Up Front and Personal

Remembering Farrell’s Jimmy Houlihan

By Ken Nolan 

We always drank beer from stemmed glasses in Farrell’s Bar and Grill. We were college kids, hair creeping down our necks, and we would meet in the crowded, gleaming bar in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace to plan the evening or our lives. 

Like our parents, we were from there — Holy Name Parish and attended local schools like Brooklyn College, St. John’s, and St. Francis, ones that we could afford. 

We were miserable, of course, living at home with our parents and their infuriating questions and reminders: Where are you going? What time will you be home? Don’t forget to go to Mass tomorrow. 

Farrell’s was our refuge, our frat house, and it was there, more than 50 years ago, I met Jimmy Houlihan, who served us cold, 15-cent Buds. Hooley was a decade or so older than me and, like most of the working-class Irish, looked askance at our long hair, ratty jeans, and anti-war buttons. 

Yet every Friday, Saturday, and more, we stood at the rail with construction workers, cops, firemen, and those that still spoke with brogues. And if our politics enraged, and debate became invective, Hooley would simply say: “They’re OK,” and all would be calm. 

Farrell’s was never just a place to have a beer. Along with the Church, it was the center of our world. There, connections were made, jobs were found, money raised for the nuns, or, quietly, for those without work, or a widow with kids. 

Owner Eddie Farrell, in shirt and tie, made the bar unlike the other saloons that were on every corner — one with class, humility, and generosity. But it was more than a place to have a few. It was, I later realized, a family — one of kindness, respect, and even though Hooley with his gruff exterior would never admit it, love. 

After Farrell died suddenly and too soon in 1995, I represented the bartenders — Hooley, Danny Mills, and Timmy Horan — as their lawyer, in the purchase of the business and building. 

“I want to run it just like Farrell did,” Hooley told me, and he did that and much more. The other bartenders were wonderful characters, but Hooley was the mayor. 

He ran the softball and football teams, organized trips to Giants games, the Preakness, and Cape Cod, and he ordered T-shirts and hats. Hooley was the one who listened to problems and found solutions, while pouring the coldest beer in Brooklyn — at his own leisurely pace. 

When the classrooms in Holy Name Parish school needed painting, Hooley passed the word. Dozens answered, and in a weekend, the 30 or so classrooms, with their 20-foot ceilings, looked new. 

He organized fundraisers, like the Eddie Farrell Golf Outing, to support Holy Name School and Bishop Ford High School, so that many could afford tuition. Change happened despite our opposition. 

Over the years, our working-class neighborhood gradually and then suddenly gentrified. Holy Name Church and school were no longer packed. The schoolyard where we’d spent every free moment — a utopia teeming with kids playing basketball, stickball, punchball — was now a cold, concrete slab. 

Yet, even as the neighborhood and the world changed, Hooley, in his apron with his direct manner, made sure Farrell’s didn’t, at least not too much. Time and too many years on his feet slowed Hooley. His commute to his home in Suffolk County began to wear. He never complained about aging, or his personal grief, losing his beloved Maureen to cancer, and then his lovely second wife, Eileen, to that same disease. 

I’m going to hang it up, he told me, but I’ll go out with a party. The T-shirts read: “Hooley’s Last Call, April 18, 1965 to November 16, 2019,” and the bar was jammed with all those who adored this honest and considerate man. A typical Irish wake. 

We spoke every few weeks or so, and then he had to move in with his son, Jimmy. He didn’t get around so well, he said. And soon there was mention of a walker, a wheelchair, rehab. Finally, I called and he didn’t pick up, an ominous sign. On Sept. 17, 2022, Jimmy died peacefully, amid family. He was 83. 

Jimmy Houlihan, in his unassuming, kind way, maintained for decades the wonderful ideal of caring for and helping not only each other, but also the neighborhood. 

Jimmy did it without conceit or acclaim, but because it was right and good and, as a humble bartender in a corner bar, he knew nothing else. I hope I am wrong when I state that Hooley’s final Last Call marks the disappearance of working-class neighborhoods, a way of life, never to be repeated in my beloved Brooklyn. I hope others emulate his gentle, generous life; a life of a neighborhood guy who done good. 

Ken Nolan is a parishioner of St. Anselm’s, Bay Ridge. He was raised in Holy Name Parish, Windsor Terrace. This story originally ran in the blog Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.