The spirit of John Joe Somers lives on in Boston’s pubs

I’m new to Boston. I moved here at the beginning of September from a small town in western Connecticut. I’ve always had familial roots in the area, so I’m somewhat familiar with the city. But I feel a new level of appreciation for the spirit of the town and its people, as well as its deep connections to Ireland, after spending a few hours at Hennessy’s Pub for the celebration of the second annual John Joe Somers Day.

The aesthetic of an Irish pub is uniquely mythic. Upon hearing the phrase, the mind conjures flowing spirits, the clinking of glasses, hearty laughter, dancing, pulsating live music, and that distinctively Irish quality of unbridled joy mixed with sweet nostalgia. All of these were present on the evening of Sun., Sept. 17th at Hennessy’s.

The bar was packed with family and friends, adults and children, as well as musicians from the dozen bands that performed throughout the afternoon and evening, all there to fundraise for Cops For Kids With Cancer and to celebrate the life of John Joe Somers, who was born on a farm in Co. Kerry, and came to America “with seventy dollars in his pocket,” according to his son, Sean Somers.

Sean explained how his father, “a musician at heart and a businessman by nature,” worked hard to earn his success. “He was painting houses, he was cleaning chimneys. Some of my earliest recollections of my dad are him coming home covered in soot, from head to toe.”

From humble beginnings, John Joe became one of the most successful pub owners in Boston, managing several establishments, including Mr. Dooley’s, The Green Dragon, Durty Nelly’s, and Hennessy’s. But Sean says he never changed, even after his business accomplishments.

“One of the unique things about my father was he had the ability to stay humble throughout his successes,” said Sean. “He would talk to a stockbroker the same way he’d talk to a guy who stocked shelves. That takes a unique person, to make you feel engaged, to make you feel like you have a transparency, that you could tell him anything, and that you were important. That was the kind of man John Joe Somers was.”

During a break in the music, Sean gave a short speech eulogizing his father, who passed away in 2015. He spoke to this spirit of kinship, an air of camaraderie and warmth that John Joe instilled in the pubs he opened.

“He created atmospheres where people could connect,” Sean said. “In Mr. Dooley’s there is no television. He did that so you could come in and sit down and talk to the guy next to you. Instead of being sucked up into your iPhone or iPad or TV or sports, he wanted people to connect. And if anything, with my father’s legacy, he’s left places where you can come and connect. You can walk in a stranger and walk out with friends.”

John Joe’s legacy was tangible that night at Hennessy’s, where Sean has taken the torch and continued to bear it in his dad’s name. I was an outsider with no idea what the day was about, and yet I left the celebration with a connection to the people around me and feeling as if I had known John Joe himself. Which is what, Sean said, his father would have wanted.

John Joe’s story is an archetypically American one, about an immigrant who, through hard work, a song, and a dream, made an immeasurably positive impact on his community. I’m glad to learn and share his story, and I’m honored to have been welcomed to Boston by a Somers pub. I wish the same experience for all newcomers to Boston, or newcomers to our country, for that matter: that they be treated the way John Joe Somers would have treated them.

Toward the end of Sean’s tribute, his voice began to choke with emotion. His tone became more melodic, his phrases more lyrical, and he slipped into what was almost an Irish brogue. If I had known him, maybe I’d have written that he sounded a lot like his father.

“...and every note you hear strummed today, from the bass guitar to the rebel drum, his voice is in those notes,” Sean intoned. “His voice is behind the guitar, behind the voices singin’ the song; that’s my father. That’s John Joe. So if you listen hard enough folks, he’s in the music, he’s in the song. Raise it up lads, let’s have a bit of craic and have some fun!”