There’s a lot to know.
First off, his last name is pronounced “McKernan,” and he’s from Ardboe, County Tyrone.
Second, he’s been working in the bar business for a long while.
“When I was 13, 14 years old, my dad had a bar, Duff’s Corner,” he says. “That was in Ardboe. I’m 30 now.”
He actually started tending bar when he was 15 or 16 years old. “Straight into the fire, man,” he says. “I was helping out at first, but I started pulling shifts on my own when I was maybe 16.”
Third, he’s an accomplished musician.
“I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14,” Mac Thiarnáin says. “I used to play drums with Ray Coleman. He was the singer. He and I used to play in bands with my two cousins, and we played in the student bar in Belfast, The Hatfield. We used to play there on a Wednesday night. Then he moved here (Philadelphia). I was at university in Belfast at the time, and I learned guitar. Then I formed a band with a friend of mine and three young girls. We had fiddle, tin whistle, guitar and bodhrán. We used to back some of the bigger bands at home. We played the student bars.”
Music brought him to the Philly area. He moved here to play locally. “I had just wanted to come out for the summer. Me and my buddy, he had a banjo, I had a guitar,” he says. “We literally walked into Tír na nÓg, and the bartender says, ‘You’re Budgie and Stevie’s cousin.’ Luckily, he must have got a tip I was coming out, and I didn’t know. So I walked in with my guitar, and he says, ‘I know who you are.’ And that’s how I ended up meeting everybody here.”
He wound up playing music throughout the Delaware Valley. He continues to do so, from The Black Taxi to Market Tavern (formerly Sláinte) to the Anglesea Pub in Wildwood, and he performs along with local musicians, including Cormac Brady and Ray Coleman.
There’s a lot more to tell about Neil Mac Thiarnáin. We dropped by The Black Taxi one day before the coronavirus landed with a huge thud on bars and closed them down for a while. Here’s what he had to say.
Irish Philly: When did you come to the United States?
Mac Thiarnáin: About seven summers ago. I moved home for a bit and came back here four years ago. When I first came out, I was traveling around doing music and I met the owner and he bought this (The Black Taxi). I used to stay with him, Donal McCusker. His mom and my mom were neighbors.
So when he opened The Black Taxi, we kept in touch and one day he said, ‘Do you want to come back and work?’ I just wanted to be here. I love it. Philly’s good craic. I’ve met some good people; you know how it is? Work here, play a bit of music. It’s not a bad life.
Irish Philly: What do you like about tending bar?
Mac Thiarnáin: It’s the whole social aspect. I like tending bar and talking to people. It’s the whole atmosphere. Most of the customers are nice. There’s a good culture in Philly. You meet people and then you go to another bar and they say, ‘Oh, you work at such-and-such.’ Bartenders are the local celebrities.
Irish Philly: What do you serve most often?
Mac Thiarnáin: Guinness and Tullamore Dew. We do that as a special here. A pint of Guinness and a shot of Tullamore.
Irish Philly: Is there anything you don’t like?
Mac Thiarnáin: Well, sometimes the hours get to me. But I suppose by the time you get to 2 a.m. and everybody leaves, the best pint is when you’ve just cleaned up. You’re like, ‘Well, that was easy.’ And then you grab a pint and listen to Van Morrison.
The Black Taxi is at 745-747 North 25th Street in Philly’s Fairmount neighborhood. Currently, they are open daily 12-8 for takeout orders. Give them a call at 215-232-1086 to place your order.