The following story appeared in The Boston Globe on Aug. 23, 1994.
Dick McDonough, Jamaica Plain resident and literary agent, was on the phone with a New York editor who was planning to meet him in Boston. Where did she wish to have lunch?
”Doyle’s,” she said. “Please.”
Not the Ritz. Not Anthony’s Pier Four. Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, described by one of its regulars, Danny McLean, as a place that serves “a nice meal. Everything on the menu is under $ 10. We’re not gourmet people. The price is right. That’s all.”
Doyle’s Cafe was once a joint not unfamiliar to combinations of jabs and hooks. It is now neutral territory, a meeting place for whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians; for pols of every stripe; for straights and gays; for local elbow-benders at the bar and policy wonks in the no-smoking room; for law-enforcement types and those they have put away for a spell; for doers and dreamers.
But more than all that, it is the reflection of three Boston boys. Jerry, Eddie and Billy Burke are third-generation Irish-Americans who grew up in the neighborhood and understood and responded to how it and the city were changing. Their story is in large part the story of how Boston has changed in the last half-century from an insular town consumed by a history of Yankee-Irish conflict to a more cosmopolitan city, still beset by the tensions of race and class, but coming to terms with the new world.
As Marie Turley, a transplanted New Yorker and one of the brothers’ friends and customers, says, “Their story is about family. It’s about tradition. It’s about some universal things.”
On one wall of Doyle’s Cafe is a framed copy of a dead newspaper’s account of a dead politician, James Michael Curley. It is the Nov. 14, 1958, Boston American, reporting on 50,000 mourning at Curley’s bier. From across the room comes the rapid-fire Spanish of some customers. Doyle’s bridges the old and new Boston.
”Doyle’s is to Cambridge and New York City what Cheers was to Cleveland,” says McDonough. “It’s a hip place.”
And unlike Cheers, this saloon is real. You can’t find it on the TV. You have to go to the corner of Washington and Williams streets.
On the outside is a patchwork of saloon architecture, some of it of fairly recent vintage and some of it from 1882. Inside are the Burke brothers, each with a specialty, who manage to work together without killing one another and who often wonder out loud how they came to such good fortune.
Technically, Eddie, 51, who lives in the Burke family home on Myrtle Street in Jamaica Plain, is the owner and the nighttime host; Jerry, 53, of Canton, is the food manager and host during the day; and Billy, 46, of Quincy, is the drinks manager and chief bartender. The saloon business being what it is, each brother has done all the jobs, but each gives the others room to maneuver. Brothers who don’t do that don’t remain brothers. Businessmen who don’t do that end up in court. Saloonkeepers who don’t do that begin drinking up the profits.
”When my mother was dying,” Jerry says, “she called us to her bed and said, ‘It’s nice to see how all you kids get along together. But I’ll tell you now, if I hear of any of you fighting, I’ll come back out of my grave and haunt you.’ Well, that said it, pure and simple. We don’t have any strife here.”
Richie Harris, a neighborhood leader and a longtime pal of the Burkes, says, “If they were all alike, it’d be awful. You wouldn’t be able to get a drink in there. They’d all be fighting. But they all do their jobs well.”
Eddie, his brothers and others say, is the brains behind the place. He is at once garrulous and reticent, depending on how much he feels like revealing. From the time he was a kid, Jerry says, Eddie had a mind for “the arithmetic” of business.
”Eddie’s smart,” says Harris. “He keeps his mouth shut and takes everything in and then makes a decision. He’ll tell you as much as he wants you to know.”
Jerry, who majored in history in college, is a political junkie who has carefully culled and posted on the saloon walls photos and news stories of Boston’s and Ireland’s political legends. To the undying amusement of his brothers, Jerry will take a lunch break by hiking through the Forest Hills Cemetery, where he has become a self-appointed tour guide on pols, writers and assorted characters of ages past.
Billy comes off as the tough guy, the one on whose shoulders all the gritty details of bartending must fall. But he is the same guy who took the time and trouble to talk a bereaved customer through the red tape of how one tidies up the affairs of a late parent. And his grin belies the image.
The joint has become a success beyond the brothers’ dreams. One recent night, US Sen. John Kerry and his aides were in one booth with some community activists, as local pols came by to pay respect. Earlier, Eddie Jesser, a confidant of Mayor Menino, was chewing the fat with his close friend, former state Sen. Joe Timilty. In another corner, state Sen. Paul White, a Dorchester Democrat, had just come in with a bevy of political pals after having knocked on doors and rung bells for his reelection effort.
A few feet from them were a handful of off-duty Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association members, taking a night to themselves and even belting out a number, thereby confirming a general feeling in the bar that a singing cop might be more frightening to a criminal than one with a drawn service revolver.
As local pols trooped by, Kerry, eating fried fish, looked up, grinned and said, “This is not a political bar or anything like that, is it?”
It is at least that. Doyle’s has grown from a typical corner joint to an institution, from a place with five employees when Eddie bought it in 1971 to one with 80.
”When I started this,” says Eddie between puffs of a thin Jamaican cigar, “I didn’t expect that John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Ray Flynn, Tom Menino would be coming in. Flynn once brought Clinton in here for Sunday brunch.”
He leans back in a chair next to a window looking out on Washington Street - the shadows of the elevated T tracks now a memory - and to a park used by Boston English High School, takes another puff and laughs, “Saloonkeeper to the world!” and then pauses and grunts, “My father sold peanuts, for Chrissakes.”
Peanuts, pols and pachyderms
By the time City Councilor James Michael Curley was running for Congress in 1910, the Boston Irish were well past the worst of the challenges they had experienced: first, in making it across the ocean; later, in surviving tenements, cholera and crime; and, finally, in gaining a foothold in both the public and private sectors.
William J. Burke, formerly of the village of Clooneen, was married four years to the former Margaret Hawkins, of Norwood, and was becoming a person to be reckoned with in Jamaica Plain. He had taken over the faltering Division 40 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, had increased its membership by 500 percent and put it in the black.
In Curley, who would later serve as mayor four times and governor once, he saw a man on the move, and in 1910 he ran a smoker for him. Curley would remember. Burke ran a bar at Washington and Rossmore streets. With Prohibition, the bar closed, and Burke opened a “candy store,” which never seemed to feature much candy. It was a front for wholesale booze, which Burke supplied to, among others, F. J. Doyle, who had taken over the joint at the corner of Washington and Williams. In time, the Doyle family would remember.
After a few years of Prohibition, Burke knew he needed something more reliable. He bid for the refectory and concessions at the Franklin Park Zoo. He was not favored until Mayor Curley stepped in. After William died in 1939, his son John took over the operation; John’s three sons and two daughters would later come to help him. In all, the Burke family would run the concessions for a half-century.
”My old man,” recalls Jerry, the oldest of the three brothers, “it would take him two days at Christmas time to bring presents to all the inspectors, the city councilors, the cops. They were bastards in those days. He said to me once, ‘Gerard, I have two back pockets, one for my money, and one for my pride.’ You had to eat a lot of crow back then.”
Eddie, the middle brother, looks around his saloon and says, “That’s why I ended up here. When we had the zoo, my old man had to pay heed to the MDC police, the Boston police, the state reps, city councilors, because it was a contract. My poor old man, sitting there, trying to make a buck, with five kids, a dog, a cat, his brother-in-law. I said, ‘Someday, I’ll have my own little joint.’ “
John Burke, the “smart and aggressive” captain of Jamaica Plain High School’s district champion football team of 1934-35, fell in love with Mary Callahan, whose dad, Eddie (Smiler) Callahan, was the pro at the Franklin Park Golf Course. Her uncle, Timothy, was a well-connected lawyer, tight with Curley and both John I. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, former mayor and maternal grandfather of the Kennedy clan, and Joe Kennedy.
John and Mary inherited William Burke’s home on Myrtle Street next door to where a future mayor, John Collins and his wife, Mary, would live. There they raised three sons and two daughters, Helen and Frances. College was an option, but work at the concession stands was a required rite of passage.
”I was getting close to 14,” Jerry remembers. “It was a bitterly cold Sunday. My father and I were driving through the intersection of Green and Washington, and out of the blue, he says to me, ‘If you sold me something for 35 cents, and I gave you a dollar, how much change would I get back?’
”I said, ‘What are you asking me that for?’
” ‘Because you are going to help open up the lion house stand today.’
”We were closed for the season. The stand had three shutters, and we opened it for one day, maybe to make a hundred bucks with some hot chocolate and some souvenirs. That was my first day at work. I learned a lot working there.”
Jerry Burke learned well. Unlike his brothers, he got a college degree and then a law degree, but the lessons that stuck were those he picked up at the concession stands and when he ran unsuccessfully in 1966 for state representative.
”Jerry can charm any customer who comes in,” says Paul Reid, a writer and state employee and an addict to Doyle’s Reuben sandwiches. “He zeroes right in on your interest whether he knows you or not. He’ll find some anecdote on baseball, Boston history, church history. Jerry will laugh at anything, but he’ll never crack a joke at anyone’s expense.”
Down in the cellar of Doyle’s, Billy Burke is flushing out the lines that run from the barrels of beer up through the ceiling and into the bar itself. The room is a jungle of intravenous-like wires, something between an intensive care unit and Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Every second Wednesday, Billy cleans out 26 lines, one for cider, the rest for beer.
Billy is the youngest brother. John and Mary Burke raised three big boys, each with a handshake that can crush a normal person’s fingers, but Billy is the most trim and the most athletic. As a senior at Jamaica Plain High School in 1967, he was captain of the hockey team, which lost every game but one.
This he recalls with a smile, this grin that creeps across his face, often in expectation of a good story.
At first glance he seems to be a dour guy, but he is as facile with self-deprecation as his brothers.
”I think I went to college,” he says one day.
He thinks he went?
”Yeah, six weeks at Northeastern. Economics was a required course. Iictly a neighborhood joint then, drawing mostly daytime business from the MBTA yards and the Boston Gas Co.
”They were rough,” Harris recalls. “They’d get a couple of pops in them, and watch out. I seen these half-dozen guys in a booth, and they’re yabba do, yabba do, and I says, ‘These guys are gonna get in a fight.’
”Sure enough, one big guy belted a little guy, who slid under the table. I jump the bar and try to break it up, but it’s like walking into a buzzsaw, because they’re all friends, and I’m the outsider.
”Now, I didn’t know much about Billy Burke. But before I went at it, there’s Billy right there, and we’re shoulder to shoulder. We got ‘em by the front door, and I got a couple of them, and he’s got a couple of them, and they’re swinging at us. I look up and all I see is a big fist heading my way, and I figure I’ve had it. All of a sudden, another big fist comes out from behind me and hits the guy. My brother Al had just come in.
”So now we’re having a donnybrook out on the street, three of us against six of them.” Richie Harris pauses and smirks. “We licked ‘em.”
When William Burke needed a favor, Jim Curley remembered him. When his grandson, Eddie, was looking to make his own way, F. J. Doyle and his nephew Billy remembered the Burkes.
Eddie Burke had always wanted to run a bar. And he was always thinking, always trying to figure the angles. “When he was working for our old man, he would come up with new ways of doing things,” says Jerry. “He bought a horse, and we gave pony rides in front of the refectory. He made a mobile concession stand that we took to events with coffee, pastry, tonic and hot dogs.”
Eddie had gone in with partners to buy the Stag, a well-worn neighborhood joint on Washington Street, close to Egleston Square. The Stag was still attracting the guys who had grown up around there, the guys who liked a shot and a beer, but Eddie didn’t see a future in it, and he wanted his own place.
One day in 1971, he dropped into Doyle’s for a beer. F. J. Doyle, 90, and his nephew Billy, 69, were running the place - essentially one room with a bar and a small kitchen, all attached to a small store.
”What are you doing, Eddie?” Billy Doyle asked.
”Nothin’,” Eddie answered.
”Why don’t you buy this bar?” Billy asked.
And so a second-generation Doyle and third-generation Burke began negotiating. The continuum of Boston Irish history was at work, but it was slowly eroding. Jamaica Plain, long a melting pot of white ethnics, was changing in both race and class.
Blacks and Latinos were moving into the affordable apartments; baby boomers who couldn’t afford Cambridge or Beacon Hill were buying up the more expensive properties. Slowly, the clientele at Doyle’s was reflecting the neighborhood, mirroring the changes sweeping the city itself.
When it was a working-stiff bar, one special meal a day - meatloaf, corned beef and cabbage, fish on Fridays - was fine. “But people who were coming in wanted more than a choice of one meal a day,” says Eddie.
So, Eddie expanded. He began planning what would become two additional rooms, learned about whole wheat pizza and shark meat and, in one of the more traumatic decisions a saloonkeeper can make, he got rid of the Budweiser.
”It was one of the smartest things we ever did,” Jerry says now. “It attracts a bad element. Once in a while, I’ll see one of the guys who used to hang around here, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while,’ and he’ll say, ‘You stopped the Budweiser,’ and I’ll say to myself, ‘Thank Jesus.’ “
So the troublemakers were slowly leaving for other watering holes, and the boomers, attracted by a neighborhood bar that actually welcomed them, were coming in to join the regulars. But something was missing.
Eddie had Billy behind the bar, but he had to fulfill family destiny. He needed Jerry, who was then working in the Flynn administration. Eddie had contributed to Ray Flynn, and when Flynn asked if he could do anything for him, Eddie saw his chance. “Get rid of my brother,” he said. “I want him down here.”
Flynn complied, and Jerry turned the first building addition into the Irish room and the second addition into the Boston politics room.
Ray Flynn had liked Doyle’s when he was a city councilor and liked it even more when he became mayor. Once he began showing up, his wannabes, loyalists, precinct workers, bureaucrats and bootlickers followed.
When Flynn showed up one night with former Mayor Kevin White, and they posed with future Mayor Menino, the Burkes thought they had died and gone to heaven. For $ 9.95, one can buy from them what they call “30 Years of Boston’s History. Doyle’s Famous Mayors Photo. Ready to frame and story enclosed.”
In business, as in politics, perception is a large part of reality, and both the perception and the reality of Doyle’s hangs on its cultural intercourse of sculptors, artists, writers, pols, bureaucrats, wiseguys, cops and others. Word gets around. The New York Times does a piece. National Geographic includes the bar in a Boston story.
”It’s been an incredible crossroads,” says Carol Leary, a longtime Jamaica Plain activist. “It’s like a Greek forum. You can get political debate and find out who can do the plumbing in your house.”
Paul Reid began hitting Doyle’s about six years ago. He made a big impression when he told the Burkes that their chocolate cake was pretty good, but that his wife, Donna, made a better one. Now, she makes them, he delivers them and Doyle’s serves them.
What impressed Reid was the time he met a federal agent there and at the next table was a Southie wiseguy who had just been released after serving time for running guns to the Irish Republican Army.
”The agent patted him on the back and said, ‘I hope you’re behaving yourself,’ and the guy said he had just come out and the first place he wanted to go was Doyle’s. Two years later, there’s this big armored car heist, and the same agent arrested the same guy, and I think one of the first things the guy said was, ‘Well, I’m not going to be seeing you at Doyle’s soon.’ “
”We’re always kidding around,” says Richie Harris, “but the Burke brothers never forgot where they came from. You see somebody who needs help, and you give him a hand.”
the Burkes give back to the neighborhood that succored their family. Eddie, the businessman, says it’s an investment - you give the young people a leg up, and it pays off down the line.
When Sister Jeanne Gribaudo, of the Sisters of St. Joseph and director of the Jamaica Plain CYO, needed money to fund sports and activities for kids who do not regularly frequent summer camps, she was told to see the Burke brothers.
”I asked Eddie if he could give me a break on pizza. He said he’d give me all the free pizza I’d want any time. He even printed certificates entitling the kids to pizza. I bring the kids, and it’s 10 pizza sometimes. On a bad month,” she says, laughing, “Eddie can go through 40 pizzas.”
Eddie and Gil Sullivan, who runs an industrial packaging outfit across the street, also came up with the money to sponsor one baseball and three softball teams and eight basketball squads.
”Our junior girls, God love them,” says Sister Jeanne, “they haven’t won a game. They don’t even go seven innings sometimes, maybe five. They have lost by 35 runs. It’s worse than anything you could imagine. When they catch a ball and get an out, they dance on the field, scream and yell. Someone once said, ‘They don’t win a game, but they look good in their uniforms.’ When kids are in a uniform, they feel special.
”The brothers always say, ‘It’s gonna work,’ no matter what it is. There are moments where I can lose it altogether. But no matter what problems the kids are having, the Burkes say, ‘Whatever you need, it’s gonna work.’ “
Sister Jeanne, talking about three brothers who own a saloon, is crying.