Andrew, Bill, and Wolf Hul perform for the open house at 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, NJ.
Andrew, Bill, and Wolf Hul perform for the open house at 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, NJ.
Andrew & Chris relax before our performance at Island Beach State Park
Apparently I was in time out for the show. BTW this gig was a bigger disappointment for us than was “Araby” for Joyce. Total flop!
Posted for John O’Neal by Father Bill
Bill had an interesting method of dealing with calendar conflicts. If two events overlapped in time, he would simply attend neither one.
This is Billy’s signature inside the cover of a book that he gave me on my birthday, back in 2001. It was a biography of Jefferson Davis and he was real excited about it. Bill was just about always reading one book or another and telling folks what he had learned from the experience. He had a zeal for reading and lusted for knowledge. I bet everyone he knows has at least one good story about how he shared his reading with others. It was great to hear him get excited about learning in this self-directed manner. When he was in high school he complained to his teacher about how they did not teach Irish history. The teacher granted him permission to go to the library on an ongoing basis to research the subject. Bill admired the teacher for giving him the freedom to learn about what he chose to learn. This zeal followed Bill throughout life. He never lost it.–Bill O’Neal
Billy loved children. His favorite noise in life was the sound of their laughter when at play. A week or two before he went into hospice I paid my last visit to Bill. We were sitting on his back deck, watching his girls and my Thomas at play. Tom was pushing over the lawn chairs. Billy said it reminded him of a long ago trip to Dublin. He was in the park at St. Stephen’s Green and a young lad was tossing lawn chairs into the creek, brushing off his hands after every chuck of a chair. Bill said he got the biggest kick out of that.
Another time we were playing in Perth Amboy at an INA fundraiser. While on break we went down to the bay and there a young boy of 10 or so had been fishing, but his pole had broken. Billy tried to give the kid $20 to buy another. Well trained by someone, the lad refused the money, not persoanlly knowing Bill. The thought of the lad thinking he was a pervert or something never crossed Bill’s mind. He simply loved children and he often said we should all be like children–that life was all about that and little more.
Posted by Bill O’Neal, written by Brian Hill…
So, whenever it would get slow at the shop, I would go to the nOg (picking up a sandwich at Tina’s or Chiarellos) and have a few to wet the whistle. This one time I went into the pub and Billy said to me…”do you want to go to lunch?” well… not one to turn down a free meal… “Sure!” Says I. We got into the white van [we all remember the white van] and headed off to our lunch I called Lin and said I would be a bit late getting home ( I was expected at 4pm) and I set off with Billy. After a bit of small talk I realized we were on the turnpike and I said “were we going?”…then there’s that twinkle, “do you remember the place in the New York Times we read about a few weeks ago? You remember, the (Grand Central) Oyster Bar? I thought we could go there”. Well, there was no way I was going to get home by 4. We parked in a lot or parking garage and made our way inside sitting in the middle of this beautiful establishment. Stunning arch tile ceilings with elegant architectural lines, and quaint red and white checkerboard tablecloths, it was magnificent. The waiter came over to take our order and Billy said “where are your oysters from?” he starts in the U.S. and begins naming everywhere we could think of…but he misses one place…Billy says, “what about Galway Bay?” The waiter replied ‘yes, Galway Bay’ we each ordered 18, 6 from Galway, 6 from Chincoteague Island, and 6 from Frobisher Bay. I looked at the prices and Billy said “you get the tip”…6 from Washington State, 6 from New Orleans, 6 from Kymoto. 6 from Galway again, Chesapeake Bay Blue Points , and 6 from Malpeque…they never stopped, I think it was about 10 dozen total. Each tray brought another beer and when we were finished we just laughed and laughed, my God we felt like little kids. Billy could do that to you in an instant. Then he said to the waiter “Do you make good oyster stew?” ‘yes’ “we’ll each have one”. Now I am thinking about doing the Roman thing. Where the hell am I going to put oyster stew? But it found a place and it was delicious. It was the first time of many where I watched as Billy licked the plate clean. He looked up at the bar and noticed the bottle on the shelf of the bar. “Did you ever have Macallan single Malt?”, ‘no’ Billy, “we’ll have two shots in big glass” It was delicious. Lunch was $375.00. I left a big tip. Holy cow! I couldn’t wait to tell Lin.
We leave and head north! Now where? “well I thought we’d make a short trip to a bar up in the Bronx to see Black 47 play. Until that moment it did not hit me that I was on a bona fide full blown adventure with Briggs. I had heard about them, seen what the cat dragged in after them, but never been part of it, until now. I needed to pace myself, I began to drink water, it did not help. We arrived at this bar, I have no idea where… it was dark. Grabbed some boxes out of the back and went inside. He introduced me to so many people I could not remember who they were. For years after that people would come up to me and say hello, they met me in the Bronx…I definitely do not remember anything specific about this part of the night other than a really good time… a grand old time. Got laughed at many times for the water in between the Guinness, but it was a stellar night. At three we headed back to Trenton (man was I in deep, good thing I called from Grand Central). I think I passed out sometime after that and remember Billy saying, “Man I was drunk and threw up, good thing you drove back” we laughed hard and he said “good night Bro”
Good night Billy…
By Mike Rhodes
The year that Tir na nOg opened I owned a screenprinting and embroidery business. Not long after the new place opened Billy asked me to print up some shirts that Jean Warren had designed with original logo that showed the mythology of Tir na nog. I am not sure how many of you remember those shirts.
Anyway some months later Billy had gone to Ireland for Dennis and Caroline Griffin’s wedding. The week he was gone Mark Mahon, Frank Connell and I were in the pub several nights (4 or 5) well after closing time. When Billy had returned the following weekend I was in the pub as usual. Billy had just come in and was sitting in the dart room. My cousin Joe Rhodes comes up to me and says that Billy is looking for me and needs to talk right away. At this point I thought I was FLAGGED, I figured that he found out about me staying and drinking after the pub had closed. So I sheepishly approached Billy and said, “Hey bro what’s up?” Billy responded “I got an idea bro and I need your help…”. (Billy called me bro, he was my friend)
Billy continued, “I want you to make some new T-shirts, check this out, ha ha ha.” With that, he pulls out a cocktail napkin with some scribbling that says, “COOL DUDES FROM NEW JERSEY 1991 ALL IRELAND PINOCHLE TOUR”. Billy asks me what I think (I think I’m not FLAGGED) and I told him that was great and sure I could make some shirts. He goes on to say that he wants all the places they stopped and played Pinochle on the back of the shirt (kind of like a concert tour shirt). Thus, the birth of the Pinochle shirt.
I showed Billy my designs on his concept which he loved and he promptly ordered six dozen shirts. A few weeks later I delivered the shirts and the look in his eyes was like a kid on Christmas morning. He quickly took off the shirt he was wearing and put on the new Pinochle shirt, he gave me one and a couple out to the few people in the pub that afternoon. He said he was going to give some to the people on the Ireland trip as well. At this point I figured that he was planning on selling them and that he might wear his shirt from time to time.
Boy was I wrong. The next day Billy was wearing the shirt again and then the next and so on and so on…I quickly realized the shirts were really for him. Billy LOVED that shirt.
If you saw Billy you knew for sure that he would be dressed exactly the same, black pants and the black Pinochle shirt. Sometimes he would even wear the shirt inside out…did it really matter. I kept wondering when Billy was going to wear something else. I pondered that for a very long time.
A year or so later Billy, P’Simer, Joe Rhodes and I were on our way to Dennis Keenan’s installation as the Trenton Fire Chief. I remember the following conversation like it was yesterday.
Billy: Hey bro, I need to order some more shirts.
Mike: Sure Bill no problem, how many?
Joe: Hey Bill…
Billy: Yeah bro…
Joe: You know…YOU CAN WASH THEM
Billy: Ha ha ha…spare me. Give me six more dozen.
…by Andy Redmond
The first time I met Billy was 2001. I was new to the area and just started a Celtic band. Looking for venues to play, most bar and club owners were hesitant to book the band without a first hearing. Even an offering to perform for free wasn’t melting the icy stares. A band member told me about Billy Briggs and his place, TirNaNog. As fate would have it, a chance visit found me watching and hearing Billy onstage, a rotund bear of a man, cigar at the side of his mouth, strumming a banjo and singing in a tone usually reserved for the high level professionals of our craft. Impressed was an understatement! Between sets, I introduced myself and inquired about performing. “What kind of Celtic music?” he asked. “Irish, Scottish songs along with lots of instrumentals, jigs, reels with American variations mixed in.” I said. Billy’s next question was, “Any rebel tunes?” Not sure what answer he was looking for I just figured I should tell the truth. “Sure, Billy, tunes from 1916 and 1798 but, we don’t specialize in them. We include them as part of a greater whole.” I was sure he would think I was some idiot or worse, an academic looking for a venue to teach history. Instead, he looked me square in the eyes, puffed on his stogy and said, “That’s good, bro, to many rebel bands around. Be nice to mix it up a little. Next month, first Friday, see how it goes.” So TirNaNog became one of the first places Na’Bodach could play. A club date that lasted once a month for four years! During that time, I knew Billy as a talented, gracious and fair man. I saw what he did for the Trenton Irish-American community.
He led the way in procuring funds to assist those in Ireland who needed financial aid. His example of unselfishness made it easy for the rest of us to find time to donate our talents to fund-raising events. He worked tirelessly to raise the collective conscience of all things Irish. My band continues to perform thanks in no small part to a man who took a chance. More than that, I am a better man for having known him. Rest in peace “Irish” Billy Briggs.
As told by John Donnelly
I tended bar for Billy for 2 and a half years at Tir na nOg and was a patron of the location on Olden Avenue, Billy’s Irish Pub. Knowing Billy for a few years I more often times than not knew when he was telling a fish story. One day I was tending bar, and Billy just returned from a trip to California just prior to St. Patrick’s Day. For no apparent reason I asked him if he had gone fishing. Well, Billy was no fisherman, but he responded, “Well, as a matter of fact I did, but not intentionally.” Knowing he was full of shit, I decided not to ask further details and he offered no further story.
Old Roy later came in for and he also asked Billy if he went fishing. Roy then asked him what he caught and here is what Billy Briggs had to say, I remember like it was yesterday….
“Well, it was funny. You know, Los Angeles does not have many Irish Pubs, more British Pubs than Irish. I finally found one out in Santa Monica and started talking to a couple of Irish guys. They said they were going to Catalina Island and bring a boat load full of corned beef to the Irish pub there for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and if I would help them load and unload the boat, I could have free transport to and from the Island. So I decided to help them as I always wanted to go to Catalina Island. About half way out the boat started taking on water, and I should have known better to look at the boat being in the Navy; it was not seaworthy. So the salt water started mixing with the corned beef. They must have gotten it of the back of a truck or something because it just was not fresh and starting leaking out. Next thing you know the boat is surrounded with great white shark fins. Things were getting bad so the boys called the Coast Guard. When the Coast Guard finally got there, the boat was half under water. The guys were being transferred to the Coast Guard ship and left me a shot gun to fend off the sharks before it was my turn. They even took this picture….” At this point Billy produces a picture of Himself standing on a sinking bow with a shot gun pointed at a leaping great white shark with its “Jaws” wide open.
I immediately recognized it as a picture from the “Jaws” set at Universal Studios, but Roy didn’t know what to make of it and was too polite to call it into question. However, 2 Irish lads later were told the same story and actually believed it 100%.
A couple months later Billy O’Neal, Billy Briggs, and I went fishing and Billy caught this sand shark with a bamboo pole with a string tied to the end of it.
The tradition began modestly. One March day Bob Leming and Bill O’Neal were sitting in the pub, discussing the Crappie fish and its various, over romantic names. They developed a composite name: The American Speckled Hickory Bass: Quite a lofty title for a bream. They decided to go out crappie fishing the day after St. Patrick’s Day. They posted an invitation in the pub. On the 18th the weather was horrible, but a considerable number of participants had reported, eager to go fishing. Some ambitious college girls had even packed a cooler for the trek. But the weather said, “No Way”, so we threw a drink tray on the stage and had a casting contest instead. Who could land the most shots in the tray? Bob Leming emerged from the throng victorious, our first King Crappie.
The following year Brian Hill brought in a toilet to use as a target, the finishing touch needed if the contest was to be taken seriously as a crappie one. Over the years there were many winners and more protests of “foul” play. The attached footage is from the next to last contest, when Roseanne emerged victorious.
I had first heard of Billy from Sligo Anne. She had just started living in Lambertville and herself and Nancy had just found Billy’s Irish Pub in Trenton. It was sometime in 1985/6 (not exactly sure) and I was living in Connecticut. She rang me laughing and could hardly tell me the story. She told me that she ordered a burger in this Irish Pub they had just found. When she saw how cigar ashes were spread on it she promptly called over the “waiter”(Billy she didn’t know he owns the place at the time)and said “look at that burger there’s ashes on it” so he picks up her plate blows off the ashes gives it back to her.
She laughed until she cried and she said he would be her friend forever!! The rest of course is history.
I began visiting Anne and sang with them at the old bar. When I moved to Lambertville a few years later I received so much help and a warm welcome from him and Anne and the all the community. Billy took me aside and said :” you have a gig here whenever you are not playing in New York” I can’t tell you all what that meant to me. His generosity and understanding was there and he was a true and loyal friend. He would faithfully drive to Lambertville on Friday and Saturday night’s to pick us both up and then back again. We had such laughs and that blooming cigar smoke stuck to everything! I suppose we were lucky we didn’t end up in a another state according to the other stories I heard!
The last time I saw Billy and Anne together was on the platform of the Trenton train station many years ago now. They had dropped me off and we had extra time before the train arrived. We stood on the platform there and just reminisced and just laughed and talked about everything. I never thought that it would be one the last times I saw them together.
God Bless Billy Briggs.
We Will Never Forget.
Sitting at the pub it was about 6:30 in the evening the regulars were there, JB, Willie, Mark, Joe…I was sitting close to the end of the bar and Frank was bartending…or was it Joe…no matter, A guy walks in and says “Hey, is Billy Briggs in?… Frank says “no, Billy’s not here, why? …” ‘well I need to speak with him. I need to borrow $40.00’… Frank says, in the style only Frank can deliver, “Why would Billy… lend you $40.00?” The guy actually says to Frank…”He’s my friend, he calls me Bro”… everyone sitting at the bar broke into laughter saying but he calls me bro too! We must also be his friend….
Witnessed by Brian Hill in 2000
I got tired of watching as Billy complained that the receipt should be higher. All the time, people would come in and buy drinks and say ‘hey, happy birthday, have one on me’ a shot glass would be turned upside down and the patron would do their best to drink all the upside down shot glasses away…well it got to the point that there were no shot glasses for the regulars to even get a shot of Powers, because all the glasses were upside down in front of someone, [or two or three or four folks] (lots of people were very generous)…what’s the deal? Well Billy, being Billy, just went downtown to the local glassery on South Broad St., and bought plastic shot glasses. Hey, now we are cooking!!! Well…it wasn’t long before a bunch of real jerks began to BUY the plastic shot glasses and take advantage of my friend (he called me Bro) Billy….Next thing you know Billy was losing money hand over fist to everyone and their idiot brother with plastic shot glasses asking for their free drink….jerks….Well, I went to my 25th High School reunion in 1994..I got a token from a friend who bought me a drink it looked like a poker chip…my mind raced as to how I could help my friend Billy………… well after looking at the Tir na nOg sign I got it…Make a chip, no wait, three chips…one for Guinness, in BLACK, one for ½ pint of Guinness or a pint of Bud IN GREEN, one for ½ pint of Bud in YELLOW… people could buy them and put them in their pocket… EXCELLENT!!!!! So on Billy’s birthday in 1994 I bought him 1000 black, 1000 green and 500 yellow. Happy birthday Bro! (he was my friend)…two months later he said to me….” I need to order more black and green chips” I said “how many?”… he replied 2000 black and 2000 green…I informed Bill that it would cost him $920.00 or roughly $.23 cents each…less then a quarter each. He flipped…$950.00!!!!!!!!!!!! (with shipping) I said, ‘yes why?’…he says to me.. ”that’s too much money!!!!!!!!!!!!” So I explain to my friend…”OK, I GAVE you 2000 chips…you sold them for …hummmm (1000 @ $3.00 and 1000 @ 1.50 =) $4,500.00 and you sold…lets see… NO BEER!!! Dude, what are you complaining about…??? Billy, we are good!..He looked at me with that twinkle he could produce on command…he smiled and said ‘order the chips’, and then said to the bartender “Give my friend a Guinness”
God bless Billy Briggs
By Santa Bob
Maybe it’s an Irish pub owner thing. Sweeney did it. Briggs did it. I’m talking about missspellling wurds.
Anyone who has ever seen one of Billy’s homemade promo posters can attest to the fact that he consistently spelled one word wrong on each poster. Maybe it was Wendsday. Perhaps it was speshul. It doesn’t matter. He claims he did it on purpose– that strategically placed bad spelling forces the reader (it’s a decoding thing and he’s right) to read and reread repeatedly the incorrectly spelled word, thus holding their attention and bringing the message home.
So did he do it on purpose? It’s hard to say, since he was such a notorious bullshitter. Or is it bullshiter?
Many years ago Billy and I were the opening act for a Paddy Noonan/Andy Cooney show, While we were setting up I noticed I forgot to pack my guitar strap. I mentioned to Bill I would need a stool, since I did not have the strap and he said, “Now a professional musician ALWAYS keeps his strap attached to his instrument, so that…” he stopped mid-sentence and nervously looked around for his banjo, which he left back at his place. Fortunately Margaret was able to run back to the house and collect his banjo while we set up the sound, returning just in time for us to begin.
In ensuing years I would often said to Billy as we were about to begin a gig, ‘Do you have your banjo strap?’
To which he usually responded, “Right Bro; Spare me, bro!”
Anyone who has ever jumped into the passenger seat of Billy’s various trucks or vans knows how dangerous of an event that can become. Billy craved adventure and any trip with him in a car, long or short, could quickly become one.
One day he asked me if I cared to take a ride with him, to which I responded, :How far? We aren’t going to Atlantic City are we?”
He answered no, that it wasn’t that far. So I hopped in beside him and we started off. We passed through Mercerville and Allentown, he pointing out Thelma and Bob Cottrell’s home along the road. Then he turned on to county road 539 and headed south. We passed several small towns, getting nearer and nearer, in my opinion, to Atlantic City. When stopped at a little diner called Lucille’s. Bill said they made the best chile. For him everything in the moment was always the best. We left and continued southeast and when he crossed the Garden State Parkway without entering , I felt relieved. We crossed Route 9 at Tuckerton. There we stopped in a bar and had a beer before heading on. He still refused to reveal our destination. When we headed down Radio Road toward Mystic Island, he told me the story about how the Nazis had a radio station there that spied on the American ships, etc. He was always so interested in history and read extensively.
Anyway, he drove on until we reached the tip of a penisula in the bay and we parked and got out of the car. It was a warm, sunny day and togethered we walked to the bay’s edge on the shore. He pointed across the bay and said, “Now there is Atlantic City. I told you we weren’t going quite that far!”
I soon learned the truth. We drove back up the penisula a short distance and he showed me his new house. He wanted to show me his new shore house. He loved that house, but that is another story.
Another time Billy and I went to Ireland together and hired a car. Along the way he collected several parking tickets, which went unpaid, and managed to lose all four hubcaps and both side view mirrors. Whenever I ventured to comment about parking in an inappropriate spot or violating one driving rule or another he would calmly remark, “Bill, you keep forgetting: We are ignorant American tourists; we can do anything we want to do.” When it came time to fly home out of Shannon, we checked our baggage and then learned that the flight was delayed 8 hours. We had not yet turned in the car rental, so Billy led me back to the car. He proceed to drive off into the Irish countryside, managing to get lost somewhere around Sixmilebridge. Somehow we managed to get back in time for the flight.
For years afterward Billy would often remark that our trip to Ireland was the best trip ever, but then again, he said that often about other trips as well. To Billy, each moment was the best moment ever.
Jersey mourns loss of ‘Irish Billy’
Pub owner, entertainer dead at 56
William Russell “Irish Billy” Briggs, a colorful cigar chomping pub owner, Irish Republican rebel and rousing entertainer, died on July 15 in his Lawrence Township home after a year-long battle with colon and liver cancer. He was 56.
Billy Briggs owned Tir na Nog, a popular HamiltonTownship pub where he honored with the Irish Patriot Award by Sinn Fein Vice President Pat Doherty last March.
A founder of the Trenton St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Briggs regularly sang the Irish and American National Anthems at ceremonies while playing his banjo and his ever-present cigar locked in one corner of his mouth. He often took to the stage in his pub to sing Irish rebel songs and some tunes he wrote himself.
Friends remember Briggs as a gentle and generous jokester and a tireless soldier for a free and united Ireland. He helped a number of young Irish immigrants get settled in the Trenton area. Briggs was a very visible figure at Irish gatherings around New Jersey. He was invited by former Governor James McGreevey to receptions for Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Leader Martin McGuinness at Drumthwacket, the governor’s Princetonmansion.
Briggs survivors include his wife, Margaret O’Donnell-Briggs, a native of County Tipperary, 6-year-old twin daughters, Ellen O’Donnell and Mairead O’Donnell Briggs, his parents, Russell and Frances Kelly Briggs, sisters, Susan, Colleen and Patricia and a brother, Timothy.
After a Mass of Christian Burial at St. Mary’s Church, Bordentown, Briggs was buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery, Fethard, County Tippearry.
THE death on Sunday, 15 June, of Billy Briggs was mourned in his own area of Trenton, New Jersey, USA, and widely elsewhere in America and in Ireland.
Known everywhere as ‘Irish Billy’ Briggs, he was at the heart of the Irish-American community in Trenton. He ran Tir na nÓg, a well-known Irish bar where he was owner, manager, entertainer, advisor and supporter. As one of his friends said at his wake: “He was the heart of the area.”
Billy was a passionate Irish republican and a founding member of Irish Northern Aid. He was also a talented musician and singer of traditional Irish and republican ballads.
Billy was waked at Tir na nÓg and his body brought to Ireland for burial according to his wishes.
He was buried in the graveyard in the small village of Killusty in Tipperary, where his wife, Margaret O’Donnell-Briggs, comes from. His coffin was flanked by a guard of honour from the Sands/McGrath Sinn Féin Cumann, Carrick on Suir, and the recently-formed flute band from Carrick on Suir led the funeral procession from the church to the graveyard.
Billy’s wife, Margaret, their twin daughters, Maireád and Ellen, his father, Russell, and sisters Sue and Coleen were supported by friends who had travelled with the cortège from Trenton, including the head of Irish Northern Aid, Paul Doris.
As well as family and friends from the locality, republicans from many parts of Ireland travelled to Billy’s funeral to pay their respects.
The setting of Killusty Church and cemetery at the foot of the Slievenamon Mountains made it a poignant moment when Billy’s father, at 86 years, stepped forward and sang Amazing Grace, followed by Billy’s brother-in-law, Joseph, whose beautiful rendition of Slievenamon was particularly moving and appropriate.
The Carrick on Suir band played a lament before wreaths were laid on the coffin. Sinn Féin Ard Rúnaí Rita O’Hare, formerly the party’s representative in the United States, gave the oration, paying tribute to Billy Briggs’s commitment to the cause of Irish freedom and justice. Rita conveyed sympathy to his family and friends on behalf of Sinn Féin.
‘Irish Billy’ Briggs will be missed by many people. He was only 56 but he had made a huge contribution to the cause he so passionately believed in and served.
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.
“It’s been near on 20 years since 4 young bucks showed up in Trenton New Jersey searching for a bit of work and a good time. Well, by God we got them both in spades, due in no small part to the hospitality of one Billy Briggs. While we sit thousands of miles away now, back in Ireland, we have been known to greet each other with his “What it is Bro, What it is?” opening line. Hardly a night will go by when Shag, Figgs, Noel (when he is back from Spain) and I won’t reminisce about Billy’s and how we were always welcomed like family,
I was privileged to have been able to reciprocate his generosity in a small way when he and Bill O’ Neal visited us in Ireland. Irony of ironies, they were barred from singing rebel songs in The Patriot bar in Kilmainham of all places. Instead they resorted to a few hearty renditions in the house that to this day my folks recall with a mixture of enjoyment and nervousness (God could those 2 men belt out a song nice and loudly)
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to know Billy for long, but if the short period of time we got to enjoy his company has left such an indelible mark on us, I can only imagine the enormous loss to all those close to him, to whom I extend my deepest sympathies.”
Please God, we’ll get to meet him again when I’m sure he’ll greet us… “What it is Bro, what it is?””
Posted by Bill O’Neal for Colum O’Connnor, pictured below in 1990 on the Trinity College campus.
Bill often said that he wanted to have thirty two children, one for every county in Ireland, and that he would name each of them after a county. Then he got on a kick where he decided to name his first son “Shamrock”, but that never happened. Thank goodness that the twins ended up with other, normal, names. Oh, the twins. Shortly after Margaret first learned she was pregnant, she and my wife Lauren were driving down to Mystic Island. Lauren asked her if she was having twins, and Maggie said thank goodness, no; there was only one heartbeat. Lauren responded that perhaps the two hearts were beating in sync. Maggie said no, definitely only one child and that she could never handle two. Then when the baby shower came along (by then she knew they were twins) Lauren made a bassinet cake with two babies in the weaved basket. She had no blue food coloring so she went with a pink theme. To this day I suspect that Maggie reckons she is a voodoo woman!
The first time that Gerry Adams came to the US to speak, Billy and I, and many others, traveled to NYC to hear him speak. I do not recall the exact location, but it was somewhere in midtown Manhattan. After his speech, Billy and I went outside for a smoke and a stranger approached us and asked Billy for a dollar, to which Billy responded, “You know, Bro, it’s funny you should ask. I was just about to ask you for $2 so we could pay the tunnel toll back to NJ.” Of course, the toll at the time was $7, not $2, and the toll was only levied on traffic bound into the city, not out of the city, and everyone knew that. To my amazement, the beggar gave Billy the $2 and we walked away, Billy grinning and remarking how he knew that guy was expecting him to give back the $2 and more, but he didn’t. He was funny like that: Very generous usually, but didn’t care for a con man.
I first met Billy Briggs in 1981 at a Lalor Street pub on the Hamilton and Trenton borderline called The Celtic House. At the time he had a band called The Penn Valley Boys. There was Billy on banjo, Jim Bleasdale on mandolin, and another fellow who later died young of brain cancer on the guitar. I cannot recall his name. I was only beginning to play Irish folk at the time and I never joined him on stage, despite being experienced as a semiprofessional folksinger in the local bars and clubs. I later learned that prior to The Celtic House, Billy had bartended in The Workingman’s Pub, which he might have owned. The Adeline Street pub was formerly known as Scotty’s and was the first place where I ever entertained for pay. This was one of many coincidences in our lives, some others being that we were both born in Burlington County in the year 1952, we both worked for Circle F Industries and Gino’s fast food, and we both sang, of course. It was my interest in Irish history, sparked by the H-Block Hunger Strikers, that led me to meet Billy. I visited the pub once a week or so for a while, usually on music night, and came to know the regulars to a small degree. A year or so later Billy and his partner, a fellow named Gallagher, had a falling out over management decisions and the latter squeezed Billy out of the business, a maneuver which always irked Billy and over which he continued to hold resentment for many years to come.
Tags: CelticHouse, Lalor Street, Billy Briggs, The Penn Valley Boys