Photo courtesy of Galephoto.

Ballard bar still rocks after 110 years

The long dark mahogany bar amid century old brick walls, pints of Guiness and portraits of James Joyce make Conor Byrne (5140 Ballard Avenue NW) a haven for thirsty folks that have been touched by the Irish charm. Tucked away deep in the belly of the bar is the stage where musicians have been jamming, jiving, and churning out the pure energy and raw power of live music for over 110 years.

Conor Byrne is Ballard’s oldest bar and one of the oldest in Seattle. It used to be the Owl Saloon, which opened 110 years ago. The Owl was once known as a Blues music mecca in Seattle. But the music is never over and now Conor Byrne is one of Ballard’s hottest spots for live music.

This month Conor Byrne celebrated its 21st anniversary with special shows all last week. But the fun is not over folks – they offer the cream of euphony almost any night of the week.

“Music is such a big part of Conor Byrne and the scene along Ballard Avenue,” said owner Diarmuid Cullen. 

“The neighborhood is always changing, but one thing stays the same.  You can go out and hear great live music every night in Ballard, and we’re proud to be one of the venues that welcome new bands to play along with old favorites.” 

Cullen, born in Dublin, moved to Seattle in 1988 when he was 10, and settled in Crown Hill in early 1989. Since then he has lived in the Ballard/Fremont community. Cullen started working at Conor Byrne in 2005, and then later bought it in 2008 with a few friends. But Cullen was no stranger to the bar business. He had his first job bartending at Hatties Hat, in 1999.

“I had been asking for a job for a while and I guess nobody wanted to work because of Y2K. The manager there asked me if I would cocktail for the evening, and I jumped at the opportunity, especially since I could get my foot in the door. Within a year I was bartending and taking as many shifts as I could while I went to UW.”

So what’s it like to own a bar with such rich history and musical prowess?

“On a day to day basis I never really think about it, but from time to time it comes up. On one hand, it’s 110 years old and in many ways that will rear it’s ugly, aged head. Maintenance can be frustrating. But the positive out weighs the negative, that being the history that comes along with it. Every so often an old timer will walk in and give me  “the last time I was here….” stories. It’s fun to own a place where countless memories were made over 11 decades, especially when some the best elements of the room haven’t changed i.e. back-bar and bar counter.”

So why is it so important to offer live music in Ballard?

“We feel that the demographic is changing on Ballard Avenue because of music. Before all the high profile bars and restaurants moved to the hood there was The Owl, which once was considered the hub for Blues music on the west coast. Then came the Tractor tavern, and then Conor took over and turned the hub for blues into the Hub for Irish music. Music brought people to Ballard Avenue, thus bringing businesses.”

Indeed, Cullen keeps the music coming, lining up local and traveling bands for harmony-hungry patrons.

“Of course now there are so many great bars and restaurants on the street that that has become part of the attraction, but it’s important to keep the diversity of entertainment on the street.  Its important for us to have music now because, well A) we love it; B) it’s a major part of what brought people to Ballard, and it’s important to us to maintain that history moving forward; and C)This street needs it. (There) seems to me a healthy nightlife needs live music.”

One future show sure to live up to the legacy of Rock Conor Byrne offers is on August 1 when Puget Power, Moondial and Star Meets Sea take the stage.

Puget Power, a Seattle group (Dave Samuel,  Filmer Tolentino, Clark Hurlbut, Clinton Fink and Barry O'Hara), started in 2012 and have recently started playing shows and breaking hearts in Ballard. Readers may have seen them at The Crocodile, The Sunset, Blue Moon, The Josephine, and 2bit Saloon.

Barry O'Hara, lead vocals and guitar player for Puget Power, said the group came together “organically.”

“We started out about two years ago.  A friend of a friend introduced us.  We were playing as a three piece, and Dave and Filmer had just moved here from Champaign, Ill. to work on video games.   Our musical chemistry was great right away.  Nobody had to tell anybody what to do.  It just flowed out organically.  Nobody was afraid to take a musical risk or try something new.”

“We all come from different backgrounds and listen to different music, yet we somehow fit together. I'm not sure we fit into a neat category, but we all have the blues in common. We've been told we're a little bit of 1970's rock, a little bit of 1990's rock, and a little bit of 60's surf. We were not trying to sound like something specific, but it was important to all of us to make music that was unique and had elements of a lot of different things.”

Puget Power


Puget Power will play Conor Byrne on August 1. Photo by Shane Harms.

Some may be intimidated by playing a venue with such musical history, but Puget Power is stoked and ready to rock.

“We've seen some great shows at Conor Byrne in the past, and it’s so friendly in there. The brick and mortar and wood in the Conor Byrne lend itself to a rich sound. We probably won't have to make many adjustments.  We'll just get up there and play like it was our basement.”  

For a full music line up visit http://www.conorbyrnepub.com/.

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