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Starry Plough Celebrates Three Decades

Tuesday October 14, 2003

Thirty years after a bunch of politically charged Irish-music-loving dreamers opened South Berkeley’s Starry Plough, Irish music night can still draw just about anyone from around town. 

Among those gathered at the bar Sunday were a plumber who used to rock the house in the 70s, an unemployed technology professional, a UC Berkeley professor and some heavily tattooed university students, all of whom stopped talking the moment a woman of Japanese descent rose from to sing the famous Emerald Isle ballad “The Sally Gardens.” 

While some old timers lamented that their bar had lost some of its spunk, everyone agreed it was still a great place to hang out. 

“This place always had a living room feel,” said Paul, who, like several other in attendance Sunday night, had worked as a voluntary bartender during the pub’s early years when profits took a back seat to politics. 

This week, the Starry Plough celebrates a wild 30 years at the heart of Berkeley’s political and musical scenes. To understand what the pub has meant to its founders and first patrons, one must understand the era that reared it. 

“1973 was a hearty year for political stuff,” said Kevin Cadogan, who belonged to the cooperative that ran the bar until 1980. “You had the fight for civil rights in Northern Ireland, the anti-war movement, Pinochet in Chile. We started this as a way of promoting Irish music and politics.” 

The early days of the bar oozed with Irish Republican patriotism, old timers said. The only Irish bar in Berkeley at the time, the Plough hosted Republican Club meetings and collected money in wine bottles to send to the IRA and families of Irish Catholic prisoners in British jails. Small wonder, since one of the pub’s founders was the grandson of Irish Nationalist James Connolly, killed by English troops in the 1916 Easter Uprising and whose famous statement on Irish independence hangs on the pub’s wall. 

The Starry Plough, though, is a bit of a chameleon, at times a blue collar neighborhood bar, rock venue and Irish folk house. A reporter asking patrons about the pub sometimes wonders if they are talking about the same place. 

For Eoghain M’Bean, a black man and a professor of Gaelic Studies and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, the music and the camaraderie have kept him coming since he first walked through the door in 1973 to find six people gathered around the stage listening to a performance of the Chieftains, now a famous Irish band. “There were zero blacks in here in 1973 except for me,” said M’Bean, who grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Irish and Scottish folk music reigned supreme over American rock and roll.  

M’Bean started playing and dancing with local musicians, using his connections at UC Berkeley to bring in foreign music students to study under local music phenom Kevin Keegan. “This bar has welcomed everyone,” he said. “It has always been willing to accept everyone from the community.” 

Rick Purcell loved a different Starry Plough. “This place used to roar,” the burly plumber said as he faced the stage where in the mid-70s he played base guitar with the band Natural Grit. He recalled happy hours when the bar was filled with plumbers, carpenters and other craftsmen networking about their trades. 

In the early years, Purcell said, late nights were for partying, not politics. “We ruled this place,” he said, recalling nights when regulars stayed past the 2 p.m. closing time to suckle on beer taps while women danced naked on the bar. 

The uproarious party days didn’t last long though. In 1980 with the unwieldy collective falling apart, Mehrdad Naima and Rose Hughes, a daughter of two of the original collective members, bought the pub. Gone were the volunteer bartenders and other remnants of the wild 70s, but the couple has remained committed to providing a place for self expression and Irish music. 

“We’ve been open to everybody,” said Naima. “If you come with a tie you’re welcome. If you come with a hole in your shirt, you’re welcome.” 

One of the pub’s biggest attractions is a Wednesday night poetry slam where poets come from as far away as Santa Cruz to compete against the gladiators of the Bay Area’s spoken word scene. While the slam attracts a predominantly younger crowd than the Sunday night Irish music gathering, old timers say the energy on Wednesday reminds them of the pub’s early days. “The poetry slam is an amazing new development,” said Cadogan. “That’s the kind of energy there used to be.” 

As the pub and Berkeley have changed, politics has taken a back seat at the Starry Plough. “I haven’t seen any political activism here,” said Chad Goerzen who was so impressed by the Irish music when he came last year that he bought a flute and now plays along.  

The pub’s walls are a testament to political vigor grown tame. Posters call for an end to the U.S. air bombardment over Southeast Asia, a united Ireland, and the overthrow of Chilean Dictator Agusto Pinochet. Anyone looking them over would be led to believe that political activism ceased with the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua.  

“Times have changed, the political struggle in Northern Ireland has changed. It’s a little less extraordinary, but it’s still a great Irish pub,” Paul said. 

But for a new generation of residents the pub remains a vibrant treasure. “This is my only bar,” said Susan Mashiyama, the woman who silenced the pub with her singing. Mashiyama, a UC Berkeley graduate student, came to Irish music night five years ago and was so entranced, she dusted off the violin she hadn’t played since middle school and started studying Irish music. 

“They let me play right away even though I couldn’t quite keep up,” she said. “I don’t like bars in general, but this place is so nice.” 

In celebration of the pub’s 30th anniversary, all shows this week are free. In addition to Tuesday’s open mic night and Wednesday’s poetry slam, the pub will host free music all weekend. See the Arts Calendar on Page Nine for details.