For almost 20 years, The Harp (1625 Richmond) has drawn in customers with the warm, emerald glow of its neon sign. And for 15 years before the doors were first thrown open, Declan Plunkett was already a fixture of the Montrose bar scene.
When Free Press Houston caught up with Plunkett on a chilly and gray February afternoon, the proprietor was in the parking lot, picking up trash that had been tossed by careless patrons the night before. Such is the level of hands on, day-to-day involvement he’s undertaking right up to the last days.
Soon, the gray skies will give way to the brightness of Playa del Carmen, where Plunkett will retire later this year. There is still a bit of local fun to be had, however, before settling into the new role he contently describes as “bum on the beach.”
Eschewing the venue’s roomy patio for once, FPH followed Plunkett inside, where he treated us to a pint and spoke candidly about nearly 35 years in the Houston — and specifically the Montrose — service industry.
After obtaining a business degree from Dublin’s College of Marketing in the early ’80s, Plunkett took a few years off and globe-trekked, soaking up different cultures and lifestyles. “I knew a couple of guys over here and they said, ‘There are so many women in America!'” he laughs. “So that was it!”
Upon landing on our shores in ’84, Plunkett briefly detoured to New York City, a location he deemed too fast and unfriendly. Trying out Houston on the advice of a friend, things clicked. “This is a nice place,” he remembers thinking. “The people are super friendly and there’s lots of gorgeous women.” One of those lovely lasses became Plunkett’s wife, and together they started a family which included two daughters (both of whom would eventually put in their time working behind the bar at the Harp).
Plunkett found initial employment in Houston at the then-new Kenneally’s Irish Pub on S. Shepherd, unskilled and hoping to fake it till he could make it. Kenneally’s founder John Flowers wasn’t fooled. “It took him about a nanosecond to figure out, ‘You really haven’t a clue, do you Declan, what you’re doing?'” says Plunkett. “He trained me, and I ended up working with him for 15 years.”
By 1999, Plunkett had the experience and knew the time was right to strike out on his own. Plunkett’s first step was finding the right spot for his bar. “Location is the most important thing in any bar/restaurant business,” he says. “I found this place by chance. It was a massage training school — it wasn’t one of those ‘funny’ massage places!”
The recently vacated building was gutted, with Plunkett’s wife and her mother doing a lot of the homey, Celtic-flavored decorating themselves. As for the name: “The harp is the national music emblem of Ireland,” notes Plunkett. “And you can’t franchise (it), everybody can use it.”
The intervening 19 years have flown by for loyal regulars, but Plunkett notes that The Harp’s popularity peaked in its first seven years. “Rent was cheaper, there wasn’t a bar on every corner,” he recalls. “We were, like, the only place on Richmond between Montrose and Shepherd.”
Plunkett counts Kent Marshall of T. K. Bitterman’s as one of his closest friends, and he surprised FPH with the news that Marshall too is calling it a career later this year. Along with Sheila Flowers, widow of John, the men bought a group of apartments in Playa del Carmen (Marshall plans to serve as landlord and maintenance man).
Naturally, anyone who ventures into the industry has to be prepped for some sketchy customers, and Plunkett confirms he’s dealt with his “fair share of lunatics.” Not the least of which was the one who tried to take him out in the parking lot. “They were skipping their tab and I called them out on it, and they tried to run me over. And of course, they wrapped their car around a pole halfway down the road,” he says. “I’ve been sued a bunch of times. You know, people fall down the steps and, ‘Oh, my ankle’s broke and I’m going to sue you!’ And I’m always like, ‘Take a number.’”
Montrose has undergone big changes since Plunkett’s arrival through its continued facelifts; in the years since he’s owned The Harp, he’s watched as both the landscape and the demographics of the neighborhood have been transformed. “Obviously the area has gentrified a lot,” he remarks. “They’re tearing down the history of Montrose, which I hate to see. But I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I love it, I love the eclectic people.”
Plunkett cites health as the chief reason now is the right time for him to bow out of the neighborhood he loves. He’s had five surgeries and cancer issues, he says, and his kids have been urging him to just go and enjoy himself, even if that meant selling his storied bar.
Still, as good as it’s been, he stands firm that he won’t miss it. “There’s a bar on every corner (now) and you have to work twice as hard for half the money,” he complains. “I’m not doing another St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t want to; in 35 years I’ve never had March 17 off.”
The Harp will make its last, last call on Feb. 28, with a preceding blowout planned for this Saturday, Feb. 24. He expects the bar to be mobbed during the blowout. “It’ll be like a St. Patrick’s Day,” he says. “And the last four days after that, we’ll slowly (wind down).”
On March 1, Plunkett has to be back on the premises early to begin the dismantling process, so he’ll make it a low key last day. He’d love to get over-served on that last night, he notes, but he says he’s getting a little too old for all of that, hence his soon exit to the playa.
Yet the years have offered their rewards. “I’m blessed with the friends I’ve had and the life I’ve led,” he says. “And now I’m going down to be a bum on the beach for the next 20 years, hopefully. So I have no regrets.”
FPH assures him there’s no shame in being a bum on the beach. It’s an assurance that elicits a chuckle from Plunkett.
“It’s kind of what we all aspire to, isn’t it?” he laughs. “I’ve had enough!”