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Eisner’s Orphans

With Robert Iger now reportedly calling the shots at the Mouse House, Jim Hill wonders: How many of out-going CEO Michael Eisner’s pet projects will survive the changing-of-the-guard?

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While the business press continues to focus on the handful of decisions that Disney CEO-to-be Robert Iger has made to date (I.E. The dismantling of the corporation’s Strategic Planning department, the four ABC television series that Iger has already chosen to renew, etc.) … Inside the Mouse House, longtime Disney employees are wondering what the future holds.

As in: Which of the numerous projects that Michael Eisner personally put into production will Iger eventually decide to pull the plug on? So that Disney’s new big cheese can send a clear signal to the entertainment industry as well as the investment community that “the bad old bad days” of Eisner’s reign are finally coming to an end.

Mind you, no one in Burbank seriously expects Bob to have the brass to kill off any of Michael’s babies until Eisner actually exits the Mouse House on September 30th. But — that said — company insiders are whispering that Iger has reportedly already put together a list of projects that he’s thinking of spiking once Uncle Mike has left the building. These supposedly include:

  • The “Hunchback of Notre Dame” TV movie: For several years now, Eisner has been pushing for ABC to produce a live action version of this 1996 Disney animated feature. And — late last year — it looked like this new musical-for-television might really be a go. As Craig Zadan & Neil Meron (AKA the guys behind Storyline Entertainment. The production company that brought us the Academy Award winning version of “Chicago” as well as those well received TV musicals, “Annie” and “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella”) hired Jason Moore (I.E. The director of the Tony Award winning musical, “Avenue Q”) to helm the TV version of “Hunchback.”

    The only problem is … The only person within Disney’s walls who’s actually eager to see a new TV movie version of “Hunchback” is Michael Eisner. I’m told that — out of all the animated features that WDFA has produced during Eisner’s 20 year tenure — “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” remains Michael’s favorite. That there’s something about this Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale film that really speaks to Disney’s outgoing CEO.

    Now I’m sure that all of you armchair psychologists out there will enjoy pointing out the parallels between Quasimodo (I.E. The mis-shapen monster that hides away in his bell tower, who is feared & reviled by the public but is actually be a good & kind creature) and Michael Eisner (I.E. The embattled CEO who hides away in the Team Disney Burbank building, who is feared & reviled by many members of the entertainment community but prefers to think of himself as a much beloved corporate figure). But I’m told that the real reason that Michael loves “Hunchback” so much is that he really enjoyed reading the Victor Hugo novel back when he was in school. That — and Eisner supposedly thinks that Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz’s score for this animated feature contains some of the best songs ever written for a Disney film.

    Speaking of songs … Menken & Schwartz have already reportedly written at least one new number for the “Hunchback” TV movie. But with Eisner’s upcoming exit (As well as ABC’s waning enthusiasm for these television musicals. Witness the network’s recent decision to push back the airing of its new production of “Once Upon a Mattress” from May to November), one wonders when (if ever) we’ll be able to hear Quasi warble this new tune.

Speaking of tunes … I mean toons … The next item that’s reportedly on Iger’s drop-like-a-hot-rock list is:

  • The Sequel Lab: As in: That off-the-lot CG production facility that the Walt Disney Company is reportedly planning on building in Glendale. The new studio where Mickey will supposedly produce sequels to popular Pixar projects like “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.”

    If you had attended Disney’s annual meeting in Minneapolis back in February, you would have heard Bob Iger himself talking up the two Pixar-related sequels that Disney Feature Animation reportedly already has in development, “Toy Story III” and “Monsters, Inc. II.” And — if you’d been reading the trades back in March — you’d have seen where Brad Raymond (I.E. The director of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame II” and “The Lion King 1 1/2”) had been tapped to helm “Toy Story III” and Jim Herzfeld (I.E. The screenwriter of “Meet the Fockers”) had been hired to rewrite Jared Stern’s script for the sequel (Which reportedly has Buzz being recalled. Which means that the space ranger now has to be shipped back to the factory that he originally came from. Which is supposedly located in Tawain!)

    But now it’s April. And given that one of the very first e-mails that Bob received after Disney revealed that Iger would be the company’s new CEO was a congratulatory note from Pixar CEO Steve Jobs … The current corporate scuttlebutt is that — on October 1st (I.E. The day Mr. Iger officially takes control of the Mouse House) — Disney will officially re-open negotiations with Pixar. With the hope that the two companies can then come to a new distribution agreement.

    So even though Disney continues to talk a good game about “Toy Story III” (As in: According to studio head *** Cook, this still-in-development sequel has already been slotted for theatrical release in November of 2008. And Roy Conli — the producer of “Treasure Planet” & “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — has recently been hired to shepherd this project through the production process), the smart money right now is Disney agreeing to pull the plug on the Sequel Lab. Provided — of course — that Pixar agrees to a new distribution & production deal that doesn’t actually ask the Mouse for both the sun & the moon. Just the sun.

And — finally (And this is the piece of news that I’m sure is going to p*ss off all of you Henson fans out there) there’s a concern that Iger (as a way of indicating to the entertainment community that he really is his own man) may cut back on the Disney company’s investment in:

  • The Muppets: Even as Disney is in the middle of launching a big-time promotion push for “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” there are already rumors flying around the company that — if this new TV movie doesn’t pull in huge ratings when it finally airs on ABC in May — that the Mouse may opt to cut & run with Kermit & Co.

    As in: Rather than continue to churn out new Muppet-related product, Disney will just concentrate on making the most of the movies & TV series that the Jim Henson Company had already produced. Using the might of the Mouse’s marketing department to turn these previously existing properties into significant moneymakers for the Disney corporation.

    One man who’s said to be particularly concerned about Iger’s imminent ascension in the Walt Disney Company is Chris Curtin, general manager & Vice president of the Muppet Holding Company LLC (I.E. The arm of the Walt Disney Company that actually plans out what’s to be done with Miss Piggy & pals). Curtin was hand-picked by Eisner to run the Muppet Holding Company. And — given that Chris was Michael’s special assistant for a number of years — Curtin thought that he could count on Michael’s support for a number of years as he slowly grew the Muppets into a viable brand for the Disney corporation.

    But now that Eisner is exiting the Walt Disney Company in September … Chris can no longer count on Michael being in his corner. Or — more importantly — having a number of years to turn these characters into a viable franchise. Which could curtail Curtin’s plans for a big-time Muppet revival. With Kermit & Co. appearing in new theatrical releases, ambitious theme park attractions, even starring in their very own Muppet Broadway musical.

    Which is why it’s now all the more crucial that “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” do great in the ratings when it airs on ABC on Friday, May 20th. Otherwise … Bob may use this TV movie’s underwhelming performance as an excuse to scale back Disney’s current plans for Miss Piggy & pals. Sooo … If you want new Muppet stuff (as opposed to watching the same old movies & TV shows over and over and over again …), be sure to tell your friends & family to tune in next month when Ashanti goes over the rainbow.

Anyway … Those are three of the projects that may get cut once Eisner actually exits the Mouse House in September. So what do you think? Is it wise for Iger to ax these projects immediately in order to prove that he’s his own man. Or would it better for Bob to take a while, think things through, before he actually kills off any of Uncle Michael’s darlings?

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse‘s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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