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Frank McGovern opened his tavern in 1936 selecting 58 New Street right in the central ward of downtown Newark. Whether by coincidence or not, McGovern’s also opened the around the same time the Newark’s St. Patrick’s Day parade was reborn (Sunday, March 15, 1936) after a long hiatias. Call it the luck of the Irish as McGovern’s Tavern has not only survived and grown, it stands today as one of New Jersey’s oldest and most celebrated Irish pubs. Founded on the tradition of giving your patrons a generous portion of hope, hospitality and happiness, the pub thrived in the midst of the post-depression era. In this retrospective there are ups and downs, close calls and love stories, but the once two door entrance is now part of Newark’s transformation. The Mr. Local History Project opens these doors and welcomes you to the history of McGovern’s Tavern in Newark, New Jersey.
The Beginnings – Irish Flock to America and Newark, New Jersey
Our story has to start with the Irish. Irish immigration is strongly linked to Jersey. While the Irish have been coming to American for centuries, we wanted to introduce the very first immigrant to come from Ireland through Ellis Island was a seventeen-year-old Irish girl. On December 20, 1891, Annie Moore, along with her two brothers, departed from Queenstown,County Cork, Ireland and set sail aboard the steamship Nevada. This young lass was the first of the 12 million who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and started their American stories at Ellis Island in New York City.
Today, more than 15 percent of Jersey residents, or about 1.3 million people, claim at least partial Irish ancestry. So many Irish laborers settled north of Newark in the 1760s the area was called “Irishtown.” A century later—after an influx of Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine—part of Newark’s Ironbound section was dubbed “Little Ireland”.
Besides serving as a place for ‘refreshments’ and as a social club, McGovern’s Tavern in the late 1930’s was also a place of refuge for the Irish born who came to America. Many a man just in from Ellis Island and other ports of entry slept on the pool tables in the back room at McGovern’s. No one was ever turned away.
The West Ward of Newark, New Jersey, (MAP) once a predominantly an Irish, Polish, and Ukrainian neighborhood includes Vailsburg, Ivy Hill, West Side, Fairmount and Lower Roseville. The area is now home to neighborhoods composed primarily of Latinos, African Americans, and Caribbean Americans as many of the Irish Americans moved outside Newark to north, west, and south Jersey, but there are many that still remain.
Founders Jimmy Howard & Frank J. McGovern
Born in 1902 in Swanhnbar, County Cavan, Ireland about 75 miles northwest of Dublin, Ireland, Frank J. McGovern emigrated to Newark in the 1920s. Taking his first job as a construction worker, he helped to build Port Newark and Newark International Airport. Then in 1935, Frank McGovern, working at a Ford assembly plant, bought the struggling bar in 1936, during the Depression along with his friend and business associate Jimmy (James) Howard. James Patrick Howard most likely met Frank in Newark as Jim was originally from Nurney Demense, County Kildare, Ireland about an hour southwest of Dublin, Ireland.
As you enter McGovern’s you feel at home immediately. It’s like a history lesson on the walls telling stories of the people and events that have made Newark what it is. It tells The history of the Irish-Americans who, after fleeing hunger, poverty and oppression, helped build Newark. McGovern’s doors were always open.
Frank McGovern and Bill Scully
One of those new arrivals to Frank McGovern’s door in 1958 was William “Bill” Scully, who began working there at 20 years old after he hopped off the steamship Sylvania over at Port 92 in New York City. The RMS Sylvania was one of four lines of the Saxonia class cruise ships, an ocean liner built in 1957 by John Brown & Co (Clydebank), in Glasgow, for the United Kingdom-based shipping company Cunard Line. Sylvania was the last Cunard Line vessel built specifically for transatlantic crossings. The 608′ steamship’s passenger accommodations were divided into just two classes, first and tourist, with the tourist class occupying the majority of the ship. The typical voyage left from Southampton, England to New York City. Guessing Billy was tourist class.
Billy of Galway, Ireland landed in America on Valentine’s Day, Friday, February 14, 1958. That might have been a premonition, as three years after he arrived in Newark and McGovern’s Tavern, Scully met, fell in love, married the boss’ niece Maura McGovern in 1961 and became indispensable to the bar. As they say, the rest was history.
The Billy Scully Era (1968 – 2001)
Bill Scully would continue the McGovern traditions as steward of the pour and everything Irish. For the next 35 years, Scully kept the lights on, the doors open, and continued to provide a consistent Irish flare to the Newark community continuing to be a favorite of the Newark firefighters, police, and the area college community.
On July 10, 1968, Frank sold the tavern to Billy & Maura Scully and Frank and his wife Catherine retired to Manasquan Shores (Wall Township), New Jersey. Looking back at Frank’s life, it was an inspirational support to everything Irish. McGovern was the grand marshal in I960, and founder of Newark’s St Patrick’s Day Parade Committee. McGovern was also the founder of the Frank McGovern Association which helped young Irish immigrants establish themselves in New Jersey. McGovern also was a member of the Cryan Association, Giblin, and Independent Irish ethnic societies, and a member of the Newark Tavern Owners Association along with the New Jersey Liquor Dealers Association.
Make no mistake, keeping the bar functioning in a changing Newark was not easy for Scully. Many credit Bill’s appreciation to Newark’s finest and bravest and reaching out to the college communities for keeping the bar open as a vital gathering spot for the locals. Spread across the bar are memories of fallen heros, firefighter helmets and police photos that shares the history of the Irish commitment to law enforcement and fire prevention in Newark. In 2010, Scully was honored by NJ Representative Bill Pascrell to the United States House of Representatives.
Bill worked for Prudential, joined the Army, and then came back to Newark to support the Irish community including; the Independent Irish, the Peter Smith School of Irish dancing, The Giblin Association, The Cryan Association, The Shillelagh Club, The Irish American Association of the Oranges, Project Children, the Emerald Society, the F.O.P. Local #12, and the Sheriff’s Department P.B.A.. Maura was honored as the Deputy Grand Marshal of the Newark Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in 1971. And we can’t forget Bill and Maura are the Standard Bearers of the Frank McGovern Association.
Newark’s Changing Dynamic
Over the years, Scully admits that the Newark demographics were changing. “Rutgers was only at that time a couple of small buildings; NJIT was the same. We didn’t even have Essex County College. That’s probably the biggest change I would think,” said Scully. “If you look at the campuses they have now compared to then, the chances are that everything will get bigger. They’re gonna have to get some parking though.”
New Street was also just off the path of the 1967 Newark riots and McGovern’s survived. After the riots set fire to the hopes of many businesses in the area. The turmoil of that summer took its toll on Frank McGovern. After the riots set fire to the hopes of many businesses in the area, Frank decided in 1968 to sell to his longtime associate Bill Scully who was only 30 at the time.
Honoring the Past – Building the Future (2001 – Present)
The three closed the bar in 2018 for a year and a half for expansions and renovations to secure the business’s future into the 21st century.
After closing the doors in June 2018 for the first time in 82 years, they got to work to take McGovern’s Tavern on a expansive journey. For the next 16 months that original footprint grew to what may be one of the most impressive transformations in Newark bar history.
McGovern’s Tavern Community Photo Album
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Closed for renovations in June 2018 for the first time in it’s 82 year history, McGovern’s finally re-opened for business in November 2019. Bill Scully,the Irish immigrant, teller of tales, well of wit, unofficial Mayor of Newark, former owner and longtime bartender at McGovern’s Tavern, was back doing his job with speed, skill and grace on the day the beloved bar reopened.
A bit of bad luck hit the tavern when they reopened in late 2019, no one knew that a worldwide pandemic would hit America. And it did. But now they are ready for the future.
”This is a point upon which generations can agree, each group taking solace in the enduring qualities of Newark’s McGovern’s Tavern. Make no mistake – “There’s no country in the world that Irish people feel more at home in than America. McGovern’s is an important part of the James Street Commons Historic District, Newark’s downtown neighborhood. Voted one of the best bars in America by Esquire Magazine in 2011, no one denies that McGovern’s is a Newark landmark and a local treasure.
Newark is one of the oldest cities in the United States. Its location at the mouth of the Passaic River has made the city’s waterfront an integral part of the Port of New York and New Jersey. Newark was granted a royal charter on April 27, 1713. It was incorporated on February 21, 1798,The name of the city is thought to derive from Newark-on-Trent, England. Nicknamed “Brick City,” the Central Ward forms the present-day heart of Newark, and includes 26 public schools, two police precincts, including headquarters, four firehouses, and one branch library.
The first Newark St. Patrick’s Day parade was held on March 15, 1936 after a long hiatus. The actual first parade was March 17, 1834. The revived parade’s first Grand Marshal was Irishman and former Mayor of Newark, Charles P. Gillen. The parade boasted a line of march with nearly 30,000 as a squadron of planes roared overhead. The Newark parade has continued since 1936 on a yearly basis and was only cancelled three times: WW2 (1943-1946), a snowstorm in the late 1960s, and COVID-19 (2020-2021). It is the oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade in New Jersey. The largest and oldest of them all is the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, first held in 1762. But New Jersey holds the title of having the most St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States (26 this year).
McGovern’s Tavern, 58-60 New Street, Newark, (973) 643-3984. – Open 6 days a week (Closed Sundays)
- Directions (About 8 blocks north of “The Rock” Pru Center)
- McGovern’s website
- The Frank McGovern Association
- Ironbound Irish Association
- McGovern’s, A Newark Landmark (Historical and Pictorial narrative) by Victor L. Dupras
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Frank J. McGovern died on Saturday, November 18, 1989 at the age of 87. His wife Catherine Martin passed in 1981 at the age of 81. Frank had two sisters, Margaret McBrien (Long Island) and Tessie McKieran (Swanlinbar, Ireland).
See also our other Newark icon retrospective:
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