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Memories of Hugh Kelly, Who Loomed Larger Than Life

One of our oldest, dearest friends was Hugh Kelly, founder of Kelly’s Irish Times, 14 F Street NW.  He died December 13, 2022, at his home in Edgewater, Md., after battling Parkinson’s disease for many years. He was 77.

An Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1963, Hugh was generous, affable, witty, fun-loving, and bright.

He was a huge, lovable bear of a man, whom we’d known for more than 40 years.The roots of our friendship began in 1974, when Irish-American entrepreneur Danny Coleman and partner Hugh unveiled the Dubliner Pub in the old Commodore Hotel across from Union Station.

In 1978, Hugh sold his Dubliner share to open the Irish Times next door, in the former Luau Hut. The Luau Hut was known for silly drinks, faux Polynesian fare and an enormous papier mache volcano. The ghastly-looking structure lasted several years until tipsy patrons grabbed mallets and demolished it. Early on, Celeste interviewed Hugh for the still brand-new Hill Rag.

At first, Kelly’s offered little ambience. Someone once described it as a Greyhound bus station, when the ancient skylights bore splotches of black paint–remnants of World War II blackouts.

But gradually, Hugh and loyal patrons started decorating, incorporating a Victorian dresser flanked by assorted posters, signs, police badges, and political memorabilia. We contributed a vintage Guinness sign, which someone eventually stole off the wall.

In 1979, Peter and I vacationed in Ireland, and Hugh joined us. We spent a couple of nights with his mother, Josephine Kelly, in Mullingar, located in rural Longford, which Hugh dubbed “the Iowa of Ireland.” A widow, Mrs. Kelly lived in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse. The walls were two feet thick, necessary for insulation in Ireland’s cold, damp climate. Mrs. Kelly evoked “the soul of Ireland.”

We sat in Mrs. Kelly’s kitchen, warmed by her peat-burning stove. Presently, she said in her lilting brogue: “This is a very dry chat,” and produced a bottle of Paddy’s, which we sipped neat, sans ice or water. Then it was time for “tea,” early supper in rural Ireland. Our repast consisted of rasher (thickly-sliced bacon), eggs and fried tomatoes, along with delicious scones, straight from her peat-burning oven. While I was helping her prepare our simple supper, she told me to “lift” the tomatoes, namely turn them over. So, now I can claim that I actually cooked on a peat stove.

Around now Hugh arrived at the table (“here comes himself,” Mrs. Kelly announced), and the four of us had supper, washed down with hot tea. That night Peter and I slept under six blankets (Remember, this was August!) The top one was electric, the old fashioned kind that does not turn off automatically. Therefore, we had to stay awake long enough to turn it off, as we didn’t want to be responsible for burning down a 200-year-old house, as well as ourselves.

Back in Washington, through the years, Kelly’s Times attracted top-notch Irish bands, including The Irish Tradition, Celtic Thunder, and recently—Pete Papageorge, who performed there for many years.

In those early days, business was tough, and at one point the rather grungy lower level housed an Irish theater. Another time, Hugh opened a “new wave” nightclub called Reeks. The club attracted all sorts of interesting musical groups (not to mention customers), but money started coming in and now Kelly’s packs them in. The downstairs area is still used for St. Patrick’s Day overflow.

Over the past four decades, Kelly’s became a popular hangout for customers ranging from law enforcement officers to GPO printers to Catholic University students and political leaders like Eugene McCarthy and Tip O’Neill.

The venerable Irish Times, located near Union Station, was founded by Hugh Kelly, who died recently at age 77. Photo: Celeste McCall

Kelly’s food is better than the usual pub grub. Until his death in the late 1980s, Charlie Rice reigned over the kitchen. I can still taste his melt-in-your-mouth braised short ribs. The kitchen still churns out delicious corned beef and fish ‘n chips.

In the 1990s, Kelly opened Ellis Island, in Brookland, near Catholic University. The place attracted so many black and white clad priests and nuns –who did resemble penguins— that Hugh nicknamed it “The Antarctic Shelf.”

Hugh eventually sold Ellis Island, and the space now houses a Tex-Mex restaurant. In 2002, we attended Hugh’s wedding to Belinda Canton, a lovely, talented woman whose parents came from Belize. The couple dwelled in Edgewater near Annapolis. Belinda died of cancer a few years ago.

Hugh Kelly is survived by brothers Brendan and Michael, a sister Imelda, a son also named Brendan, daughter-in-law Julie and granddaughter Megan. Son Brendan now co-owns Kelly’s with managing partner Sean Ryan, who’s worked with Brendan for 15 years.

“I’ve cultivated a family here,” Ryan told us as we finished a recent lunch at Kelly’s. “And I want to keep the tradition going.”

Celeste McCall has written the Hill Rag’s dining column, Capitol Cuisine, for more than forty years.

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