By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The Irish were among the first to arrive when this city was founded in the 1840s, fleeing famine for jobs in mills they helped build along with churches, schools, the Great Stone Dam and the American labor movement.
They began leaving the city when the mills did after World War II, replaced by waves of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. The Irish exodus continued through the last decade, when their numbers in Lawrence declined 40 percent, to 3,356 in the year 2010, just 4 percent of the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census.
Their churches and schools closed behind them. The last St. Patrick’s Day parade was in 2010. The former Cedar Crest restaurant on Broadway is now a Burger King.
And as 300 Irish from around the region gathered at the Relief’s In on Market Street yesterday for an annual St. Patrick’s Day luncheon that seemed as much a toast to the past as to the present, word came that one more Irish institution may be fading from Lawrence.
The Claddagh Pub is for sale.
“It’s a business decision,” said Colie Ryan, one of the four owners of the cavernous restaurant, bar and catering hall that has been a magnet for Merrimack Valley Irish since 1992. “Lawrence has changed a lot in the last four years. It’s a different crowd.”
The Claddagh — named for a traditional Irish ring that symbolizes love, loyalty and friendship — opened 21 years ago in the Truell Building on Essex Street. It moved to its current location in a former clothing store on Canal Street about seven years later.
Since then, the Claddagh has grown into a cultural center for the Irish and their friends, regularly filling with sell-out weekend crowds of 600 who come to hear bands from back home such as the Dublin City Ramblers and Wolfe Tones. The Massachusetts State Police Pipe Band is scheduled to perform at the bar tonight.
The oversized frothy mug of Guinness on its north brick wall is a first sight for anyone entering downtown from the Casey Bridge, but the Claddagh’s draw goes beyond music, food and beer. The 4-mile road race it sponsors in the city every March drew 996 runners this year.
Ryan, the Claddagh’s part owner, was a charismatic presence at yesterday’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon, leading the crowd in Irish folk songs and showing around a few of the dignitaries, including Michael Lonergan, the Irish Consul General to Boston.
In an interview, Ryan said he did not believe the Claddagh lost business to the Irish Cottage, a restaurant he and his partners opened in Methuen in 2010. He said they attract different crowds.
The Claddagh can be had for $500,000 or it can be purchased as a package for $1.5 million with the acre or so it sits on, which includes a Rent-a-Center retail store facing Essex Street and a parking lot outside the bar on Canal Street.
“It’s no secret that the Irish have definitely dwindled,” said Raymond Neault, the New Hampshire man who has owned the property for 15 years and put it on the market about five months ago. “The Claddagh has long been a last refuge. It’s been a good ride. I’d feel bad to see it go, but all things must pass.”
The property was marketed for a while by Michael Sullivan, a real estate broker and former mayor who may represent another Irish institution disappearing from Lawrence: Irish politicians. Sullivan was mayor for eight years, until 2010, when he was succeeded by William Lantigua, the first Latino elected mayor of a Massachusetts city.
“Everybody felt comfortable there,” Sullivan said. “But most of the clubs in Lawrence are playing Spanish music. I think a Latino night club would go well there.”