In Irish mythology, there exists an earthly paradise, a place of eternal youth where illness and death don’t exist. It is a place where happiness lasts forever, where music always plays, and food and drink are plentiful.
It is called Tír na nÓg.
There is a place like that in Mercer County, on the Hamilton-Trenton border. A place where strangers are greeted like friends, and friends treated like family. There is music, drink and merriment. On the surface, it looks like an Irish pub. And it is—a good one at that. It has been named one of the top 50 pubs—Irish or otherwise—in the United States by several publications.
To many of the Irish who have moved to this area, though, it is much more than a pub. It is the bedrock that sustained them. When they wanted for something, they knew where to go. To them, it is, simply, a godsend. A slice of heaven on Earth.
The place is—not coincidentally—called Tír na nÓg.
* * *
A visitor stepped out of the mist and through the front door of Tír na nÓg, an Irish pub on Hamilton Avenue. It was a cold, damp and cloudy day in early February—not unlike the kind one would find in Ireland this time of year. The warmth of the pub immediately embraced the visitor.
Two men sat at the bar, chatting with the bartender, and all three turned to acknowledge the stranger in their company.
“How are ye?” one of them said, uttering something more likely to be heard in County Kerry than Central New Jersey. The visitor hesitated, not quite sure he had heard correctly.
The dark wood interior—decorated with Celtic crosses and knots, Irish road signs and flags and several other cultural touches, like Irish drums called bodhráns—added to the disorientation. Here was a true Irish pub, down to the bartender’s meticulous, minutes-long process for pulling a pint of Guinness, the stout that has become synonymous with Ireland worldwide.
What seemed to require a six-hour flight to experience was only minutes away by car.
One of the men, Todd Faulkner, stood and offered the visitor a handshake. Faulkner, 44, and his wife Maureen purchased Tír na nÓg in late November. They have the unenviable task of being first-time business owners and first-time parents. They welcomed their first child, 6-month-old Caleb, just months before closing on the pub.
Already, they’ve jumped in. A native of West Newbury, Mass., Faulkner has joined the Trenton St. Patrick’s Day parade committee and the Joe Cahill Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 10.
He has started mapping his vision for the pub, including the return of Irish music sessions the first Sunday of every month and the introduction of an open mic night every first Tuesday. The Faulkners hope to have music at the pub four nights a week, ranging from traditional Irish tunes to rock to bluegrass.
Tír na nÓg also hosts a dart tournament the first Monday of the month, building on the traditional place darts hold at the pub. Tír na nÓg has several teams in the Greater Trenton Dart League. One Tír na nÓg squad won the top division in 2011.
Five bartenders and the pub manager stayed on, and Faulkner said the staff has welcomed him and bridged the gap between him and the previous owners.
“Whenever you have a change, people get nervous,” Faulkner said. “Once they found out we’re not changing anything, there’s more of a comfort level.”
Faulkner never considered changing a thing. He and Maureen had visited Tír na nÓg as patrons a few times, and they always had a soft spot for the pub and its name. The couple met at a pub by the same name in Boston, and got engaged there two years later.
Inspired by this and their shared Irish heritage, the Faulkners decided a decade ago they wanted to own an Irish pub in Boston, where they both lived. But Maureen’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the Faulkners decided to move to New Jersey in 2006 to help care for her. Maureen originally hails from Toms River.
Maureen’s mother died three years after the move, by which point the Faulkners had purchased a house in Burlington and settled into life in New Jersey. They changed their focus to finding a pub near their new home, and the Trenton Tír na nÓg just seemed right, even if the Faulkners didn’t know it was for sale initially.
It was, and they jumped at the chance to own Tír na nÓg, even though it lacked modern amenities, like a kitchen. The pub does not serve food.
“It was meant to be for us, to find a pub called Tír na nÓg,” Faulkner said.
As Faulkner recounted how he and Tír na nÓg found each other, he smiled. But he knows he purchased a responsibility and a legacy, along with a pub.
He recalled a conversation he had one evening at Tír na nÓg with a man, who told Faulkner he didn’t own the pub just because he could call himself the owner. The man started pointing at everyone sitting at the bar, and said, “It’s their place, too.”
“I started thinking about it, and it is everybody’s,” Faulkner said. “The images on the wall, the previous owners, just made this place what it is. But it’s also the people who come in. They’re the ones who make this place. Yeah, you can have some great music, but you need the energy of the people. If they’re not coming in and enjoying it, then we’re just a regular bar.”
* * *
The bartender carefully placed a pint of Guinness in front of the visitor. The foamy head of the stout, convex over the edge of the glass, somehow moved not at all.
“Breakfast is served,” he said, with a smile and an Irish lilt.
The Guinness at Tír na nÓg has been internationally recognized, with the pub earning honors from Guinness for having one of the best pints in America. The pub has also been certified as a place where patrons can receive “the perfect pint,” a distinction for places that follow proper procedure for serving Guinness. It’s a complex list that includes keeping the lines clean, using a pristine Guinness pint glass and distributing the beer in the brewer’s strongly recommended six-step pour. It should take nearly two minutes to pull a pint the Guinness way.
The brewer says it all adds up to a better tasting pint, and Tír na nÓg always has served Guinness like this. Tír na nÓg claims to be the first to serve Guinness in Mercer County, and it was the first in New Jersey to offer Smithwick’s, a red ale from Kilkenny, Ireland.
The man who poured this particular glass of Guinness was Frank Connell, the manager of Tír na nÓg and a native of County Cavan, in the northern reaches of the Republic of Ireland.
“It can be a pain in the ass, but it’s worth every second,” Connell said. “You can see the difference in a pint with the proper care taken. You can certainly taste the difference. That’s mother’s milk right there.”
Connell has been at Tír na nÓg from the very beginning, 1991. He had never worked in a pub until moving to Trenton in 1986, following his brother who moved to the United States two years earlier. At the time, unemployment in Ireland was soaring, and Connell worried about losing his job.
“I thought, ‘I got to get out of here,’” he said. “I wasn’t going to go on the dole, like everybody else.”
In 1985, Connell visited his brother in America. During his trip, he met a local fellow named Billy Briggs, who owned a place called Billy’s Irish Pub on Olden Avenue in Trenton. The two would reconnect a year later, within a week of Connell’s move to Trenton. Connell had a construction gig with a few other Irishmen lined up. But Briggs had other ideas.
“He offered me a job, a couple nights a week at the bar,” Connell said. “That turned into full-time. And then I quit the construction altogether and did the bar work full-time. That was 27 years ago.”
Billy’s Irish Pub closed five years after Connell started there, but Briggs—after a year off—opened a new place on Hamilton Avenue. He named it Tír na nÓg.
Tír na nÓg quickly became the center of the local Irish community, and for many Irish immigrants in the area, it was home. Briggs had a lot to do with this. When one Irish couple arrived in the United States without jobs, prospects or money, Briggs gave them all of the furniture in his apartment.
Connell saw scores of Irish move to this area, and he saw something similar every time. Briggs would do anything in an effort to help others, he said.
“Billy would just open the door for you, try to find you a job and be sure you didn’t want for anything,” Connell said. “He was a godfather, a grandfather. He took care of you.”
Briggs died June 15, 2008 at age 56, but his presence is still felt.
His face is still in photos and drawings on the walls of Tír na nÓg. His spirit is still in the Trenton St. Patrick’s Day parade—which he helped form—and the scholarships given in his honor each year by the Joe Cahill Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 10. The scholarship pays to send local children to County Donegal in northwestern Ireland for a couple weeks to learn the Irish language.
But, as much as anything, the number of Irish who call this area home is Briggs’ legacy.
Connell’s daughter has moved back to Ireland, and has a daughter of her own. His 87-year-old mother also lives in Ireland, along with his siblings. But Connell, now a Hamilton resident, remained in the United States. Tír na nÓg—and the atmosphere Briggs fostered—has a lot to do with that.
“Tír na nÓg is the hub of the Irish community,” Connell said. “Always has been.”
* * *
The Faulkners have set out to keep it that way.
They have focused on the Irish community, and Connell credited them for taking Briggs’ lead and ensuring Irish culture stays strong in Mercer County. One of the most important steps is the re-establishment of Irish sessions.
At a traditional Irish music session, patrons double as the band, singing along or playing an instrument. Instruments could be something as simple as a washboard or a pair of spoons. They are not meant as concerts but, rather, as social events to bring the community together. They are still a major part of life in Ireland, and it is not unusual to have children watching or participating.
At Tír na nÓg’s February session, about 10 musicians came to play. The participants occupied a corner near the back of the building’s main room, where a U-shaped bench surrounds a table. Those who showed up brought food to share. Among the musicians were some children on fiddle.
“That’s how you preserve it, get the young people involved,” Connell said. “Everybody’s welcome. Grab an instrument, and even if you don’t, just hang out and listen.”
This mellow mentality is key to Tír na nÓg’s traditional, authentic feel. It takes more than properly poured Guinness or folk music to make a real Irish pub, and Faulkner knows it. After all, the word “pub” is short for public house, a place where all are welcome.
In Ireland, local pubs are gathering spaces, where people can read a book, play an instrument or meet a friend for some conversation—even if the “friend” is the stranger on the next stool over. Tír na nÓg has been a slice of this in America, and simply continuing that is Faulkner’s vision for the pub’s future.
“It’s where people are comfortable, and that’s what I want,” Faulkner said. “It’s a place where I want people to be happy.”
Those words come to life in the pub. After all, the visitor had been a stranger when he entered Tír na nÓg on that damp February day. But conversation flowed easily, and it wasn’t long until everyone found the bottom of their pints of Guinness. He wasn’t a stranger anymore.
Connell looked at the visitor’s near-empty glass, and offered to fill it again. The visitor thanked him, but declined. It was time to go.
Connell nodded, with a look of understanding. He reached across the bar, and shook the visitor’s hand. The visitor walked toward the door, and Connell shouted after him.
“See ya soon,” he said. “Be safe.”
Tír na nÓg is located at 1324 Hamilton Avenue on the Trenton-Hamilton border. The next Irish music session is March 3. For more information, call (609) 392-2554. For more information about the Billy Briggs Memorial Scholarship, go to aohdiv10.org.