and after that it’s become a race to see who gets here first,” said Woodward, who said he goes to the Brogue every year simply “because it’s the Brogue.”
“I love the people here. I moved away for a while, and when I came back they remembered me,” he said.
The no-green-beer policy is simple to understand, Weschler said.
“You only put green food coloring in bad beer. We don’t do that here,” he said.
He started the day waiting outside the tent for the doors to open, sharing a few pints of Guinness with Woodward. “I’ll make it about 12 hours, I’ll probably go home around 6 p.m. or so,” he said.
Carrie Hyman, a newcomer to the celebration, was brought by Woodward this year to see what the talk was about.
“This is the first time I’ve had a Guinness for breakfast,” she said. “I’m waiting to see how rowdy it gets here.”
DEBBIE DUPUIS spends her St. Patrick’s Day at the Brogue spreading a different kind of cheer: she paints faces, or other surfaces, to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy.
“My 18-year-old son was diagnosed a few years ago, and I’ve been coming here to paint faces for MD research ever year since then,” she said.
She starts walking through the growing crowds around noon and stays until she can’t move through the bar, which usually equates to between 50 and a few hundred paintings, bringing her between $200 and $300 each year.
“I usually paint shamrocks, mugs of beer. There’s an Irish flag around here somewhere,” she said. “It’s become a tradition.”
A three-year veteran of the celebration, Virginia Cylke said the atmosphere feels like home for her.
“I’m here with a birthday girl and a couple of friends who frequent here,” she said. “There’s nothing as unique and homey as the Brogue. This is the place to be on St. Patrick’s and every day.”