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with Mike Mayo

At Maguires Hill 16, a 'living wake' for a dying bar

Last call arrives for Maguires Hill 16 in Fort Lauderdale.

When Maguires Hill 16 opened for its final day on Sunday, father-and-son owners Jim and James Gregory greeted patrons with hugs, backslaps and stories.

"I've got to tell you my favorite," said Jim, 77. "We had a regular, a guy named Charlie. He drove a Bentley. One day, about six years ago, he says, 'I need to hold a wake here. It's going to be about 90 people.' I say, 'Sure, who's it for?' He says, 'Me.' "

"He was dying, and he wanted to celebrate with all his friends," said James, 41.

"A living wake," Jim said. "Two weeks later, he was gone."

Maguires Hill 16 held a living wake for itself on Sunday, with hundreds of regulars pouring in to pay their respects. There was football on TV, Guinness on tap and final batches of potato soup and shepherd's pie streaming from the kitchen.

"It's like losing an old friend," said Mindy Brown, a Broward County Court Judge. "I just had to come to say goodbye."

"I had my 90th birthday party here," said Brown's tablemate, Elaine Appel, 92, part of a courthouse group that has been coming to Maguires for the past 30 years. "I'm going to miss it."

Jim and James Gregory, from County Kildare, Ireland, bought Maguires in 1999. The Irish pub on North Andrews Avenue was born in the 1960s, changed ownership several times, and ended up a Fort Lauderdale institution. It was popular with prosecutors, cops, politicians, journalists, locals and tourists, the Irish and honorary Irish.

"It's been a great run," James, 41, said. "It's a very emotional day. We're a piece of Ireland in sunny Fort Lauderdale, and the people here have been just beautiful to us."

Football games Sunday afternoon and evening brought the usual crowd of Pittsburgh Steelers fans in the side room for the playoff battle with the Miami Dolphins. (Maguires became a base for local Steelers fans to watch games after their previous spot closed.)

The mandate for the day: laughter, tears, reminiscence and drinks until the beer was gone "or until the cops come and close us down," James Gregory said.

The ending for Maguires was abrupt. The Gregorys are selling the land and liquor license to a group that includes developer Alan Hooper and restaurateur Tim Petrillo, who are mum about future plans in the gentrifying Flagler Village neighborhood. At first, there was hope that the restaurant might stay open. But the new owners told the Gregorys they wanted Maguires shut before completing the sale later this month. The sales price hasn't been revealed, but it surely will be in the millions.

"If I got an offer like that, I'd probably take it, too," said Jane Merrill, a bartender for the past 12 years. "It's sudden, but it's not a complete shock. We kind of knew this was coming."

Since news of the closing broke on Wednesday, Jan. 4, Merrill said the crowds have been "mayhem … It's been like St. Patrick's Day every night."

On Thursday, the kitchen ran out of food by 8 p.m. James Gregory said 2,000 people stopped by Friday, another 2,000 on Saturday. "It's nice to know we're loved," James said. "We've had people who drove from Tampa and Orlando. I've seen people from New York, Chicago, Boston."

On Sunday, there weren't enough glasses to go around, so pints were served in red and green Solo cups, and hard liquor in clear plastic cups. The outdoor bar stopped serving drinks at noon. A graveyard of kicked kegs grew by the hour - 25, 35 - in the alleyway behind the bar. The main bar still had plenty of draft beer and well liquor.

For much of the evening, James Gregory lingered near the kitchen, shaking hands with new arrivals, hugging anyone on the way out. About 6 p.m., a seven-piece band played bagpipes onstage.

The mood of the room turned funereal. Gregory sipped Miller Lite from a clear Solo cup, watching the bagpipers. He shook his head. "I just need to take this all in," he said. He wiped his left eye.

By 7 p.m., with limited beer still flowing from the main bar (the Guinness? Long gone), employees hoisted steaming trays of baked ziti and meatballs, chicken wings and shepherd's pie to a long, wooden table. Patrons queued up by the dozens for the buffet spread, piling spoonfuls on Styrofoam plates, eating the last of the kitchen's food.

"It was a nice touch [that] they gave away the last of their pie," said Ivy Faggione, of Fort Lauderdale, between mouthfuls. She remembers taking a German exchange student 10 years ago to a 1950s-style sock hop at the bar. They entered the dance contest ("I had white sneakers, the dress, everything," she said), and won. The prize? A 1957 Chevy die-cast model car.

"It was the best friggin' night of my life," Faggione said. "Maguires was always here. I don't know where to go after tonight."

"I'm going to feel homeless," echoed Pia Dahlquist, of Fort Lauderdale. "I've been coming here at least once or twice a week for the last three decades. This is a place where you could come by yourself and be comfortable. You just feel at home."

Maguires is an old-school pub where patrons gathered for birthdays, retirements and wakes. Photos of regulars adorn the walls. "Life's happy occasions and sad occasions all played out here," said Brown, the judge. "It has seen a lot of history."

It has also seen tragedy. On July 3, 2014, there was a shootout in the parking lot after a man accosted his girlfriend, a waitress. The confrontation left the man dead and a veteran Fort Lauderdale detective wounded. The detective, Mark Shotwell, survived and was cleared in the shooting death of Richard Arruda, 40.

"I was here," said Dahlquist, who works at the Mai-Kai. "It was just a horrible night."

On this night, it was all bittersweet. As the midnight hour neared, and all the stories, warmth, jokes and blarney became low murmurs and laughter among the 20 drinkers left at Maguires, James Gregory led the room in a countdown.

"10 ... 9 ... 8 ... ," Gregory chanted (his father had left and gone to bed), waving patrons out the front door. Drinkers followed him out in a conga line and greeted the crisp Monday morning. There was to be no final speech, no elegy, no weeping. Instead, there were fireworks.

In the near empty parking lot on the dead-quiet Andrews Avenue, Gregory lit a bottle rocket inside the mouth of a traffic cone, laughed and dashed to the huddled patrons. The firework crackled overhead with bursts of green and orange.

"See ya later, Maguires!" Gregory shouted into the night, leading the patrons back inside. "To all my friends and family, you'll never guess what? You can smoke in the bar!"

And that wasn't all. No one wanted it to be all. More tales and toasts continued inside. Kristina Duhaney, of Fort Lauderdale, recalled celebrating here all day Saturday, too, walking home from the bar drunk and face-planting in the grass. Merrill, the bartender, reminisced with a 21-year-old man who used to ask her for alcohol when he was underage. A row of Irish flags flapped above the Maguires Hill 16 sign, which was still glowing green.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508 and pvalys@sun-sentinel.com, 954-356-4364

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