The Irish bar is a staple in most American cities, but Kansas City is blessed with some of the best. We have a rich Irish tradition in this town, thanks in part to the railroads, which brought the first wave of Irish immigrants in the 1800s. According to the Irish Center at Union Station, the 1870 census shows 10 percent of KC’s population was born in Ireland. These original immigrants were harshly discriminated against: signs reading “Irish Need Not Apply” were commonplace in those days and the Irish were banned from many bars and stores as well.
This led to many Irish opening their own businesses. In KC, Browne’s Irish Marketplace at 33rd and Pennsylvania claims to be the oldest family-owned Irish business in North America; it opened in 1876 and is in its fifth generation of owners. Today the Irish bar is no longer a product of discrimination but a way to celebrate Irish heritage. With Irish bars all over the city, one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the world and KC Irish Fest at Crown Center, no one celebrates Irish heritage like we do in KC. I sat down with Eddie Delahunt, a local musician and cornerstone of the Kansas City Irish community, to help me narrow down the top five Irish bars.
It’s hard to say if Harling’s is technically an Irish bar, but given Eddie Delahunt’s ringing endorsement and the fact that a Jameson on the rocks is only $2.50, I think it deserves a spot on the list. Delahunt came to KC from Dublin in 1989 to play nine days of shows at Harling’s with the last one being on St. Patrick’s Day. He was shocked to be greeted by a packed bar of people in Kelly green right in Middle America. Delahunt made friends, met his wife and never returned to Ireland. He made his home in KC and now can be seen playing music all over town or at Eddie Delahunt’s Café in the West Plaza. He still plays at least one show a year at Harling’s, the Halloween Pooka Party, but you can catch live music of some sort here most nights of the week. You’re not going to find a hand carved mahogany bar here or bookshelves with the works of James Joyce. This bar is first and foremost a dive, but its soul is a little bit Irish and its role in bringing one of KC’s most popular Irishmen to the states earns it a spot on the list.
This bar is way out in Overland Park so if you reside on the Missouri side of the border it may be a bit of a trip, but it’s well worth it. Llywelyn’s is inside of an old church, and the stained glass and high ceilings give it a very cool ambience. You can see live music from local Celtic bands like Flannigan’s Right Hook on the weekends, and get some delicious Irish food as well. Llywelyn’s meets all the requirements of a true Irish pub, so find a night when a good band is playing and check it out if you haven’t already.
One of the most popular Irish joints in KC, O’Dowd’s has been representing Ireland on the Plaza since 1996. Delahunt says it is one of his favorite places to play in KC, and you can see him their St. Patrick’s Day, as well as several other nights per month. The dark wood and warm lighting at O’Dowd’s give it the cozy feeling that all Irish bars should have. Great food, an extensive arsenal of Irish whiskey and a properly poured pint of Guinness can all be found here, and for these reasons O’Dowd’s is one of the best Irish bars in the city and sure to hold down it’s corner on the Plaza for a very long time.
It’s hard to find many bars with a history as rich as Kelly’s, and for that reason it may be the best Irish bar in the city limits. According to the Irish Center, Kelly’s building dates back to 1850 when it was a grocery store. At the end of prohibition in 1933, the building became a saloon called “Wrestler’s Inn,” which featured live wrestling on the main floor and a raucous late-night club upstairs. After Word War II, three retired Pendergast cops bought the bar and named it the Westport Inn. Randall Kelly was hired as a bartender at the Inn in 1947 and quickly became one of the most popular Irishmen in KC. People began to refer to him as “The Irish Consular” because he was known to help fellow Irish immigrants both financially and emotionally to get their start in the states. Over the years Kelly became an ownership partner and eventually would inherit the bar and change the name to Kelly’s Westport Inn (which most people had been calling it anyway). Often featuring live music and always featuring a rich history, Kelly’s is a must stop on the KC Irish bar scene and the nexus of festivities on St. Patrick’s Day.
While it’s true that O’Malley’s is not in Kansas City, and that Weston can barely be considered the Kansas City area, if you have made the 30-minute drive up there you should know exactly why it sits at number one. O’Malley’s structure has existed since before the Civil War, when the large underground cellars were used as a brewery. The O’Malleys bought the structure in the 70s and turned the large underground caverns into bars. You enter O’Malley’s at ground level and descend underground to the upper and lower pubs. Something happens as you descend these ramps: you are seemingly transported through time and space to a medieval Irish pub. Maybe it’s the stone walls, the sturdy wooden tables or the fact that you will not have cell phone service, but something about O’Malley’s just feels great. They have all the staples: good food, live music, Irish whiskey and Guiness on tap; but they have the added bonus of brewing their own beers which can be found on tap as well. O’Malley’s also hosts the Weston Irish Fest in the fall, which features Irish bands from all over the world and is a must-do for anyone who loves all things Irish. If you haven’t been to O’Malley’s, find yourself a sober driver and make the 30-minute trip up to Weston, I promise you will be back.