From Belfast to New York: The Dead Rabbit story

From Belfast to the Big Apple, Sean Muldoon took his locally-honed hospitality skills and, despite left wandering the streets of Manhattan virtually dollar-less, got the big break which led to him launching the Dead Rabbit - now officially the 'Best Bar in the World'. Andrew Madden reports

Sean Muldoon, co-owner of The Dead Rabbit pub in New York. Picture: Hugh Russell
Andrew Madden

SIX years ago Sean Muldoon had just emigrated to the Big Apple with the hopes of taking the yanks by storm by doing what the Irish do best - pubs.

Several months and stumbling blocks later, the 40-year-old Ardoyne man was wandering the streets of Manhattan with all but $250 in his pocket and even less in optimism.

"I was ready just to email everyone who had brought us over here and say ‘you know what? You do what you want, but I’m off,'" he told The Irish News, staring into a cup of coffee in Belfast’s iconic Merchant Hotel.

Sean was pulled back from booking his ticket home when, as luck would have it, an unexpected tax rebate for $5,000 arrived at his apartment. He decided to give it one last push.

Fast forward to the present day and he is now the co-owner of the ‘Best Bar in the World’, The Dead Rabbit in New York City.

With more awards than it has whiskies (and it has a lot), the pub has been critically lauded by just about everyone who matters in the industry. With frequent queues around the block, magazine articles, famous customers – The Dead Rabbit is what success looks like.

The Dead Rabbit in New York

Back in 2011 Sean and his partner Jack McGarry were both working in the very same hotel we were sitting in when he spoke to The Irish News last week. Sean was the Merchant’s bar manager and Jack the bartender. At the time, the bar had a reputation of its own as one of the city’s finest.

Then one day a prominent American businessman stopped in and made Sean an offer - take what you've achieved in Belfast and I’ll set you up your own spot – in New York.

As the saying goes, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere, but, as far as Sean was concerned - if you can make it in Belfast you can make it anywhere.

It took two and a half years of hard graft and preparation before The Dead Rabbit would serve its first customer.

The Dead Rabbit bar is run by Belfast men Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry

"It was the toughest life lesson you will ever learn, so when we did open, we were ready for New York," Sean says.

"We opened in an area where everyone thought we were suicidal. A cocktail bar in lower Manhattan? There’s enough of those. No, we were a pub with a cocktail bar... and from the time we've opened its been non-stop."

Taking its name from an 1850s Irish-American street gang, The Dead Rabbit is as much an idea as it is a space with a few beer taps. Old-fashioned cocktails, a cosy pub setting with LIVE music, nostalgia and history all around you.

When asked what the secret to his success is, Sean says it’s simple.

Belfast's Sean Muldoon, co-founder of Dead Rabbit and Blacktail at Pier A in New York 

"As long as the person behind it is passionate and knows what they’re doing, you can’t just copy The Dead Rabbit and expect the same success. It’s the people that are the heart and soul of the place."

Just as the interview was coming to a close, I asked Sean if he would ever return to do business in the north.

"One day we will come back and open a bar in Belfast. It is our home town," he said.

Sean Muldoon, co-owner of The Dead Rabbit in New York, with Liam Neeson and the Celtic Cross from Gangs of New York

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