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Distillations: Barchaeology 101 at The Little Shamrock 

Wednesday, Apr 30 2014

There were not, as far as I could tell, any brilliant conversationalists waiting to be discovered in The Little Shamrock Monday night.

To my left, in one of the bar's many nooks and alcoves, three women were asking a drunk man whether he'd liked the Hobbit movies. He loved them, especially the parts that weren't in the books. He went on about this for some time ("The movies show Gandolf fighting the Necromancer, while in the books he's just like 'Oh, I fought the Necromancer.'"), but they got less and less interested as his enthusiasm grew. Eventually, unable to get any reaction from them beyond curt nods, he walked away, perhaps muttering to himself, "But you asked!"

To my right, a man on a first date talked to a woman (who was very proud of her shoes) about a company he wants to work for. It was a confusing conversation, because he used "end of life" as a technical term to refer to a phase IT products go through, and she thought it referred to elder hospice care. It took them a while to get on the same page about what kind of job, exactly, he was applying for. Finally getting it right, they toasted to "the end of life" and she asked him what his favorite TV shows were. It was a mistake we all had to live with: He spent the next half-hour describing the pilot episode of The Newsroom.

This was a bad night for eavesdropping, but even a bad night here can be a pretty good time. I haven't been in San Francisco all that long in the grand scheme of things, but I've got good memories attached to The Little Shamrock.

After first meeting Ann, I asked if she wanted to go for "beer or coffee," and she made my day by saying "actually I'm more of a whiskey or tea girl," so I brought her here for shots.

When a colleague I'd only met through email said "Let's grab a drink" for the first time, this was the bar where I told him to meet me. "I really admire your work," we said to each other, and have been friends ever since.

And of course there was the long period when I pretended to learn how to play backgammon on one of the Shamrock's backgammon tables, in order to get the woman who taught me to keep coming back.

The Little Shamrock wasn't the first bar I ever went to in San Francisco, but it was one of the first, and that's not surprising given my affinity for bars with history. One of my favorite bars anywhere in the world is The Blackfriar, in London, which was built on the site of a monastery. The Little Shamrock's heritage isn't in that league — it's only 120 years old — but that's plenty.

Attaching your own memories to a bar like this is a kind of geological process: Layers upon layers of people having a good time are pressed together like grains of sand until — after enough time and pressure are applied — a mountain forms.

You can actually see this happening in The Little Shamrock's décor. Stuff is everywhere — piles upon piles of it, in layers. The Old World wooden walls and beams are covered in pictures of Ireland, Irish flags, Irish memorabilia, darts, what appear to be old high school athletics and debate trophies, glass sculptures, board games ... and five TVs with sports on them. Fancy, colorful faux Tiffany lamps stretch across the ceiling providing low light, and mismatched furniture is everywhere — some lovely and antique-looking, some just old.

It's as though the room has retained some of the detritus of each generation that drank here, and eventually it became decor. It's pure archaeology in bar form.

For some reason — clear Irish descent notwithstanding — it reminds me of a small hotel in Istanbul where expats came to feel welcome in a city so dense with history that it had no place for their unconscious lives. It was a dreamlike, intimate space that had room for us. I met a number of good friends at that hotel, and one brilliant artist. They seem to gravitate to places like this, or perhaps they get trapped in the accumulating history and are sitting there at the backgammon tables, waiting to be excavated.

Maybe that's why I keep coming back: I'm hoping to be discovered.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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