A century of darts, college students and Guinness pours.
Down to the lettering above the front door, Murphy’s Pub in Cincinnati’s Clifton Heights neighborhood projects everything great about an Irish pub. It just so happens that this particular Irish pub sits just a block or two south of the University of Cincinnati’s downtown campus, creating a mix of student drinking on weekend nights and old-timer throwback camaraderie during weekday and daytime hours. The blending of these two audiences (and more) makes for a dive bar melting pot of sorts inhabiting a storied structure.
The Murphy’s Pub exterior has certainly been updated over the years, but it’s easy to see the historic roots of the building that date back to first opening as Hahn’s Restaurant & Bar in 1938. Proprieter Virgil Hahn sold the business to Charles Mahoney in 1958, who promptly changed the name of the bar to, you guessed it, Mahoney’s. Mystery creeps into the story with the sale of the bar to a duo named only as Bailey & Murphy with no first names because dive bar history isn’t always an exact science.
Intrigue heightened after the sale to Bailey & Murphy in 1969 when in 1970 the “Murphy” half of the duo visited Ireland and was never heard from again. In tribute to the disappearance, Bailey named the bar Murphy’s and the moniker stuck through a series of ownership changes over the years. It was during current owner Linda Swarthwood’s tenure that one of the great Murphy’s Pub events took place, a musical performance on October 6, 1989, by a little-known band named Nirvana.
As part of a swing through the Midwest, a pre-Dave Grohl Nirvana lineup played Murphy’s Pub with admission set at a cool $3. The setlist from that night has been published and kicks off with a banger, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line.” Estimates by the few in attendance pegged the crowd at roughly 30 people, a number no doubt dwarfed by the number of people who at one time or another claimed to witness the show.
Numerous other bands have played Murphy’s Pub on their way up, including the Afghan Whigs and others, and the downtown Cincinnati location has lent itself well to the occasional celebrity visit including ex-Cincinnati men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins and Cincinnati Reds third basement Chris Sabo (you remember the goggles). On top all of this dive bar lore, Murphy’s Pub is known for its devotion to darts, providing ample steel tip boards across the many nooks & crannies within the Cincinnati dive bar.
Because Murphy’s Pub is university-adjacent, student-friendly specials like Beat The Clock dot the dive bar’s calendar in addition to trivia nights and happy hours. The bar’s winding floorplan across three main spaces and a number of narrow, connector hallways make for ample space hosting diverse groups attracted to Irish ambiance, darts, cheap drinks at 2 PM on a Tuesday or just the fact that Murphy’s Pub is open every day. A pair of porches, one adjacent to the bar’s front door and another in back, extend the action, the front patio feeling a bit like an Irish chicken coop thanks to fencing that surrounds the space.
Inside, wood paneling and ample, Irish-themed signage cover the walls. Televisions can be found in each room and the occasional gem like the Jameson Hall of Fame or a series of vintage, stained glass-style bar signs can be discovered on a full lap of the Clifton Heights dive bar. For those visitors arriving at low traffic times, know that one of the best spots in Murphy’s Pub can be one of the hardest to find, a short hallway-like space at the rear of the Cincinnati dive bar that houses just enough room for a pair of dart boards (numbered boards 5 and 6).