Thatcher McGhee’s Irish Pub: A thatched wonder arrives on Broadway

The former Fireside in Denville, a Broadway staple since 1933, is but a dim memory. The space, taken over three years ago by Aidan Downey and Brendan Madden, has been reimagined completely as Thatcher McGhee’s Irish Pub & Eatery. The Irish sensibility is genuine — Madden’s parents and his wife, Brenda, are from Galway, and so is Downey.

Inside McGhee's Irish Pub & Eatery on Broadway in Denville: Notice the traditional thatching on the interior roof. Photo by Bob Karp

The partners met as bartenders and have been friends for 10 years. Since 2006, they have run the flourishing eatery of the same name in Pompton Lakes.

“Our customers kept asking when we were coming to Morris County, and then this opportunity arose,” Madden says. “It’s turned into a bigger project than we imagined initially, but we took the extra time to make sure it was perfect.”

And perfect it is. Downey’s brother Sean has an antique shop in Ireland and “has a good eye,” Downey says. The pair traveled to Ireland and spent thousands of dollars on artwork, trinkets and knickknacks that grace the interior. Madden’s family crest is on display among authentic Irish gear.

The interior is astonishing. With plank floors throughout, the space has been transformed into the picture of Irish domesticity. Each dining area has its own distinct theme, fireplace and flavor.

Judy Brodersen, a neighbor and good friend of Downey’s wife, Susan, was assisted by Jill Davidson to achieve the vision.

A formal parlor is set under gleaming windows with tall banquettes, decorous wallpaper and elegant built-ins displaying fine china and crystal. All cabinetry was crafted on the premises. The roomy rustic pub is more casual, with a snuggery that boasts its own fireplace, the work of a stonemason brought over from Portugal. Top-shelf liquors and arrays of beers and wines stock the sizable bar.

Perhaps most remarkable — and nestled in the heart of the interior — is the completely-realized eat-in kitchen of an Irish farm cottage: It boasts its own thatched roof, whitewash-over-fieldstone walls, wooden benches all around, a stone ‘turf’ fireplace, lace curtains and even a clothesline strung across a ceiling corner, pegged with clothing from a bygone era.

Interior and exterior thatching is the handiwork of good friend Colin “Thatcher” McGhee, who has been thatching since he was 16. Now based in Virginia, McGhee’s American work has graced primarily big estates and resorts and a good share of movie sets.

McGhee is English of Scottish descent. He apprenticed for five years before joining East Anglia Master Thatchers Association in Norfolk, England as a master thatcher. In 1991, McGhee was asked to undertake a project in the United States, and has been here since.

The first question everyone asks is: Are these roofs sturdy enough to withstand northeast winters?

The reeds (phragmites) are imported to the U.S. and are quite durable, lasting 50 or 60 years with minimal maintenance. Thatching provides superior insulation — cool in summer, warm in winter — because reeds are affixed directly to the rafters; this provides more protection from wind. The reeds are packed so tightly that they will only smolder, not burn in case of a fire, although they are sprayed with fire-retardant to afford additional protection.

For the Denville project, millions of dried reeds were packed 14 inches thick over 1400 square feet — nearly 3 acres — at a cost of $30 per square foot. And the sheer aesthetics — spectacular! The smooth thatching has an organic feel, is if sprouted from the building itself, with a decorative scalloped ridge.

The roof was constructed of dried reeds, 14 inches thick, over 1,400 square feet, at $30 per square foot. The roof is pitched at a 45-degree to ensure water runoff.

The pair grins, and Downey says: “You know about thatched roofs being a favorite sunbathing spot for household pets? Legend has it that when the reeds became slippery with rain, the animals slid off the roof. It’s where we got the saying, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs.’”

Head chef Kevin Albert oversees cuisine in Denville and Pompton Lakes and cross-trains key personnel.

“I took him to Ireland to consult with chefs over there,” Downey says. “We offer traditional Irish fare along with American cuisine, and a lot of our specials will be based on authentic Irish recipes.”

Famed British chef Johnny Kelly is a friend. “He’s actually been over here to check to make sure we’re doing it right,” Downey says. “It’s a very tight community.”

“We make outrageous corned beef and cabbage and authentic fish and chips, served in greased paper with malt vinegar — quite a large portion,” Madden says. “We’re all about comfort food, and we do scones. For dessert, we always recommend an Irish coffee.”

Expect sizeable portions, usually enough for the next day. One customer, when presented with two pieces of fish, exclaimed: “That couldn’t be mine; I ordered fish, not a whale!”

“Our goal is to offer hearty fare and excellent service and still be reasonably priced,” Madden says.

“We also want to be part of the community, contribute a new vibrance to Denville,” Downey adds. “That’s what happened at the other location.”

The partners agree: “It’s been wonderful, just the people wandering in and out during the whole process. We couldn’t have been made more welcome!”

Source: Tricia Vanderhoof, dailyrecord.com

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