At the Eire Pub, the venerable drinking establishment in Dorchester’s Adams Village, the writing is literally on the wall, or at least on the building’s facade: MEN’S BAR.
Lest you miss that, there’s a billboard on top of the building that proclaims the pub to be “a gentlemen’s prestige bar.”
Detect a pattern?
When Tom Stenson opened the pub in 1964, it was like a lot of Boston’s neighborhood bars, a place where men — working men — gathered after work, and sometimes before, to talk as men did, about the Red Sox, politics, the weather, and the increasing number of their sons and nephews who were headed off to some godforsaken place called Vietnam.
For many years, for generations, actually, it remained a resolutely male bastion, though hardly a locker room. Tom Stenson, and later his son, John, who took over the place after his father died 18 years ago, insisted on good manners and decorum.
Then, as the city and the country changed, so did the Eire, and gradually women began to enter the “men’s bar,” almost always accompanied by their husbands, boyfriends, or brothers. In more recent years, reflecting the times, the idea that a woman needed a male escort to enter the Eire faded like the idea that the Red Sox would never win another World Series.
But in its more than half century of existence, one thing didn’t change at the Eire: All the bartenders were men. And, for as long as anyone can remember, the idea that the workingman’s pub would hire a woman to tend bar ranked right up there in the land of the unthinkable, with flying pigs and a frozen netherworld.
Nicole Eaton, a 31-year-old native of Abington, has been hired as the first woman to tend bar at the Eire.
“It was time,” John Stenson said. “Tradition is good. So is change.”
Stenson credits his manager, Damian O’Halloran, with coming up with the idea, and with the perfect trailblazer.
“I said to John, ‘I need some help. Why not go with a female? It’s the way to go, change things up a bit.’ He was all for it,” O’Halloran said.
O’Halloran had heard that Eaton was leaving the Hillside Pub in Canton, where she built a reputation as a solid, amiable worker. He approached her and offered the job, saying Stenson had only one stipulation: She would be required to wear a tie, carrying on a tradition that Tom Stenson established at the outset.
After some initial reluctance, Eaton has cottoned onto the idea. “I respect the tradition,” she said, adding that she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer.
“That said, I’m honored to be the first,” she said.
Besides being a classic old-school neighborhood bar, the Eire has a long history of being a proxy political battleground, where politicians appear with the media in tow to establish their bona fides with blue-collar voters. In 1983, Ronald Reagan walked into the Eire and ordered a Ballantine Ale, and lunchpail Democrats who had voted for him cheered. A decade later, Bill Clinton showed up to reclaim the pub for the Democrats. Even today, politicians like to use the place as a prop to show they have an affinity for the working class.
Before Eaton put her tie on, the only women who had previously poured drinks in the Eire were politicians on the campaign stump. The consensus among regulars is that the only one who really knew what she was doing was former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who had worked bars in her college days.
Back in the day, it was rare to see or hear a woman at the Eire. Even Tom Stenson’s wife, Molly, ventured into the pub only once, and that was to make sure her son had put up a proper portrait of his father after he died in 2000.
Now, while the pub remains an overwhelmingly male bastion, women are hardly uncommon. Stenson estimates that on weekend nights, the female clientele might be as high as 25 percent.
Stenson said there wasn’t a conscious prohibition on hiring a female bartender. It just didn’t happen.
Julia McDonald, one of the few longtime female regulars at the Eire, was pleasantly surprised to learn of Eaton’s hiring.
“At first, I thought people were kidding,” said McDonald, who regularly meets her partner, Bill Puddister, for a drink at the Eire after work. “It’s the start of a new tradition at a place where tradition matters.”
Down the bar, Paul Elwell, a sheet-metal worker and regular, said he is happy to have Eaton on the job but is still a little wary of some looking at the Eire’s tradition of all-male bartenders and mistakenly concluding it’s a den of sexism.
“It’s not like that at all. I wouldn’t come in here if I couldn’t bring my wife or think she’d be uncomfortable,” he said. “This is a very tolerant place.”
For now, Eaton is busy just getting a feel for the rhythm of the place, putting names to faces, remembering what the regulars order, all of which she’s good at. The Eire is U-shaped, and she is working the left side of the bar, where she sees some familiar faces, like Mike Thompson, an electrician and old friend who first brought her to the Eire as a customer about five years ago.
It’s a learning process. At first, Eaton was taking the glasses out of the glasswasher, pausing to put them down, then going back to close the glasswasher door. But customers informed her that the standard practice was to just balance the glasses while kicking the door shut. Now, when she kicks the glasswasher door shut with gusto, a cheer goes up.
All in all, she has hit the ground running. She only has one problem.
“I didn’t know how to tie a tie,” she said. “I still don’t.”