When Molly McGarry visited her father during a trip to Bellingham in 2005, they wanted to go out for pints. She and her partner, David Rooney, were disappointed to learn that Bellingham lacked a true Irish pub. They still went out that night, but found little satisfaction with the bars they visited. One bar didn’t serve Guinness; another couldn’t properly pour a pint of it.
Following breakfast the next morning, McGarry and Rooney happened to walk by a vacant space at 1319 Commercial Street that was for lease. Intrigued, but out of time, they returned to San Francisco. Still, they thought about the space. The couple went ahead and enquired.
Not long after, on St. Patrick’s Day of 2006, Uisce Irish Pub opened its doors.
Uisce, the Gaelic word for “water,” is pronounced “Ish-Kah.” It’s among the biggest and best Irish pubs between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., and boasts arguably the largest selection of scotch and Irish whiskey in Bellingham. “This is almost my second home,” says McGarry, reclining on a black leather couch next to the bar’s fireplace.
McGarry – a San Francisco transplant who attended Options High School – met Rooney (originally from Dublin) in New York City in 2002. Here both gained experience in the bar industry. They worked at an Irish bar together before taking additional stints in Seattle and San Francisco.
Although there were opportunities to own bars in both the Big Apple and the City by the Bay, the pair finally took up bar ownership in the City of Subdued Excitement. Their new venture was hard work. “We built everything in this place,” McGarry says, adding that she did the plumbing herself.
The signature physical feature of Uisce is undoubtedly the bar itself: a long, elegant piece of custom-made African mahogany designed and built by Tom Lutz, a Lummi Island woodworker who’d never carved a bar before. After construction, the bar was delivered to the space swaddled in blankets.
“It’s literally like our baby,” McGarry says of the bar, adding that it was designed to allow customers to stand comfortably with friends while also having enough space to sit and cross their legs.
Rooney departed from the business and McGarry took over solo operation of Uisce, all while raising her daughter, Saoirse. It’s an experience in which she’s learned a lot, especially regarding the essential ability to delegate responsibilities to her employees.
“To be successful, you cannot do everything,” says McGarry, who is still very much a hands-on owner, bartending every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night. This provides her a way to accurately assess how her business is operating. “You can actually talk to your customers and you can talk to the service people,” she says. “It’s just what a good owner does.”
Uisce is open every day of the year, including Christmas, and while it hosts fun Halloween and New Year’s parties, its biggest day is always St. Patrick’s Day.
On this special day the bar opens early at 11:00 a.m. In 2018, this is an hour before Bellingham’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. McGarry and her entire family marches in the parade each year, carrying the pub’s four large shield-shaped flags (representing the four original provinces of Ireland), along with a replica of the large Uisce Irish Pub banner that hangs directly above the bar.
After the McGarrys return to Uisce, with bagpipers in tow, rounds of Guinness and Jameson continue flowing all day, along with Irish music and dancing.
In addition to whiskey and the usual selection of local microbrews, the pub pours proper pints of Guinness (they’re officially certified, by Guinness, to pour the famous stout), Harp lager and Smithwick’s (pronounced ‘Smiddick’s’) red Irish ale.
Uisce’s cocktail menu features classics like the Old Fashioned and Irish coffee, the latter of which is concocted from a McGarry family recipe. The family recommendation for a proper drink at Uisce, McGarry says, is a pint of Smithwick’s with a shot of 12-year Redbreast Irish whiskey, served on the rocks.
McGarry is immensely proud of Uisce and of all the people who’ve inhabited it over the years, from customers to employees, to the spirits of her Irish ancestors whose photographs surround the bar’s fireplace mantle.
“I’ve created a community,” she says. “What we’ve created here is my little piece of Ireland in Bellingham. It’s hard to even put that into words.”
Review by Matt Benoit, WhatcomTalk