When the iconic Derry Hegarty's Irish Pub, 5328 W. Blue Mound Rd., went up for sale, Sean Burke knew it was a good fit for him.
"I'm a proud Milwaukee Irishman and I'm honored to carry on the great Irish tradition here," says Burke, who acquired the large bar and banquet hall in April.
It all happened very quickly. What started out as a conversation at a bar, with notes on a bar napkin, ended in a building closing just one month later along with chef and business partner, Shane Valenti.
Currently, the bar and restaurant is undergoing major renovations, and will soon sport a new name, Burke's Irish Castle. A grand opening party is planned for the weekend of Sept. 14-16.
The renovations have turned into what Burke calls "a very large project." The entire facade is under construction, and so far, there's one new "garage door" in the front of the building with four more on the way.
The front bar, which originally featured blonde wood and glass cabinetry, was transformed into a simpler, sleeker build with a dark stain.
Burke is still waiting for his new chairs to arrive, but recycled handmade tables – parts of which came from Glocca Morra, Hegarty's brother Joe's former bar in the Marquette neighborhood – are stenciled with Burke's lion-and-shield logo.
Burke found boxes of broken light fixtures hidden away and repaired them. Now, vintage chandeliers hang in the dining area with more unearthed antique lighting now hanging over tables in the room adjacent to the bar.
"We re-purposed as much as we could," says Burke.
The only problem with all of the retro lighting is that the original, modern-looking lights that Burke hung over the bar before he found the cooler, old stuff has to go because it no longer fits in with the decor.
Burke says he intends to use the massive banquet space – complete with a large, stone fireplace – most nights of the year. It will still be available for private rental, but will also serve as a primary drinking and dining area, especially during Friday night fish fries, which Burke anticipates will be very popular.
There's also a bar in the basement, with a stone fireplace and stained glass windows, that Burke hopes to renovate someday. A rooftop patio is also in the longer-term plans.
Burke rented a nearby parking lot and valet parking will be available in the near future, too.
"At this point, there's not a stone here that's been left unturned," he says.
A larger patio and a full kitchen to replace the very small kitchen are in the works as well. Hegarty's offered simple pub fare, like burgers and chicken sandwiches, but Burke says he plans to offer an extended "gastropub" menu with an emphasis on locally-sourced food. Look for upscale brunches, lunches and dinners – including a Friday fish fry with fresh fish from Central Green Aquaponics, opening across the street in September.
The alcohol offerings have already changed, and there are now about 20 different beers on tap and 40 bottles. Burke says the stock will rotate depending on the season and he will offer beers of the month. The wine list will be extended as well.
Burke's Irish Castle will have live music on select dates throughout the week and on weekends. Burke's, like Hegarty's, will most likely continue to be a popular St. Patrick's day destination as well as a coveted spot before and after Brewers games.
Both of Hegarty's Brewers shuttles are still in service: The Paddy Wagon and the smaller shuttle named The Half Pint.
Derry Hegarty's – sometimes just called "Derry's" or "Hegarty's" – was in business for 40 years. Hegarty started the business in 1972 and ran it until his death in April of 2011, almost exactly a year before Burke got the space.
Hegarty – who friends remember as an extremely generous man – grew up in County Cork, Ireland, and moved to Milwaukee in 1965. He passed away at the age of 76 after battling dementia for a few years and finally, cancer.
Hegarty is buried in the cemetery across the street, his headstone is visible from the front door, and according to longtime family friend, OnMilwaukee.com contributor "College Dave" Mikolejak, this was exactly what he wanted.
"Derry used to say he wanted to be buried across the street so he could keep an eye on things," says Mikolajek, who is an OnMilwaukee.com contributor.
Burke believes that at first Hegarty was not happy about him owning the bar and to show his disapproval, light bulbs replaced a day earlier would burn out. Finally, Burke went across the street to Hegarty's grave and had a chat with him.
"I promised him I'd keep it an Irish bar and that he didn't have to worry. And then it stopped and everything was fine," says Burke, who continues to visit Hegarty on most Sundays.
Burke first met Hegarty in 1990 while bartending a few doors away at Main Gate, now Kelly's Bleachers. Today, Burke has a mental catalog of Hegarty stories, including one about a goat that roamed the patio and bar.
Apparently, Hegarty bought a live pig for his friend and competitor who owned another Irish bar. This is an Irish insult, and so his friend bought Hegarty a goat. But instead of getting rid of the goat, Hegarty kept it as a pet.
"He would walk the goat up to church, tie it up and go to mass," says Burke."People have the most amazing stories about this place. I look forward to being a part of the history."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.