Irish pubs are the stalwarts of Chicago’s drinking scene. Easily found in many parts of town, these public houses are an abode of questionably-authentic Irish drinks and décor. Only some historic Irish pubs really love up to the name, though. So we tracked down five authentically historic pubs filled with craic. The lovely dives we’ve rustled up are tied to the lively, tumultuous history of Irish Chicago. The sorts of places where working people caroused, politicians made deals over pints, and gangsters ruled the roost from the shadows.
Bridgeport is one of a few South Side pockets of Irish heritage and Shinnick’s is a historic bar right at its heart. In fact, this neighborhood staple may be the oldest of the historic Irish pubs in Chicago ever since the nearby Schaller’s Pump closed. The tavern reputedly dates all the way back to the 1890s and has been in the Shinnick family since 1938. The clan’s third generation run the joint today.
The pub is located in a brick building that clearly dates back to the 19th century. It sits at the corner of 38th and Union, just a few blocks from the (in)famous Hamburg Athletic Club where Daley I started his political career. on a leafy block that feels quintessentially Bridgeport. It’s political machine got its start. The gorgeous wooden back bar, made by the famous Brunswick company, is the pub’s pièce de résistance. They believe it may have been exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair. I couldn’t take my eyes off of its ornate carvings when I visited on our Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour.
Okay, so a bar that opened in 1999 isn’t as historic as one that was operating a century prior. What Chief O’Neill’s lacks in longevity it makes up for in authenticity. Located on Elston in Avondale, it’s an oasis of Irish pub goodness in a desert of big box shopping.
The pub is famed for its authentic Irish music performances, vexing trivia night, and hugely popular beer garden. I once visited Chief O’Neill’s on a night of a howling December snowstorm. Coming inside, the great drinks and live Irish fiddle music utterly transported me to the old country. I was sort of shocked to remember there was a Midwestern winter outside upon departing.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the interior of carved and varnished wood, stained glass windows, roaring fireplace, and Gaelic designs on the ceiling felt cozy and familiar enough to stay forever. Plus, their menu of Irish faves like Galway Bay mussels and curry chips is out of sight.
The Kerryman may have the richest and craziest legacy of these historic Irish pubs in Chicago. Located at Clark and Erie in River North, you’d be forgiven for thinking this lavishly landscaped spot was a tourist trap ala Portillo’s or Hard Rock Cafe. But you’d be wrong! The Kerryman traces its history back to bars that were once the haven of Irish gangsters, strippers, lesbians, gay men, and punk rockers, though, sadly, not all at the same time.
The building itself is clearly a remnant of the immediate post-fire building boom. Its classical façade with a cornice and arched windows with keystones are a perfect example of Chicago’s Italianate architecture. Hard as it is to imagine today, buildings like this dominated the city at the end of the 19th century.
This building first gained notoriety when it was known as McGovern’s Saloon during the heyday of the Chicago gangster. Dion O’Banion and Bugs Moran, the bosses of the North Side Irish gang, used this tavern as their home base in the neighborhood. A generation later the bar was converted into the city’s largest strip club, the Liberty Inn. When that closed, it became a succession of lesbian and gay bars during the ’60s and ’70s before reopening as O’Banion’s. Under that name, you would come here to don your mohawk and piercings for the premier punk rock club in Chicago. Through the ’80s, punk bands played here including the Dead Kennedys, Naked Raygun and Husker Du.
Today, the Kerryman is a nice, cleaned-up Irish pub. But, OH MY GOD, that history. I’m pretty mad that it was too far out of the way to be a stop on our Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour.
Hinky Dink’s Pub
Hinky Dink’s is one of many historic Irish pubs in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood, a southwest side neighborhood. Mount Greenwood is literally one of the most Irish neighborhoods in the country. Like nearby Beverly, this Chicago neighborhood is an Irish-American bastion of the city’s Far South Side. The neighborhood is typified by its huge number of Chicago police officers, fire fighters, the city’s only agricultural high school, and a history of racial tension.
Hinky Dink’s is the very definition of an Irish dive. It occupies a no-frills red brick building on 111th street. It could’ve been a warehouse or factory if it hadn’t been a watering hole. Expect a Kelly green awning, Chicago flags, some White Sox gear, and you’re home. Inside, you’re sure to find a congregation of chatting locals around the bar. The book “Finding Your Chicago Irish” says those locals are always up for some “good craic and brew.”
The pub is named after Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, a legendarily corrupt alderman from the early 20th century. He and “Bathhouse” John Coughlin were “Lords of the Levee,” running the city’s notorious red light district. They reveled in their notoriety and corruption. Which makes this name feel like an odd choice for a bar in a police and firefighters’ neighborhood.
The Fifth Province
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the wrong spot upon arriving at the Fifth Province. The building looks less like a pub and more like a high school. That’s because the Fifth Province, the last on our list of historic Irish pubs in Chicago, is just one segment of the humungous Irish American Heritage Center.
Located in the Irving Park neighborhood, the IAHC occupied a massive collegiate Tudor Gothic building from the 1920s. It once housed a CPS high school and City Colleges of Chicago campus. The Irish Heritage Society purchased it in 1987 and turned it onto a one-stop spot for Irish history and culture in Chicago. The sprawling structure includes classrooms, a banquet hall, a library, museum and a pretty gigantic theater. In fact I once watched my best friend Travis play a cowboy on that stage.
The Fifth Province manages to pull off feeling like a cozy Irish pub despite, you know, this crazy location. Traditional Celtic designs adorn the walls and a huge stone fireplace beckons. My favorite part of the experience is the repurposed chalk boards on the bartop. If you’d like a sneak peek, Conan O’Brien did a segment here several years ago.
Éirinn go Brách!
– Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Content Manager and Tour Guide
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In business since 2010, Chicago Detours is a passionate team of educators, historians and storytellers. We applied a decade of experience as one of Chicago’s top-rated tour companies to become a virtual event company in 2020. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact on live virtual events of Chicago history, architecture and culture.