Retrospective: Newark’s McGovern’s Tavern- History & Transformation

The history and transformation of a Newark Icon - McGovern's Tavern

As with all Mr. Local History retrospectives, we often update the post when we learn stories and are sent photos from our community. We will continue to expand this piece as information becomes available. The story WII be updated as we learn more about the family and the history. So please come back!!!!

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Frank J. McGovern was born in Swanhnbar, County Cavan, Ireland about 75 miles northwest of Dublin, Ireland, Frank’s journey began as he emigrated from Ireland to NYC, landing in Newark, New Jersey in the 1920s.

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.

“There’s no country in the world that Irish people feel more at home in than 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. 

frank Mcgovern

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. 

Two maps of Newark – One c.1910 showcasing ethnic census info. The 2nd is a ward map of the 5 wards of Newark.

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.

In 19S6, Newark Irish immigrants officials named the corner McGovern Plaza to honor the Irishman for his dedication to Irish-Americans.

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.

Audience Question:
MLH think’s Bill Scully’s wife Maura McGovern Scully would be Frank McGovern’s brother’s daughter right? But records show Frank had only two sisters, Margaret McBrien (Long Island) and Tessie McKieran (Swanlinbar, Ireland) so we’re a bit confused.

Help Mr. LOCAL History Solve the mystery – Waiting for our interview 🙂

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.

“I worked part time here for a number of years. In 1968, Frank McGovern decided to give me the opportunity to buy it. I owned it for almost 35 years then sold it to my nephews. They would be grand nephews of the original owner.
All in the family!”

Bill Scully

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 Scully -Bartender and Irish off the boat. Born on August 14, 1937 in Glenamaddy, Co. Galway Ireland. He married the owners niece Maura McGovern on May 6, 1961. Maura came to America in 1955.

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.

Madam Speaker, I ask that you join our colleagues, the Scullys’ family and friends, the members of the Frank McGovern Association, everyone who has enjoyed a visit to McGovern’s, and me in recognizing the contributions of Bill and Maura Scully.

April 20, 2010 – US House of Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ 9th district-Paterson) to the house chamber.

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.”

McGovern’s Tavern, while not directly impacted, felt all the effects of the July 1967 riots. As it stated at the end of this vignette, it’s the next 50 years where McGovern’s continues to invest in Newark.

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)

Sean McGovern, Mike Nagle, and Pat McGovern are now leading McGovern’s into a new era in Newark’s history. If our calculations are correct, after 43 years at the helm, Billy Scully sold his stake in McGovern’s to his nephews Sean and Pat McGovern along with Mike Nagle (Sean’s brother in law). They took ownership of tavern in April 2001 and immediately hired Bill to tend bar.

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.

History preserved. If you look at this 1964 photo on the left and our 2022 photo on the right, you can see that McGovern’s is still the tavern it was but has expanded to support Newark’s future growth.

McGovern’s Tavern Community Photo Album

Click any image to start the slideshow – Have one to share? Send it to us. Click Here

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.

McGovern’s Community Outreach: the team at McGovern’s Tavern stacking meals. Each week, local restaurants cook thousands of meals for Newark’s low-income families and seniors, and this week is no different. Source:Facebook.

“My mother and father met in the back room,” 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.”

Gerry lenihan – a son of the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark
While we were at McGovern’s we met Maureen Quinn Lavery who shows us her photo of her 1962 Ladies Auxiliary parade participation with the McGovern’s clan. She also met her husband Mark here (we’ve heard this alot.)
This video serves up what is now the historic FORMER McGovern’s Tavern. Today it’s a whole new post renovation experience.
“In God We Trust, All Others Pay!”
And YES, that caricature is Bill Scully!

Additional Information

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.

Newark St. Patrick’s Day Parade Route – And yes a stop at McGovern’s Tavern. Newark’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is the state’s oldest Irish celebration starting back in 1936.
Interactive map – Click Here

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)

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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).

RIP – Frank and Catherine McGovern have their final resting place in Sea Girt, New Jersey, known locally as the “Irish Riviera”.
Frank will always be an Irish legend in Newark, New Jersey.

See also our other Newark icon retrospective:

Additional Stories

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9 Thoughts to “Retrospective: Newark’s McGovern’s Tavern- History & Transformation”

  1. Local History

    Michael J Dobrzelecki
    Story 4- Back in the 1970s, McGoverns’s tiny kitchen was usually manned by an older Irish lady named Mary. Her brogue was so thick, you could cut it with a knife and spread it on Irish soda bread. Now, Mary could be a bit abrupt at times, but that was usually a result of how self-entitled yuppies or other self-absorbed individuals treated her, giving special orders on how they wanted their food prepared – big mistake. She let them have it with both barrels cutting them down to size in a nano-second. The people she liked, however, were treated with TLC. She was especially fond of the Rutgers and NJIT students who frequented McGovern’s to get something to eat as well as drink. I knew that I could get a full dinner there for a measly $3, and with funds being limited during my college years because my father passed away a month before I graduated high school, McGovern’s was a godsend. And when Mary brought me my plate, she always had a kind thing to say, and I felt like she was treating me like I was part of her family – and in a way I was, and so were many other urban college kids in Newark that discovered the wonders of McGovern’s. If there was ever a candidate for “Official Grandmother of McGoverns”, Mary would be the runaway choice, IMHO.

  2. Local History

    Jaynor Diaz
    The fact that the old McGoverns was able to attract people to the bar is a testament to how good it is… because it was not super inviting… new building just works better for attracting people to the bar

  3. Local History

    Arlette Cascella
    I remember McGoverns. Had a job in the Hall of Records downtown. In my 30’s met people from the West Ward, Vailsburg. First time I met anyone who changed their last name to sound more American. Being from the North Ward, didn’t know people that changed their last name. (.lots of Italians)

  4. Local History

    Bob Gonzalez
    What happened at McGoverns stays at McGoverns

  5. Local History

    Roy Persson
    McGovern’s Tavern, on St.Paddy’s day, was a magical, joyful and memorable event.
    Peace and good will to you and all who visited this hallowed establishment.

  6. Local History

    Bobby O’Conchobhair
    I been drinking in there since September 1986 after getting hired as a Newark cop. My parents met there in the 60’s. I unfortunately met my ex there in the 90’s. Have been going there several times a week since 1986 except during the renovation period.

  7. Local History

    Don Hebert
    I remember one St. Paddy’s Day when a mounted police officer rode his horse into the bar area.

  8. Local History

    Michael J Dobrzelecki
    First went to McG’s in 1973 when I started at Rutger’s Newark and joined Tau Delta Phi Fraternity, and have a lot of memories of this fine Irish pub. Here’ a couple: On Wednesday nights back in the 1970s & 1980s, Scully let the St. Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band, headed up then by Pat McGonigal, practice in the back room. Around 11 or 11:15pm the band would march out around the square bar once, then settle in by the kitchen side and do a set of 3 or 4 songs. I’m sure that the sound level well-exceeded the the OSHA recommended 85 dba at 3ft, but nobody was worried about that – the crowd loved the pipes! I used to bring my dates there as a test – some gals loved it – others not so much. If she didn’t love bagpipe music, I’d be looking for another woman shortly thereafter. I brought one pretty gal from work on a regular basis, and she has been my wife for 37 years now. Pat McGonigal played at my wedding.

  9. Michael J Dobrzelecki

    You need to check out “The Deep Inn” acorss the street from East Side HS in the Ironbound for your next topic. The bar used to be Rucki’s Polish Funeral Home, was one of the final 10 candidates for Best Bar in New Jersey before the pandemic and that’s just for starters.

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