A Silent Pub

People gathered at Flann O’Brien’s had their watery eyes focused on the TVs in the old Mission Hill bar, which was filled with a quiet respect for Senator Edward M. Kennedy yesterday. In his honor, the bar draped American flags above its doors. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  
August 30, 2009 
The creamy stouts went untouched on many a table. Ice dissolved in stiffer brews well before their liquor had been consumed. There was no music, no conversation, no bustle.
Just about the only thing flowing yesterday at Flann O'Brien's were tears and the only thing audible was the rain, which slanted in from the open windows, offering the crowd inside a collective cocktail of melancholy.
Perhaps never before has a packed Irish bar in Boston been steeped in such heavy silence.
As the honor guard carried Senator Edward M. Kennedy's body into the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, scores of neighbors and others from faraway peered at the TVs in this old Mission Hill bar with watery eyes and quiet respect, as if they too were in the church two blocks away.
``I just needed to be as close as possible,'' said John Snyder, 52, who brushed the tears on his Red Sox jersey as he sat at a table near the bar. ``We should never forget what he meant to the people of this city. He was an extraordinary man.''
Like other businesses on Tremont Street, Flann O'Brien's opened early, well before the motorcades arrived. In honor of the senator, the bar draped American flags above its doors, exclusively served American cheeseburgers, and changed the name of one of its signature drinks from the Grateful Dead to the Grateful Ted.
It also switched the channels on its six flat-screen TVs from sports to news, a rarity in this bastion of Red Sox Nation.
The sonorous music echoing from the basilica's century-old organ and out the bar's speakers drew a standing-room-only crowd, including dozens who stood outside in the splashing rain as they watched in silence through the open windows.
They were black and white, Asian and Latino, old and young, gay and straight, from a few blocks away and from far-flung suburbs. But they all had something in common: a reverence for a man who either they watched grow up or knew as a legend.
``I've never seen anything like this before,'' said Tony O'Brien, one of the bar's owners who moved here from Ireland but never required any explanation about the Kennedy legacy. ``Back in Cork, all my family's watching this live. We know what he meant to so many people.''
Nearly everyone had a story about their brush with the senator.
Kristin Bennett, 40, of Mission Hill, recalled waiting on the senator and his wife, Vicki, serving him a Scotch and her a martini, as they dined at the Bay Tower Room in downtown Boston. ``They were so friendly, laughing, and having a great time, like regular people,'' she said. ``They even tipped the hostess.''
Shortly before the senator was diagnosed last year with brain cancer, Joanne Fleming ran into him while strolling along the beach near his compound in Hyannis Port. ``He introduced us to his dogs,'' said Fleming, 43, also of Mission Hill, who brought her own dog to the bar. ``He was really very sweet. I always liked the Kennedys, but after meeting him, that really sealed it.''
Nicola Forrester remembers the senator's wide smile. The 37-year-old from Hyde Park works in the center at Massachusetts General Hospital where Kennedy received treatment for his cancer. ``He came by my office nearly every day, but I wasn't there,'' she said. ``Then one day I finally got to shake his hand. I'll never forget what he told me. He said, `You're doing a great job; keep up the good work.' ''
Others who never met the senator described how he still had an effect on them.
Ross Denison, 27, a student at the New England School of Law, said the senator inspired him. ``I have a picture of him and his brothers on my wall at home,'' he said. ``The entire family saw the law as protecting individual rights against the tyranny of the majority.''
Before she moved from the Philippines to the United States, Violette Paragas, 51, remembered how her father picked her up one day at school in Manila and told her, ``The world has ended.'' President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated. ``The family embodied the American dream,'' she said. ``This is really the end of an era.''
The quiet of the normally rowdy bar began to lift when Ted Kennedy Jr. started to speak. His stories and upbeat delivery turned a lot of the tears into laughter, the sadness into a kind of bittersweet consolation.
By the time President Obama finished his eulogy, many in the somber crowd stood up and began to clap, offering the senator a standing ovation as his casket was taken out of the basilica.
Chris Hatfield, who spent five years living above the bar and many more years drinking Guinness at its scuffed tables, said he had never witnessed such a hush at Flann O'Brien's, named after the Irish novelist.
The 49-year-old added that he had never seen the bar so crowded so early, even on St. Patrick's Day.
``It's a real tribute to the senator,'' he said.
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.