Forty years ago, Memphis' most iconic Irishman opened the first incarnation of his now-famous Beale Street bar, Silky O' Sullivan's, home of the beer-drinking goats and mysterious cocktails served in "diver" buckets.
The first Silky Sullivan's (minus the "O") opened in Overton Square in 1973, and that same year, Sullivan and friend Mark Flanagan launched the St. Patrick's Day Pub Crawl in the square. The boozy celebration moved to Beale after Silky opened his bar downtown in 1992, and the Beale Street Merchants Association added a parade.
This year, the Royal Irish Armada, a motorcade of luxury cars that pick up visiting Irish dignitaries from the airport, will line up on Beale at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 14th, to pick up the parade's grand marshal, retired Brigadier General James R. McCarthy, and other visiting dignitaries. A pub crawl — from Midtown Huey's to Murphy's to Silky's — will follow.
The parade, with bagpipers, colorful floats, and maybe even a goat on a leash, kicks off on Beale on Saturday, March 16th, at 3:30 p.m. On Sunday, March 17th (St. Patrick's Day), the festivities continue with the blessing of the kegs, the raising of the goats, and more pub-crawling.
Sullivan reflects on 40 years of the pub crawl, his bar, and good old Irish fun.
Flyer: What inspired you to open a bar?
Silky Sullivan: I had a dispute with TGI Friday's over my bill one day, and I decided that rather than paying for my drinks, I needed to dispense happiness to people. So I decided to start my own bar. For a while, I had two bars, one in Overton Square and one on Beale [opened in 1992]. And after about five years, I realized the future of Memphis would be downtown. I closed in Overton Square in 1998.
How did the pub crawl get started?
It was started by a fellow named Mark Flanagan, myself, and Thomas Boggs [from Huey's] in Overton Square. Before we started that, there was absolutely nothing happening in Memphis for St. Patrick's Day to celebrate the heritage.
The first year, there were about 7,500 people. By the fifth year, we had 150,000 people. It filled every street. It was fabulous. It was like our Mardi Gras.
Didn't the city put a stop to it for a while?
It got so big, and we had a religious element running the city at that time. We had no restrooms or permits. A couple of guys tried to get into a building to use the bathroom, and they jerked the handle off the door. If you have 150,000 people, you're going to have some small things happen.
But the city made a big deal out of it. They decided to stop the pub crawl, because there was drinking and things on the street. They wanted us to have an insurance policy, and we couldn't afford that. That was around 1985.
I've heard those were some crazy days.
We had some good times. We had a pig that we painted green one time. His name was Muck. We declared him a free pig of Memphis. He couldn't be barbecued. He went into every bar with us. One time, we threw rubber snakes all around City Hall and told them to get the snakes out of City Hall. We used to play cabbage basketball, just crazy things.
It seems like everybody claims a little Irish heritage these days.
On St. Patrick's Day, there are two types of people: those who are Irish and those who wish they were. Our heritage is fun, and we like drinking. But we try to abide by the law. But any time you get that many people together, you're going to have a few rednecks who show up. But we basically run a pretty good show. Memphis needs more things like this. Memphis is set up for a party, so let's let the good times roll.