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The Blarney Stone sits unassumingly on Sansom between 39th and 40th streets. Its simple facade of light green panels with dark trimming doesn’t attract attention. Located on a quiet side street, the pub has no need to catch people’s eyes. Its wooden door provides a homey feel and indeed the place does not put on airs.

Inside, co–owner Kevin Kearney busies himself about the bar in a large red sweatshirt and black shorts. It’s early on a Tuesday evening and the place is empty save for a couple in the back playing billiards. Kevin sits across the counter from me, poised to talk about Blarney, but the discussion starts off slowly as he struggles for a certain profundity.

Kevin is one of the most laid–back people I’ve ever met. At first, he seems unsure how to approach the interview, almost afraid of not having much to say. He is not a man of hubris who likes to brag about his establishment. Instead, he answers my questions with playful self–deprecation.

“There’s clearly no pretense in here,” says Kevin. “It’s every bit the piece of shit it was 25 years ago. Some people walk in and feel comfortable; others walk in and say, ‘Wow, I need to get out of this place.’”

While Smoke’s prides itself on its long history, Kevin doesn’t really know much about Blarney before his time on campus. Instead, I mainly learn about the bar’s history from Mary Jane Callahan, who has lived next door for over 30 years. She tells me that a family lived in the building Blarney occupies, and in the '80s the son decided to convert the garage into a bar. It was called The Backstreet for many years before switching owners and receiving its current name in the '90s.

If Blarney’s status as a former garage contributes to its comfortable atmosphere, it also results in a logistical nightmare. “It’s freezing in the winter, and we can’t keep it cold in the summer,” says Kevin, and indeed I’m chilly in a sweater. The bar also has a strange layout. Three tables and an L–shaped bar occupy the lower level. After going up three steps in the back (and ducking from the extremely low ceiling) there is an awkward space with a table and past that a pool table. But for many this quirkiness is part of the bar’s charm.

***

 

 

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Kevin was in a rock band and performed frequently at Smokey Joe’s and once during Fling. He also played a lot of wiffle ball. “It was a lot of outdoors,” he recalls. “A lot more outdoors than we probably should have been.” I then ask if he was Greek. “No, I’ve always been Irish,” he responds.

Unfortunately, Kevin didn’t graduate and remains about six credits short of a degree. He originally planned to teach high school English, but getting a teaching certificate without a college diploma isn’t easy. And upon further reflection he realized he didn’t really want to pursue English anyway.

Aside from working as a bartender at Blarney, Kevin took a job at the Four Seasons’ Fountain Restaurant and later joined the Local 98, the Philadelphia electricians union. He signed up for an apprenticeship and was soon running telephone and Ethernet lines. After saving for a few years, an opportunity presented itself in 2004 when one of Blarney’s three owners pulled out. “The money was there, so I just hopped in and stayed. Nothing too spectacular about it. And now I can’t get out of this place.”

Kevin is currently 33 years old and married to a teacher. The couple live near Clark Park on 44th Street with their one–year–old son. “My wife’s at work all day and I’m up with him — daddy day care — and then here at night.” I ask him if he could describe what it’s like to be a father, but Kevin is not the type of person who expresses his inner enthusiasm. “Without getting all sappy, no. It’s just a whole lot of fun.”

***

“This is just shit we’ve acquired over the years, crap that people have left,” Kevin explains. “It’s like, ‘Hey man, can our team put something up; can our group leave something here?’ Every single little thing has got something to it.” For example, after the wrestling team came in second in the 2008 EIWA championships, they brought their trophy, drank out of it and left it on the shelf. “I said I think it should be in a trophy case or something, but they would rather it be here.”

Kevin then searches for a book of elephant jokes, but can’t find it. Written by Bobby from the Lobby (a '70s Penn grad who now plays piano at Smoke’s) and published when he was 14 years old, it contains such jokes as: ‘What do you call the brown stuff between elephants’ toes? Slow natives.’ “Yeah, shit like that is here,” laughs Kevin.

This gets him thinking about other memorable characters he’s come across at Blarney, about the humorous tales that are bound to arise in an environment filled with alcohol. One particularly memorable story involves a black transsexual who came in one afternoon when Kevin was still a bartender in college. It was a stormy day in the middle of summer and she was the only customer. “I’m watching Seinfeld, and then I just hear this sheep’s bleat of laughter, and her tit is out of her shirt,” recalls Kevin. The next day, she came back in and left behind a pornographic story she’d written. “I read it and it’s just a description of me banging her in the keg box.” He pauses. “It was probably that day that I didn’t want to write anymore. I learned what the power of words could do to someone.”

It’s Tuesday evening, so students are starting to trickle in for weekly Quizzo. Kevin’s playlist is on, featuring songs by the Stones, Springsteen, Okkervil River and the White Stripes. “I just found out that the Cold War Kids used to be Christian rockers, so immediately I’m skeptical,” Kevin says. Blarney’s deliveryman, a self-proclaimed occultist, randomly lays out a game of chess, but soon the bar fills up and it never gets finished.

Kevin no longer comes up with the Quizzo questions, so he instead participates in the game. Everyone makes teams, and coming up with the best name is important. My favorites of the night are ‘I’d rather have a vagina dialogue’ and ‘The K–K–King’s S–S–Speech.’ Kevin is remarkably well–versed in cultural trivia. He knows Barbie’s last name (Roberts), the beer that made Milwaukee famous (Schlitz) and the supercomputer that beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy (Big Blue). During the music round he identifies every quick song snippet, impressive for a selection including Kelly Clarkson, The Doors, The Foo Fighters and Tom Petty. “You just pick up things sitting around the bar for 10 years,” explains Kevin.

***

Of course, Blarney has a lot of competition from nearby bars — especially Smokey Joe’s, which has been a staple at Penn for decades. But Kevin doesn’t necessarily see them as his rivals. “I love Smokey Joe’s,” he says. “I feel like the better the bars on campus are doing, the more people are going to come into the area. In that sense, I hope everyone is doing a great job.” Surprisingly, he also minimizes distinctions between campus bars. “I wouldn’t say that we are any different. People who come here leave here to go over there at the end of the night. It’s very specials driven. People will do pretty much anything for a cheap drink.”

 

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As someone who rarely frequents campus bars, I am prone to agree with him. On the Thursday before break, the bar was as packed as Smoke’s generally is on weekends, and it's difficult to discern an immediate difference in atmosphere or clientele. But attachments grow into a comfortable, romantic nostalgia, and for the self–proclaimed elite Blarneyers, the bar is inherently, obviously unique.

“I think it’s a lot more laid back,” says senior Atlee Melillo. “It’s welcoming. There’s no intimidation that you get at Smoke’s. Blarney is where you go to hang out and have fun as opposed to be seen.” Senior Mary Riverso echoes this sentiment. “You don’t necessarily have to dress up every time you come. I think that’s what separates it from Smoke’s. I’ll go to Smoke’s because I’m a senior and that’s what you’re supposed to do. And then I’ll stand in a long line in the cold and get pushed into a wall and someone spills a drink on me. So I go to Blarney. It’s pretty much the opposite of that.”

And while Kevin doesn’t really recognize a distinct Blarney “type,” Atlee and Mary do. “There’s probably less of a Smoke’s type than there is a Blarney type, because everyone is expected to go there,” says Atlee. “There are a lot of people I know who wouldn’t come to Blarney. The weird layout is part of the comfort factor. I think people who don’t take themselves so seriously come here.” “Blarney is where all the in–between kids go,” says Mary. “I would say most people here are B/B+ range students. They care; they do their work; but they like to go out.”

While bouncer and Penn senior Ted Rawlings spends much of the night checking IDs (the worst fake a student tried to use on him was his own that he had lost), he too loves the bar. “It’s less douchey than Smoke’s,” he says. And undergrad Meredith Shea loves it for its Celtic atmosphere. “I’m Irish. I love the idea of the Blarney Stone. I think it’s hilarious.”

All of these Blarneyers have developed close relationships with Kevin, who both Atlee and Mary describe as being very “paternal.” They often make playlists for him and stay after closing just to help mop the floor; one time Atlee even bartended for a bit, her favorite night at Blarney.

Both girls also relate instances in which Kevin looked out for them. When Atlee and her boyfriend got into a heated argument, Kevin ushered them out and drove them home (they only live four blocks away). And one day Mary was in Blarney and a bus of about 30 army guys pulled up to the bar. They invited girls back with them, but Kevin wouldn’t let anyone get on their bus. “He probably saved us from ending up in a pretty dire situation,” says Mary.

***

Today is obviously St. Patrick’s Day and the festivities have likely begun over at the Blarney Stone, starting with kegs and eggs (breakfast is free). Tonight hundreds of people will pass through the bar, drinking and watching the NCAA playoffs. You may even catch Kevin drinking Guinness, his favorite beer. But while Kevin grew up in Delaware County, a county with a “bunch of Irish–Catholic knuckleheads,” he wasn’t brought up very Irish. For some time he didn’t even know the correct pronunciation of his name (Kerney? Carney? Keerney? It's the latter). So while he owns an “Irish” bar, he’s not overly concerned with authenticity.

Kissing Ireland’s Blarney Stone is said to imbue the kisser with the skill of flattery, but I struggle to find the propriety of the bar’s name. There is clearly no flattery here, no attempt to eulogize. Blarney is what it is, a strange bar tucked away on a side street, quirky but at the same time relatively standard. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have a place to call your own. “It’s always tough seeing a class graduate,” says Kevin. “But customers and former employees keep in contact. There’s always a place for them to come back to when they visit.”

Just be sure to watch your head going up the stairs.

 

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