Warm Guinness and Wilting Shamrocks: Being Irish in the Desert

Warm Guinness and Wilting Shamrocks: Being Irish in the Desert
Melissa Campana

I had a routine visit to the ophthalmologist the other day.

After nearly blinding me with a machine that was, ironically, meant to take pictures of my retinas to measure their health, the doctor asked if I had any particular sensitivity to bright light.

“I-I don’t know,” I stammered, worried that my answer might determine whether I had eye cancer. “I mean, I don’t love it. But who does? We live in Arizona, right? I just make sure I always have sunglasses with me.”

“Because your retinas are very pale. I mean … like … really pale.”

As someone who doesn’t leave the house wearing less than SPF 75, this was not the first time this adjective has been used to describe me. It was maybe the first time, however, someone was using it to describe my eyeballs.

“You would actually classify,” he continued, “as what we, in the field, would call an ‘ocular albino.’”

Well, shit.

It’s not easy being Irish in the desert. Our people simply were not made for the kind of relentless sunshine and blue skies that make Phoenix so popular this time of year. It may seem strange, then, to learn that there is quite a large contingent of actual Irish people living in the Valley of the Sun.

But I assure you that they are out there. Lurking in the shade. Hydrating like maniacs. Maybe even applying fake tanner and trying to live among you as a native desert-dweller. And always, always looking for the craic – a bit of good fun – and next week will certainly be no exception.

Whether you’re Irish or not, if you’re looking for an authentically Irish experience this St. Patrick’s Day (or any of the other 364 days of the year), here are a few tips. And if someone suggests that Tilted Kilt in any way resembles an authentic Irish experience, you have my permission to punch them in the face.

click to enlarge The Kettle Black. - MELISSA CAMPANA
The Kettle Black.
Melissa Campana
Let’s get to the important stuff first: pubs. My current favorite is The Kettle Black in downtown Phoenix. Owner Tom Montgomery was the pioneer of the northwest Valley’s Tim Finnegan’s back in the day; but, with the Kettle Black, he was determined to steer clear of, in his words, “diddley-eye shit.”

A native of the Bronx, with Irish parents, Tom is a barman’s barman. He knows that a good Irish pub is not measured by how many shamrocks are on the walls, but by whether the crowd at the bar is having a good time.

You’ll see subtle nods to the pub’s national identity – a line drawing of Dublin here, a chalkboard message in Gaelic there – but the Kettle Black would rather be Irish in mission than in minutiae. You might find yourself at this pub long after the amateur partiers have gone home for the night, and chances are Tom will be there, pulling pints and ready to chat. Considering the size of the kitchen, the restaurant offers an extensive menu of what we might call "upscale pub food;" try the fish and chips, which are dutifully served with a bottle of vinegar.

click to enlarge Christopher Wallace — probably Irish. - MELISSA CAMPANA
Christopher Wallace — probably Irish.
Melissa Campana
If you're on the hunt for a proper pub, the Kettle Black is not your only option in the Valley. (Thanks be to God.)

Seamus McCaffrey's downtown location is celebrating its 25th year as host of the St. Paddy's Day Street Fair on Central Avenue and Monroe Street. And while the craic will be 90 on March 17, it's probably only about a 30 on most days of the year. Located next to the Hotel San Carlos, the pub is a place you're bound to run into an Irish person here every now and again, but not usually the ones who live in Phoenix. Seamus himself left the building long ago to focus on his other pub, Rosie McCaffrey's.

Rosie's, which opened in 2002, is still going strong and draws a great neighborhood crowd, not to mention those who get up early on the weekends to watch the odd Celtic match. You're far more likely to see an Irish person "in the wild" here (especially on St. Paddy's Day), and the food is downright decent: Rosie's offers Irish potato skins alongside tacos and chicken strips, plus it's one of the few places in town where you can get a boxty, an Irish potato pancake dish. And while I've never heard of anyone complaining about the lack of boxty in Phoenix, it's good to know where to go for one if you're desperate.
  For the best Irish food, though, my money is on Skeptical Chymist in North Scottsdale, which offers authentically Irish dishes next to cleverly fusioned ones like the Celtic potstickers, with corned beef, cabbage, and ginger, wrapped in a wonton and fried. Skeptical Chymist, and sister pub Fibber McGee's in Chandler, are Irish-owned (by Corkonians, no less) and your best bet for an authentically Irish experience, from the food to the decor to the brogue behind the bar. The two pubs have claimed a few random sports teams as their own (any North Dakota State University Bisons in the house?), but their biggest following is by far the Seattle Seahawks crew ... maybe because people from rainy places have to stick together? Either way, it keeps the crowd lively year-round.

click to enlarge Mully's Touch of Ireland - MELISSA CAMPANA
Mully's Touch of Ireland
Melissa Campana

When you inevitably wake up with a sore head on March 18, head to Mully’s Touch of Ireland in Old Town Scottsdale. Mully’s is filled with all things Irish – from Aran sweaters and Belleek pottery to cheeky bumper stickers and Claddagh rings – but you want the cooler that’s filled with to the brim with rashers and sausages. If there is one thing I learned growing up, it’s that a full Irish breakfast will cure whatever ails you, and that includes a St. Paddy’s Day hangover.

Mully’s owners, Frank Morrall and Nancy Mulherorn-Morrall, keep the shop well-stocked with Irish sundries that are hard-to-impossible to find elsewhere in Phoenix. If the words Bisto, Barry’s, or Tayto mean anything to you, this is the place to get your fix. Frank and Nancy usually make a couple of trips a year to the Old Sod for everything from wine gums to Cadbury's Roses at Christmas time ... I'm not sure how they get past customs with all that loot, but it's probably better not to ask. Bonus: The couple plans to open a second shop in Prescott in just a few weeks.

There is a lesser-known effect than many people have been known to experience the day after St. Patrick’s Day: The letdown that comes with knowing it will be 364 days until the next one. But just as Scrooge vowed to keep Christmas in his heart the whole year through, you, too, can celebrate what it means to be Irish year-round. And really, you should. Because while St. Paddy’s Day tends to be an excuse for glittery green debauchery (not that there’s anything wrong with that), what it means to be Irish actually has little to do with the shenanigans you see on March 17.

click to enlarge Barry's and more - MELISSA CAMPANA
Barry's and more
Melissa Campana
The tiny island of Ireland has produced a disproportionate number of playwrights, poets, and Pulitzer Prize winners, and its people are as well known for their deep-seated respect for the dead as for their rich sense of humor.

The Irish Cultural Center, which added a three-story research library just a few years ago, works hard all year to promote and protect the Irish diaspora in Phoenix. Its Academy of Irish and Celtic Studies offers classes in music, dance, and even Gaelic, and its library is fully equipped with genealogy services and a massive collection of resources. And while St. Patrick’s Day might be “the big dance,” the ICC hosts cultural events and activities throughout the year for Irish people and Irish wannabes alike.

If being Irish in Phoenix makes you feel like a fish out of water, embrace the contradiction. Get yourself a good pair of sunglasses, an aloe plant for burns, and rest assured that Emma Stone and I are working tirelessly to bring incredibly pale skin back in vogue.

As for the rest of you: If your goal on March 17 is good drinks, good music, or good conversation (or better yet, all of the above), just know that wherever you come from, that mission is about as Irish as it gets.

A few PSAs before you go party on St. Patrick's Day (so you don’t sound like a pure gobshite).

Don’t start going on about four-leaf clovers. It’s shamrocks, bro. The whole point is that St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. St. Patrick was a real person, btw, and Ireland’s patron saint – he is credited with bringing Christianity to the country in the fifth century.

No one who is actually Irish talks about what percent Irish they are. Saying you are 75 percent Irish on your mom’s side or that your dad’s grandfather’s godmother was Irish is usually a dead giveaway that you are anything but.

Religion and politics are not off-limits. For most Irish people, if it’s not controversial, why would you bother talking about it to begin with? The Irish flag itself is meant to be a symbol of peace between Catholics (green) and Protestants (orange). But if someone tries to identify your religion based on your whiskey preference (with Jameson, the alleged Catholic whiskey, and Bushmills, the Protestant one), you can tell them to kindly póg mo thóin.

It’s Paddy’s Day. Not Patty’s Day. That is all.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melissa Campana is a freelance writer, stay-at-home mom, and all-around decent human being. She enjoys playdates, cocktails, and playdates that involve cocktails.
Contact: Melissa Campana