Though Ryan’s Daughter has been operating since 1979, there has been a drinking establishment on the corner of East 85th Street and First Avenue since the Prohibition era, when it was a German club. It remained under German ownership through the 1930s and was then officially licensed as “The Old Stream” until the 1970s, when it passed into Irish hands. It was renamed “The Minstrel Boy” in 1974, after the traditional Irish song. In 1979, under new ownership once again, the name changed to Ryan’s Daughter, a reference to the famous 1970 Irish film starring Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles. Throughout this entire period, the spot remained a friendly neighborhood watering hole.
“This is a home for everybody,” Michael “Mick” Mellamphy said. He owns the bar with Jim Gerding, whom he met while working here in the late nineties when it was still owned by Stoney McGurrin. The two men made sure to share this information with me: Though they officially took over in 2011, Stoney is still around and very much involved. While I was speaking to Mick, I was able to witness Stoney’s involvement first-hand when he dropped off a plate of food to Mick, encouraging him to eat during his long bartending shift. “He’s the most interesting guy in the world,” Jim told me. Stoney was born in Ireland and moved to the United States in his teens. He worked at a series of odd jobs, including as a bartender, a cabdriver, and as a truck driver with an African-American partner in the 1960s. “He’s a great storyteller,” Jim added, mentioning that Stoney lives above the bar and essentially acts as a live-in handyman and consultant. “He doesn’t go fishing; he wakes up and goes to work.”
Jim and Mick have tried to keep the bar the same (“We keep it like we found it,” Jim said), and they have been rewarded by meeting people who recognize the bar from years gone by. For example, Mick told me about a regular who was married at the bar back when it was The Old Stream, as well as an elderly woman who lives in the neighborhood whose father used to come to the bar during World War II.
As I talked with the two men, I was surprised to see how busy the bar was, notwithstanding that it was midday on a weekday. Mick said that it was not uncommon to see a crowd that size. He then pointed to a group of nurses who had just gotten off an early shift, and were celebrating as if it was Friday night. Mick said that when he first started out in 1999, there were a lot more construction workers and retirees during the daytime hours. Now, the neighborhood has gotten younger and construction workers are no longer allowed to drink at lunch. “Places that do well are places that appeal to the locals,” he told me, and Ryan’s Daughter certainly fulfills that requirement.
The bar itself is a fun, two-storied collection of eclectic knick-knacks. There are assorted signs from Ireland, a Hoop Fever game in the back, and various advertisements for the “Unofficial Upper East Side Billiards Competition.” My eye was drawn to a shoe repair sign in the back. Jim told me that the bar acquired the sign after hosting a party for a man who used to repair shoes across the street. He had been in the same shop for fifty years, and so when he went out of business, the pub decided to send him off in style. The whole neighborhood turned out, as well as Channel 7 News, and Jim and Mick kept the sign as homage.
Jim led me to the cozier upper level where the bar holds a variety of events, including jazz on Thursday nights, various play readings, and private parties. Ryan’s Daughter tries to appeal to a variety of tastes and demographics. As Jim said, “Whether you’ve lived here your whole life or just got here a week ago, either way, this is your extended living room.”