After 50 years in Central Square, the Plough and Stars is still a good bar. Here’s why: The hallmark of any good bar is that — upon entering — it’s immediately apparent that it is a place where people have done some drinking. Not a place where people have gone to look pretty while sipping on $20 cocktails; not a place where people have gone to be photographed for the newest, hippest lifestyle blog. No, a good bar is where we go to have a few too many while commiserating about the state of things (good, bad, or otherwise); it’s where we go to shrug off the maelstrom of a lousy workweek; it’s where we go to be around the people we actually want to be around. The Plough and Stars in Central Square is all of that. Oh, and nights there just so happen to be soundtracked by live music.
Dublin-born brothers Peter and Padraig O’Malley moved to Cambridge in the late 1960s and helped open the Plough in either 1968 or 1969 — the exact date is disputed — and the O’Malley family has had an ownership stake in the bar since the 1970s.
The establishment has worn many hats in the intervening 50 years. It’s a bar; it’s a restaurant; it’s a music venue. Current owner Gabriel O’Malley — son of Peter and nephew of Padraig — told Eater the Plough’s Holy Trinity is music, literature, and politics. Peter helped found literary journal Ploughshares there in 1971; Padraig used it as a home base for the international peacemaking work he’s dedicated his life to. It’s also been a mainstay that hasn’t changed much in a city that’s changed an awful lot.
“It was real working class back in the 1960s,” Gabriel told Eater. “There were also a lot more off-the-boat Irish in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s. And in the ’90s, all of Boston began getting a facelift, for better or worse.”
“Central Square has been ground zero for that,” Gabriel added. “Our clientele has changed some over the years, and we’ve had to change in certain ways too, to stay relevant. But our goal has always been to keep our core constant and be who we are: a place where the goal is to come and talk and argue and laugh and after a few drinks listen to some great music.”
Gabriel also literally owes his life to the Plough: His mother and father met here in 1972.
“At the time, one of mom’s girlfriends was dating an Irishman who was a resident musician named Declan,” he told Eater. “It was mostly just guys going there then, not many women. Dad was behind the bar, mom was listening to music. One thing led to another, and then I popped out.”
Asked what he thinks is responsible for the Plough’s success and its reputation as a classic Boston-area bar, Gabriel said it’s all about the people.
“I think it’s the staff and the patrons and the musicians in one small room,” he said. “The room hasn’t changed a ton in 50 years; the original bar is still there. You add that mix of people, and it’s pretty special.”
Manager Michael O’Leary grew up in Kerry, Ireland, and moved to Boston in 1995. He’s been with the Plough for six years — he was a managing partner with Clarke’s at South Station for 13 years before that — and he too believes that the magic of the Plough lies with the people who occupy the space.
“There’s a diverse range of people,” O’Leary told Eater. “Neighborhood people. Harvard, MIT. Construction workers, city hall employees. Just a variety across a wide range of people, nationalities, cultures. It’s a small, intimate venue. People love that. It brings you back in time. It’s unpretentious.”
If people are the soul of the Plough and Stars, music is the glue that holds them together. The Plough started hosting live music from the jump, and it remains a defining feature. Case in point: A post on its Facebook page from earlier this year asked clientele to comment about the best musical acts they’ve seen perform at the bar over the years, and more than 100 people responded. The list included acts that at one time or another had a standing gig at the Plough like the Ray Corvair Trio, the Bad Art Ensemble, the Handymen, and G. Love and Special Sauce, along with legends of American music like Bonnie Raitt and Jeff Buckley.
“Van Morrison is rumored to have written parts of Astral Weeks at the Plough,” said Gabriel O’Malley.
The Plough’s longtime chef and talent booker Jim Seery told Eater that legendary Boston band Morphine used to make regular appearances at the bar and that ex-Pixies bassist and songwriter Kim Deal even played a set there. Seery lists Tommy Ramone (The Ramones) and Greg Ginn (Black Flag) among major acts he’s booked at the Plough. That’s not a bad pedigree.
And even though the Plough has been a part of his life for, well, his entire life, Gabriel O’Malley is still blown away when he enters that door on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Hancock Street.
“I’ve always been struck walking in there,” he told Eater. “It really is a corner bar. So much has changed in the world since 1969, but the Plough has been a constant.”