NEWARK, NJ — Bill Scully, Irish immigrant, teller of tales, well of wit, and longtime bartender at McGovern's Tavern in Newark, was doing his job with speed, skill and grace on the day the beloved bar reopened after its renovation. On this day, by happenstance, All Saints' Day, Scully, a holy man to some, looked at the packed crowd surging towards the bar and said out loud what they were thinking.
"It's a miracle. It's the best thing that's happened in quite a long time," Scully said amidst the cacophony. For 16 months, the tavern was shuttered while it revamped for the future. "It's wonderful, absolutely fantastic."
Hundreds of people made the pilgrimage Friday night to a bar that is mostly, miraculously unchanged after its makeover. New windows do indeed exist after decades of relative darkness. But for those in attendance, it is better to bask in the glow of all that was familiar in the place.
The walls still speak at McGovern's, telling the story of a bar open since 1936. It tells the history of the Irish-Americans who, after fleeing hunger, poverty and oppression, helped build Newark. The memories and mementos seen in all corners of the bar, including family photos, suspended fire and police hats hanging over the bar, successive commemorations of generations of Irish rebels, President John F. Kennedy and his son, are threads in that cultural tapestry. The murals depicting Ireland, Newark and Mount Rushmore have been shifted around but now shine, their color restored, a visual reminder of the bar's role as a bridge between Éire and America.
One portrait means the most to longtime customer Gerry Lenihan, a son of the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark - the one of his parents' wedding day.
"My mother and father met in the back room," said Lenihan, standing underneath the picture of his parents, Jeremiah and Mary, as he stopped by McGovern's from his nearby job. "Remember, the new Newark has to fit in to us because we have never left it over the years. We're part of the fabric of Newark, and we always will be."
Many of the ties that truly bind in life began at McGovern's. Debbie and Steve Kelly drove up from Sea Bright to be there for the reopening of the place they first met.
"Why wouldn't we be here tonight? We had to be," said Debbie Kelly, who has been married to Steve for 34 years. "It's in our Constitution."
Among others in the crowd, the flowers of romance that grow at McGovern's have just bloomed.
"My first date with my girlfriend was here. We've been together ever since," said Julio Sanchez, standing close to Brittany Rusinack, both very recent graduates of Rutgers Law School. "This is like having an anniversary."
"I met some of the best people here, including the love of my life," said Rusinack. "I've been coming here longer than I should admit, but I'll keep coming. In Newark, this is an icon."
Evidence of the social whirlpool that is McGovern's was everywhere on reopening night, a place where construction workers, lawyers, students, firefighters, poets, priests, and politicians all mix together.
Ronald Chen, dean emeritus of Rutgers Law, was there, an amicus curiae to the proceedings around him. He was joined by Eugene Mazo, a Rutgers Law professor who specializes in the law of democracy, watching the people vote with their presence, and their cash, at the bar.
Chris Smith, former president of the Ironbound Irish-American Association, marched around the bar with the Essex County Emerald Society Police & Fire Pipe Band, a tribal musical tradition usually seen on St. Patrick's Day.
Sean McGovern, Pat McGovern and Mike Nagle, the triumvirate who run the place, energetically and methodically worked the crowd and the bar, making up for lost time.
Chase Hamilton, local firefighter and grandson of the late James "Skipper" Hamilton, Scully's right hand man and barman legend in his own right, worked the backroom bar.
It is in McGovern's backroom where many political deals have been made. But Chris James, a local Essex County politician and former executive director of the New Jersey Democratic Executive State Committee, emphasizes that the bar is also a place beyond politics.
"Political deals have been made here, but McGovern's has always been a bedrock for Rutgers, NJIT and the rest of the college community so that they can get back to school and do some great work," said James, an African-American who noted that the bar may be of the Irish, but not just for the Irish. "Look at the crowd. McGovern's is always going to be a staple in the city of Newark. And Newark is always going to be Newark."
Newark is in fact changing. Halsey Street, a half-block away from McGovern's, is no longer a ghost town. The refurbished Hahne's and Co. building bustles with its Whole Foods market, along with a row of restaurants and residences giving the surrounding blocks new life. The bunker quality of the old McGovern's, with its former green metal door and blocked-up windows, is gone, a testament to time healing the damage of the 1967 riots that nearly tore the city up beyond repair. In many ways, Newark is trying to show a new face to New Jersey and the world, less scarred and more hopeful.
As for Bill Scully, whose face is emblazoned on every McGovern's coaster, he beamed as streams of whiskey are flowing once again, the bar successfully resurrected.
"Why is McGovern's going to live? Because people like the ones you see around us are here every chance they get," said Scully as he pulled his thousandth pint of Guinness of the day. "We'll be here forever."