Whoa, Nelly

Getting "Durty" before St. Patrick's Day.

I'm sipping a pint of Guinness while, fittingly enough, studying a map of Ireland. It hangs on a green wall at Durty Nelly's in downtown St. Pete, the latest Irish tavern to open in the 'Burg. Its front door faces Central Avenue, a short stroll from the State Theatre. Another bar with an Irish bent, The Emerald, conducts business down the street. Courigan's Irish pub sits on nearby Beach Drive.

Rowdy revelers will slam all three establishments on March 17, the day St. Patrick gets toasted with Guinness, green beer and lime Jell-O shots. I enjoy Irish libations, Irish pubs and Irish grub (and the country's music and literature, for that matter), but will likely stay home next Monday. Places like Nelly's are best experienced on occasions other than amateur night, which is what St. Patty's Day has become, second only to New Year's Eve in terms of infuriating madness fueled by inexperienced drinkers.

Long and narrow, with a handsome wooden bar in the back, Nelly's exudes a cozy charm. It's around 9 p.m. on a Saturday and most of the dozen stools are occupied, so I take a seat at a high-top table. There are also lower tables surrounded by padded chairs and a wooden bench that runs about half the length of the wall opposite the bar, giving the place the welcoming feel of a living room. Frat-boy types in ball caps play darts. A foosball table and Golden Tee machine stand unused. Several billiards tables are in an adjacent room that's open but still unfinished — the maroon carpet of the main area gives way to exposed concrete. The house sound system serves up contemporary hits at a tolerable volume level.

About 20 people are here drinking cocktails, bottled import beers and the night's special: $2 12-ounce Mickey's Big Mouths, a horrible malt liquor that I had the misfortune of trying once while at a party in high school. Two guys who've made heavy investments in tattoos and wear matching nose rings partake. They're seated at the bar with another similarly dressed young man and a cute gal sporting a black tank top (despite it being cold enough to make me shiver during the short walk from my car to the entrance). Durty Nelly's is festooned with green streamers, plastic green necklaces and paper shamrocks in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day.

"What's she doing with those losers?" I catch myself thinking.

The couple seated next to me concentrate on one of those digital trivia games. The questions are displayed on the large flat-screen TV positioned above the bar. "Which singer is the first-cousin of Whitney Houston?" The man looks at his lady friend for an answer, but she just shrugs. I'm tempted to blurt, "Dionne Warwick" but keep quiet.

Returning my stare to the map of Ireland, I focus on the eastern province of Leister and think of the program on PBS that held my attention several hours earlier. Titled Historic Pubs of Ireland, it featured one of my favorite authors, Frank McCourt, leading viewers through the historic city's prestigious public houses. Like the majority of Irish bars in the Sunshine State, Nelly's doesn't exactly transport you to the Emerald Isle and evoke images of Jonathan Swift or Oscar Wilde getting loaded while discussing their latest masterpiece — but it's a fine Irish pub nevertheless, especially by Florida standards.

I learned to appreciate Irish whiskey and Guinness at the O'Brien's on North Dale Mabry in Tampa during my fake-ID days. While in college, my friends and I could be found there several nights a week. Every St. Patty's Day, our crew would hit the behemoth Bennigan's across from Raymond James Stadium and finish the evening at O'Brien's. Or maybe we'd stop first at Four Green Fields in downtown Tampa, the most authentic and finest Irish bar I've frequented in the state, save for maybe the Celtic Ray. The latter was the first business in downtown Punta Gorda to reopen after Hurricane Charley pummeled the town in 2004. I wrote for the Bradenton Herald at the time, and when it became clear that the storm would miss us and slam Charlotte County, a news writer and I were handed a couple hundred dollars cash, a case of bottled water and instructed to hop in a rented SUV and assess the damage down there. In addition to gathering the requisite "near death" survival stories, I also salvaged material for a weekly column similar to this one that focused on the Celtic Ray, which became a hot spot for all the media in town.

"Only you could get sent to write about a hurricane and return with a bar column," said the bemused executive editor whose money I had spent on Guinness at Celtic Ray. It was one of my prouder journalistic moments.

"Need another?" asks the server at Nelly's, snapping me out of a Guinness-induced trip down memory lane. After my third pint, I grab my tab and exit. Nelly's will probably be a place I'll visit again — just not on St. Patrick's Day.

Durty Nelly's Irish Tavern, 661 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-824-8884.

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