Sail On, Billy
By Tom Slattery
I tried but could not come up with a more appropriate title than Tommy McCloskey’s e-mail title of a recent conversation between himself and long-time friend, singing companion and fellow sufferer, Billy Briggs.
I guess I could have used, “Yo, Bro,” Billy’s greeting to his friends. But that doesn’t say as much.
On June 15, 56-year-old “Irish Billy” Briggs, who grew up in Bordentown, New Jersey, but who is better known as the owner of Trenton’s legendary Tir na nOg Pub, died after a year-long battle with colon and liver cancer. His death has cast a palpable pall over the New Jersey Irish and Irish-American communities.
Billy’s wake and funeral were testimonials to his popularity and to the esteem in which people held him. He was waked at his pub for 12 hours (2 p.m. to 2 a.m.), during which hundreds upon hundreds of people passed through. His closed coffin was guarded, IRA-like, for the 12 hours. During the entire 12-hour period, the bar was open and yet, out of respect, there were no incidents.
At 6 p.m. a solitary piper walked through the pub playing “Irish Soldier Boy.” He was followed by a priest, a blessing and a decade of the rosary. Musicians queued up to perform at his funeral Mass the next day. On Sunday, June 22, Billy’s remains were shipped to Tipperary, Ireland, where he was buried in the hometown of his wife, Margaret O’Donnell. Margaret, who came to St. Francis many years ago, started visiting the pub, and eventually fell in love with the big fella, who had recreated Ireland in America and a place for the lonely immigrants to call “home.” In addition to Margaret, Billy is survived by their 6-year old twin daughters, Ellen and Mairead, as well as many family members.
Billy was not only a pub owner, but a singer, an actor, a quiet philanthropist, a man dedicated to a free and united Ireland, and a funny guy when the occasion called for it. His banjo now stands silently on the high chair on which he perched himself these past 17 years to bring his brand of Irish music and political commentary to his eclectic followers. Oh, yeah, the crowds on any given evening might include the Irish nurses from St. Francis, the young Irish contractors (of course, it’s where the nurses hung out), couples in formal wear going to or coming from some posh affair, local politicians, many senior Irish-Americans, and on and on—you get the idea. And in the midst of this happy crowd, and Billy’s presence guaranteed that mood, sat the king in his sartorial splendor—jeff cap, a clean black bowling shirt, dark pants which could hardly remember a crease, black sneakers not normally laced, with one foot carefully balanced on the spittoon (which I hope is bronzed)—knocking out song after song in a clear tenor voice through the cigar firmly ensconced in the corner of his mouth. The spittoon’s main job was to catch the ashes, which on rare occasion it did.
Billy usually was not the sole entertainer. Over the years, his bandstand (a platform capable of holding no more than four musicians—three, if any were Guinness drinkers) hosted so many talented musical performers, from the late Sligo Anne to the latest, Tom Glover. In the in-between years the crowd was treated to the likes of Billy J. O’Neal, Dr. Nancy Ferguson, Tommy McCloskey and many others, including visiting musicians who dropped in and amateurs who volunteered and who heard about it unmercifully if they did not meet the audience’s approval—especially from Billy, who had that special capability to put the dagger in, twist it around, and never lose your friendship.
One of Billy’s favorites was Mary Courtney from the Irish traditional group Morning Star. As a writer for a paper many years ago, I once asked Billy how he would like to spend St. Patrick’s Day if, of course, he was not tied to his pub. He replied, “I’d like to be lying on my back on top of Dun Aengus (a fort on the Aran Islands) with a bottle of Jameson and a cigar, listening to Mary Courtney sing.”
Tir na nOg was usually crowded, but St. Patrick’s week was always elbow to elbow (this is a family publication). At the start of the week, all seats, tables and barstools were removed to allow 20 to 30 more patrons to squeeze in. Trenton Irish could make the Japanese train “fillers” look like rank amateurs.
But Billy will be remembered for much more than his singing. His generosity and hospitality were almost legendary. Many a young Irish person, or family, arrived in the Trenton area not exactly flush, only to end up with some needed cash or furniture from Billy, who was a firm believer that if you hung up an Irish sign, you sure as heck better take care of anyone Irish. Many years ago Trenton had its first St. Patrick’s Day Ball at a New Jersey State Building, which even back then did not allow smoking and so there was a continuous line to have a few puffs outside—and only a few puffs, because of the freezing March weather.
Needless to say, at the following Ball, there was a huge “smokers” tent outside, donated by Billy. Never a man to be impressed with what he perceived as “high society,” he once emphasized the point when one of his closest friends ran the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal announcement with a wine and cheese party at the elegant Grounds for Sculpture (by the way, the announced Grand Marshal was also a close friend) by taking out a full page ad in their ad book saying, “Wine and Cheese, Boo.” He believed the real Irishman drank only beer or whiskey neat.
At a young age, Billy became interested in Ireland, and when his high school in Bordentown offered another ethnic history class, he requested an Irish history class. Told there were not enough students to justify such a class, Billy replied that such a class was his right. And so, once a week Billy Briggs studied Irish history in the school library.
He was a founder of Irish Northern Aid, as well as a co-founder of the Trenton St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee. Billy worked tirelessly for a united Ireland. He was a Provo and Sinn Fein supporter long before it was popular to be, and a quick look around his pub, once voted one of the Top 50 Pubs in America, confirms this. Just this past March he was awarded the Irish Patriots Award by Pat Doherty, Sinn Fein Vice President.
In his old pub, one very similar to Cosey Morley’s (“there will never be another like it, because authorities would not allow it to be built”), late on a July 3 the crowd had dwindled to a hearty few as July 4 arrived. “We have to celebrate our freedom” said one. And Billy agreed. From behind the bar, he produced a picture of Maggie Thatcher, which he pasted on a bare spot on the cinder-block wall and then disappeared into the back room. “He’s gone to get the darts,” exclaimed one. However, a moment later Billy appeared with a 12-gauge with which he altered Maggie’s appearance and brought momentary deafness to those in the room. One claims that even thinking about it still causes his ears to ring.
I said he was an actor and he was—in one Bronx Irish Theater production, he played an English lawyer! Needless to say we filled a bus to travel up to see that performance. And he supported the arts. Tir na nOg held not only annual Bloomsday readings, but for several years had monthly “literature” evenings, which included readings and poetry.
Oh, grant me one more story. One of Billy’s patrons came in after suffering a very close loss in an AOH election. As Billy served him a pint, our friend bemoaned the fact that he had lost the election by a single vote. To which Billy replied, “Aren’t you glad I wasn’t there, you would have lost by two!!” Like the man, the stories about him are becoming legends as they are dug up and retold during this period of mourning but mostly, remembrance. Long-time friend, Billy J. O’Neal has set up a site to collect them.
That, my friends, is vintage Billy Briggs, a man who embraced life with a zest and passion that few ever attain—a man who will be remembered by many as the years go by—a man who was a giant in the Irish community—a man who can not be replaced, but one who set a standard for friendship, loyalty and love that hopefully others will follow.
Rest in peace, dear friend. I feel privileged to have been one of yours.