Garret Schonack (back) and other customers drink beer at Sheabeen Irish Pub in Aurora on March 9th. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
March 17th will look very different in Irish pubs in Denver this year.
On St. Patrick’s Day 2020, restaurants in Colorado were ordered to stop eating and drinking in person in a closure that lasted more than two months until Memorial Day weekend.
“Everything is better than last year,” chuckled Andy Schmidt, who owns one of the oldest Irish pubs in the underground region, Sheabeen, in Aurora. It opened in 1989, just a few years before Nallen hit the market.
When you go
Sheabeen Irish Pub, 2300 S. Chambers Road, Aurora. Musicians can be seen in the tavern on Friday and Saturday evenings and an open microphone on Thursdays. Sheabeen opens every day from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., except on Sundays when it opens at 10 a.m. On St. Patrick’s Day the bar opens at 9 a.m. Sheabeenirishpub.com
Around this time last year, Schmidt gave away 135 pounds of corned beef that he had prepared for the holiday. What followed next was a common story among the restaurant operators: For the first time in Schmidt’s 17 years as owner, Sheabeen had no profit in 2020.
But a year later and a week before the holidays, Schmidt and his six-person staff are again preparing for the festivities in the neighborhood tavern, which is at the other end of a strip center on South Chambers Road.
They’ve got the green lights and tinsel in line and they’re preparing a full program of entertainment, starting with a 10 o’clock show by The Quiet Man (1952 with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara) that continues with corned beef and cabbage at noon . and followed by a full afternoon and evening of traditional musical performances.
“Well, it’s pulled back,” Schmidt said of the St. Pat’s plans. Though the Sheabeen Ramblers, Steve Pierce and Ernie Martinez, and Galen Crader are all on the calendar, there probably won’t be tap dancers.
The Wall of Fame at the Sheabeen Irish Pub in Aurora, March 9th. In the center is a photo of the Aurora theater shooting victim Alex Sullivan. (Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post)
In the 32 years of its existence, Sheabeen has been home to big local names like the Michael Collins Pipes & Drums Band and the Colorado Irish Festival (which started here in the parking lot).
Founders Tony and Camille McAleavey first opened Sheabeen as an offshoot of the famous Conley’s Nostalgia on South Broadway, where Tony and popular legend Walt Conley played music together.
After Conley’s death in 2003, the Aurora Tavern continued to honor him with an annual “Waltfest” and fundraising campaign for the American Diabetes Association.
Shortly before his death in 2012, Tony McAleavey received a commemorative key from the Colorado United Irish Societies. And Camille continues to come to the pub, Schmidt said, also every year to work on St. Patrick’s Day.
A glass of Guinness at the Sheabeen Irish Pub in Aurora on March 9th. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
“I definitely like Irish culture and we try to keep up with it,” said Schmidt, who found out later in life that his paternal grandfather was actually a Calhoun. “There will be some classic cars that will probably say I could have done better, but the way they are you have to adapt and move on.”
When he and his late wife Karen bought the company in 2004, they did so on a lark. In the early years, Andy built a sandpit around the bar’s linoleum dance floor, calling it a beach party.
They held “horse races” during the Kentucky Derby and gave guests stick ponies and jockey hats, “and people had to gallop their stick ponies in the pub, across the parking lot,” and so on.
Prior to COVID, Sheabeen continued an annual St. Patrick tradition in September that would feature a dramatic rendition of “Finnegan’s Wake”. (It contained a coffin, a volunteer actor, a priest and a nun, and a big surprise at the end.)
Even without the gimmicks, Schmidt said, his customers and the neighborhood would return as soon as Sheabeen reopened in 2020, and after it closed and reopened a second time.
It remains one of just a handful of Irish mainstays on the Denver subway after nearly two dozen other local Irish pubs closed their doors in the past few years and were more threatened by the pandemic.
“We haven’t lost any of our regulars, except for the normal ones who moved away and died,” said Schmidt about the last turbulent year. He lost Karen to cancer in 2019; Before that, she was always a fixture in the pub and a cocktail waitress on the weekends: “She kept everyone in check.”
“As in any restaurant or tavern, there is a constant change in the people who come and go, but always a good basis for loyal customers, and they make the place,” said Schmidt. “And my goal is to keep the tradition going until I’m ready to go.”
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