Behind Bars: Cavan Irish Pub

Erica Thompson
Paul Armentrout and Heath Rowland-Davis

Cavan Irish Pub has all the staples consistent with its name: green walls, framed photos of Ireland and Guinness, Smithwicks and Harp on tap. And you can expect St. Patrick's Day to be one of the busiest days of year, beginning with kegs and eggs at 6 a.m.

But you'll also find female impersonators, “RuPaul's Drag Race” viewings and bingo with strippers.

That's because Cavan Irish pub also happens to be a gay bar — the only one of its kind in the city. Matthew Mefferd, who also owns the Olde Towne East gay bar AWOL, opened Cavan in 2009 in Merion Village. (The establishment is named for the county in Ireland from which Mefferd's family originates.)

“It gave people in this area of town a separate, safe space to go to,” said Heath Rowland-Davis, general manager of both AWOL and Cavan.

Over the past decade, Cavan has increased its drag shows, adding to the robust scene in the city. Among a staple of exciting performers is drag queen Mary Nolan, who helps select diverse and up-and-coming talent for the small stage, tucked in the corner of the bar.

“Mary reaches out to make sure she's not having an all-white cast all week long,” Rowland-Davis said.

Cavan also offers live music and karaoke, attracting a mix of regulars and new customers ranging from 21-year-olds to people in their 70s. And much of the staff has stuck around for years, encouraged by Mefferd to approach their employment as a career rather than a job.

“We have health insurance [and] we have an IRA,” said bartender Paul Armentrout, who has been with Cavan since its opening. “This is one of the better bars, I feel, to work for.”

Going forward, Cavan will remodel its patio and expand the beer list. But Rowland-Davis is just as excited about his impact on customers, which goes beyond pouring drinks.

“I've counseled people that are suicidal,” Rowland-Davis said. “I've helped people that have just found out they were HIV positive.”

Rowland-Davis is passionate about retaining the history of the AIDS epidemic by passing along older patrons' stories.

“People were like, ‘I went to seven funerals one week. And then the next week I went to 12. And then the following week I went to 10. And then I went to three. And then I went to one,'” Rowland-Davis said. “I was like, ‘Did you just stop going because you couldn't do it anymore?' They said, ‘No, all my friends had died.' … Being able to pass stuff like that along to the next generation lets them know there's been a fight here.”

And though progress has been made in civil rights for the LGBTQ community, safe spaces like Cavan are still needed today, Rowland-Davis and Armentrout said. And both have found a second family among their colleagues and patrons.

“This is my home away from home,” Armentrout said.