Kevin Cullen

After 45 years tending bar, his glass is full

In 2008, Ireland’s prime minister, Bertie Ahern, drank at the Eire Pub in Dorchester with co-owner Martin Nicholson. In 2008, Ireland’s prime minister, Bertie Ahern, drank at the Eire Pub in Dorchester with co-owner Martin Nicholson. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff/File 2008)
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / December 26, 2010

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It was a great run, but Martin Nicholson is tired, ready to move on.

He’s 60 now, and more than half of those years have been spent behind the U-shaped bar at the Eire Pub, the famously unpretentious watering hole in Dorchester’s Adams Village.

There may be another bartender in Boston who has worked longer in the same place — the great Jerry Foley of the great J.J. Foley’s in the South End comes to mind — but none has served two presidents and a prime minister.

When Ronald Reagan walked into the Eire in 1983, Nicholson offered him a Guinness. Reagan demurred and ordered a Ballantine Ale, saying it reminded him of Ballyporeen, his family’s ancestral village in Tipperary.

Nicholson’s favorite memory of that day was not Reagan holding the mug aloft, an iconic photo that went around the world, but what happened after the president drained most of it and put the mug down. Margaret Heckler, the former Massachusetts congresswoman who was then in Reagan’s Cabinet, grabbed the mug and finished it off.

“Impressive,’’ said Nicholson.

No wonder Reagan made Heckler the ambassador to Ireland two years later.

They put up a plaque to commemorate Reagan’s visit. Years later, Senator John F. Kerry walked in, pointed at the plaque, and asked, “How do I get one of those?’’

Nicholson didn’t even look up from the beer he was pouring. “Get elected president,’’ he told Kerry.

Kerry didn’t miss by much.

The Eire is a working man’s bar. It is peopled by cops and firefighters and teachers and postal workers and T workers and ordinary Joes, so the politicians were always trying to prove their blue-collar credentials by stopping in. Reagan claimed the Eire for the Republicans, and so President Clinton came in a decade later and took it back for the Democrats.

There was another iconic photo, of Clinton holding a pint of Guinness. But he didn’t drink it.

“Clinton ordered a Diet Coke,’’ Nicholson said, “so that’s what I gave him.’’

They gave him a plaque, too, next to Reagan’s.

Two years ago, Bertie Ahern, then Ireland’s prime minister, stopped in for a jar. Nicholson handed him a pint of Bass and asked, “Do you know Tommy Cooke?’’

“I do, I do,’’ Ahern said, and it turns out they had a mutual friend in Dublin.

If Nicholson will be remembered as the bartender who served the most powerful of politicians, it was his low-key, even keel demeanor with regular customers that led the late Tom Stenson to hire him 33 years ago. Nicholson walked out of County Roscommon when he was 15 and began working at The Greyhound Bar in Tipperary. At 17, he took a job at a pub near Dublin. He wasn’t treated well at either place.

When he was 26, he moved to Boston, and a friend named Danny Walsh introduced him to Stenson. He had a job less than 24 hours off the plane.

He liked Stenson from the get-go.

“Very stern, but very fair,’’ Nicholson said. “Tom Stenson was a gentleman.’’

He liked Stenson’s insistence that the bartenders wear ties and aprons. He liked that the bar closed at midnight, avoiding the extra hours that bring profits at a price. He liked the atmosphere, the buzz, the banter.

“I’ve been working here nearly 33 years, and I can think of two fights,’’ he said. “We treated people with respect, and we got it back.’’

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t barred people.

“Lots of ’em,’’ he said. “Didn’t matter if you were a regular or a first-time customer. If you acted up, you were out.’’

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think, with regret, about the downside of the business.

“I wonder, sometimes, how many people I served ended up at Pine Street,’’ he said. “You’re not serving holy water.’’

And it doesn’t mean everything was like “Cheers.’’

“I hated to hear men downgrade their wives,’’ he said. “That bothered me the most.’’

His wife, Carmel, was the epitome of patience.

“She put up with a lot,’’ he said. “Long hours, me leaving the house to go back in to close up.’’

Nicholson kept his head down and was noticed.

“My father didn’t want me to have his life, 16-hour days,’’ John Stenson said, sitting in the booth of the pub he has run since his father’s death 10 years ago. “He said, ‘You need a partner.’ I told him I was thinking of Martin, and he said that was a good choice.

“Martin’s very much like my father. He’s got a dry sense of humor, and he’s sensitive. Very reliable. His friends weren’t the same guys who came in here.’’

Nicholson has sold his piece of the business. His last shift is New Year’s Eve. He’s trying to figure out what to do next. He’s thinking of writing a book. He’s already got the title: 45 Years Behind Bars.

His unflappable demeanor is legend. Nothing fazes him. Even though the regulars try.

The other night, a young man, his work clothes stained with paint, got off his stool and shook hands with Nicholson, wishing him luck in his retirement. The man turned to leave but then turned back.

“Martin,’’ he said, “before I go, would you do me a favor?’’

“What’s that?’’ Nicholson said.

“Would you drop your pants?’’

Nicholson laughed but politely declined, and the man left. With Martin Nicholson, decorum always won out.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at