John D. Colgan, bartender who poured a good pint, serenaded customers with Irish songs, dead at 63
The native of Ireland tended bar at Chicago taverns including Celtic Crossings, The Ambassador Public House, Fado, Johnny O’Hagan’s, Kitty O’Shea’s and The Embassy pub.
In Irish pubs, you’ll hear “Give us a pint.” You’ll also hear “Give us a song.”
Bartender John Colgan could do both. He’d serenade customers with “Raglan Road,” “The Auld Triangle” and “Rocky Road to Dublin.”
When his tenor soared in sea shanties and ballads of love and loss from his native Ireland, “The whole bar would go silent,” said his friend Margaret O’Brien.
Mr. Colgan died of heart trouble last month at Weiss Memorial Hospital, according to his family. He was 63.
He tended bar at Chicago taverns including Celtic Crossings, The Ambassador Public House, Fado, Johnny O’Hagan’s, Kitty O’Shea’s and, most recently, at The Embassy pub, 1435 W. Taylor St.
He was proud of his CD “Songs from the Crossing,” featuring tunes he performed at Celtic Crossings.
“John wanted it recorded professionally, and he gathered some of the best musicians in Chicago” to play, said his brother-in-law Peadar Coughlan.
He said Mr. Colgan had given up drinking, “as it interfered with his passion for music and the need for a clear head in order to pursue his ambition of recording a CD.”
Wherever Mr. Colgan worked, he knew the secret of putting a creamy top on a pint of Guinness.
“He did it like a champ,” said Tina Macek, who works for The Embassy pub. “John was meticulous. It takes two pours. You fill a bit more than three-quarters of the glass by pulling the handle forward, and then you let it settle. Then, you finish off with a back push of the handle — backwards goes in with a slower rate, and the foam rises to the top. It ends up looking almost like an ice cream cone.”
Beyond Mr. Colgan’s prowess with a pint, “The guy was great with people and getting to know them, getting inside their heads if they did have a problem,” his friend John Phelan said.
He worked for nearly 20 years at Celtic Crossings, 751 N. Clark St., one of the biggest sellers of Guinness in Chicago, said Phelan, a former co-owner. He also worked banquets at the Four Seasons Hotel.
His hearty laugh filled pubs. But if a fight broke out, Mr. Colgan was quick to put an end to it. “He did jump the bar,” Phelan said.
Mr. Colgan was fascinated by the stock market and shared what he learned.
“He would wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and start checking all his stocks,” Macek said. “He was just so kind with advice on stocks and opening a 401(k).”
He also helped many Irish immigrants find jobs and a place to stay when they first arrived.
“John loved America,” his brother-in-law said in a eulogy, “and it is our considered belief that America loved John.”
He liked to get away from it all by fishing for walleye, northern pike and bass in places like Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where “phones don’t work,” his friend Ray Keaveney said. “It was total freedom.”
Young John grew up the second of seven children of Teresa and Ned Colgan in The Downs, a community near the town of Mullingar in County Westmeath. His father farmed. His mother was a legal clerk. He followed Westmeath Gaelic football and Liverpool Football Club, according to his friend Paul O’Reilly, owner of the Embassy pub.
Before becoming a bartender, he worked in customs at Dublin Airport. In the late 1980s, he quit to travel, setting off with his guitar.
Before Chicago, Mr. Colgan worked in Washington, D.C., at the The Dubliner and at Ireland’s Four Provinces pub in Falls Church, Virginia.
He loved Barry’s Gold Blend Irish tea, Cadbury candy bars, Tayto potato crisps and Jacob’s Elite Chocolate Kimberley biscuits.
To make a fire in winter, he kept sods of Irish turf from Westmeath in his Uptown apartment. With its bosky aroma, “He was able to propel himself back in time to his youth,” Coughlan said, “and remember the warmth and scent that only a turf fire can provide.”
Mr. Colgan’s survivors include his siblings David, Rosemary, Pauric, Paul, Ann and Kevin. A Chicago memorial has been held. A private memorial is planned in Ireland, where his remains will be interred in a family plot in Coralstown cemetery outside Mullingar.
Keaveney remembers that Mr. Colgan’s favorite song was “Safe in the Harbor,” which includes these lines he thinks are fitting:
“But to every sailor comes time to drop anchor.
“Haul in the sails and make the lines fast.
“You deep water dreamer, your journey is over.
“You’re safe in the harbor at last.”