For months, the Town of East Hampton has been seriously trying to close down Cyril’s Fish House on the Napeague Strip in Amagansett. A main reason they’re after the place is because it has become so popular that sometimes at sunset on a Saturday night, the crowds spill out onto the Montauk Highway, chattering away with one another, oblivious to the fact that the cars have to slow down to 10 miles an hour in order not to hurt anybody. (There’s never been anyone hurt.)
The town hasn’t succeeded so far. But there will be a hearing in Riverhead on July 7 that may result in it’s being shut down, and so, since Cyril Fitzsimons, the man who owns this joint, has been a great character in the community for over 20 years, I thought I ought to spend some time with him and share what I learn about him with readers. On July 8, perhaps, he won’t be around anymore, holding forth while selling lobster rolls, shrimp cocktails, fried flounder sandwiches and fancy drinks.
I found Cyril last Monday in the late morning sitting at a table in the back, reading the books he so enjoys, one by James Patterson and the other by Steve Martini. He’s a jolly-looking fellow with a full white beard, a pair of yellow oversized horn-rimmed sunglasses and a hat with an elephant pin on it that identifies him as a Republican. He also wears a blue t-shirt with SAVE CYRIL’S FISH HOUSE in white on the front. No explanation required.
“They’ve been at this for three years, trying to close me down,” he tells me. “I’ve spent over $150,000 in that time defending myself.”
Cyril is an Irishman, born and bred. He was born and raised in a small house in a small town outside of Dublin, the son of a housewife mother and a well-to-do businessman father.
“Well-to-do by Irish standards,” he said.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He was a ‘turf accountant’—betting on the horses and greyhounds is legal in Ireland. Then later he got into real estate. He owned buildings and rented out apartments. He also bought and sold other properties.”
There were six children. The three girls went to Catholic boarding school. The three boys all went to Black Rock College, a boy’s boarding school.
“Best boarding school in Ireland,” Cyril told me. Among other things, he learned horseback riding and show jumping while growing up. More about this later.
When he finished boarding school, he went to work for his father for a while, but then decided he’d like to sign up for the U.S. Marines and go to Vietnam.
This was not quite as crazy as it sounds, although both his mother and father thought it was. For one thing, as a summer job three years earlier, he had worked at a dude ranch near Lake George in upstate New York as a wrangler. He knew horses. Lots of Irish boys got summer employment in America. So now he knew America. He also had found himself to be a conservative Republican.
“I was very anti-Communist. I’m not much for government handouts or food stamps or the like. I think people have to earn their living. Other things I’m not so conservative about.”
And then there was the bar at the American Embassy in Dublin, where he’d hung out for a while with some of the marines. You could get a green card at the Embassy.
He took a flight to New York, took a bus to Manhattan and joined up at the Recruitment Center in Times Square. And off he went to basic training and then Vietnam.
“I don’t like talking much about it,” he said. But I pressed him, though not for any details.
“I was posted to Khe Sanh. A few miles further up was North Vietnam. There was lots of fighting. This was in 1965-66. I was a platoon sergeant in C-15 and then in Cherry 151 CAC India, which was a combined action company. I saw action for 13 months. And there’s a chapter in a book about me. It’s in Why Marines Fight by James Brady. My chapter is “A Dubliner Joins the Marines.”
When he completed his service in 1968, he returned to Dublin and began working again for his father. But his heart wasn’t in it.
“My dad noticed this. ‘You’re not happy doing this, are ya,’ he said one day. I told him I wasn’t. ‘So what do ya want to do?’ And I told him, run a bar. So he said he’d buy me one. The next day he came in with a list of all the bars in Dublin that were for sale and asked me which one I wanted, and I told him The Silver Tassie. So that’s the one he bought.”
“Why did you want to run a bar?” I asked him. We were sitting in one he owns now, 49 years later. So I guess this was a good question.
“I just love the business,” he said. “I love meeting people, the social life, and of course the drinking. That goes on, too.”
And he was good at it. But then fate intervened. After several years, he got arrested. Because he was an Irishman, he’d become involved in the ‘troubles,’ the battle with the British to free Northern Island. One day, he was stopped at a checkpoint leading up to the Dublin Airport and the soldiers found explosives in the trunk that he was intending to take to some rebels in the north. They seized everything, arrested him and took him to the police station.
“You had to have a permit to carry explosives,” he said. “I didn’t have one, but I had a friend who did. He was tearing down some housing outside of Dublin to make way for the Leopard Town Race Course and he’d be blowing up things.”
“What explosives did you have in the trunk?” I asked.
“Plastics,” he said.
He was put in jail, his father paid bail to get him out the next day, and now he was in big trouble. His father pulled some strings.
“I had lunch with my dad one day in the Saddle Room of the Shelbourne Hotel, the finest hotel in Dublin. He had with him the Attorney General of the Irish Republic. We all talked. They’d had me dead to rights. There was nothing he could do, the man said. But he advised that I leave Ireland at once for some place where they didn’t have any extradition treaty to bring me back. I fled to Spain. I was there, in the town of Sitges, soon running the best gay bar in that town. It was called Capri. Salvador Dali was a regular there. I owned five bars at one point. I owned bars there for the next 12 years.”
“Why 12 years?”
“I was convicted in absentia. The sentence was 12 years. After 12 years, I could come back.”
“So you did?”
“I flew into Dublin, and right there in the airport, some police from ‘the special branch’ arrested me in customs. They handcuffed me and took me into a men’s room. I told them it’s been 12 years. The 12 years are up. And they made a phone call and let me go.”
“I went home. My mom and dad had gotten divorced while I was away. I saw family for a week. Did a lot of partying. Then I flew to New York, found a co-op on Sutton Place South, and, with a friend, opened a bar on 53rd Street and Second Avenue called Eamon Doran’s. That was my friend. He’d been working at P. J. Moran’s at Fifth and Madison and was a bartender with a following. So we put his name on the door. I had no reputation in Manhattan.”
Two years later, Cyril married Sheila Clancy, the daughter of Alan Clancy, his second cousin, who owned a bar by that name in Manhattan.
“So I was marrying my third cousin. We tied the knot in Las Vegas in 1986.”
They remained married for nine years, but it was a tough nine years. Cyril was settling in to be who he was. Drinking was a problem. At one point, Sheila joined Al-Anon, an outfit for family of those with a drinking problem. At another point, he agreed to go into rehab, and they sent him off for a month to one in Minneapolis.
“It was a big waste of money,” Cyril told me. “I got out, went to the airport, the plane back to New York was two hours late, and so I had three Courvoisiers while I waited.”
In 1988, the couple looked for a vacation home for a little peace and quiet in the summertime. Sheila’s father owned a vacation house in Montauk. Cyril bought one in the Hither Hills section of Montauk that year, and they began coming out summers.
A few years after that, Cyril decided he loved peace and quiet. But there was not much to do in the winter in Montauk. So, when not in Manhattan, they went traveling. One winter, he and his wife went on safari in Africa. On another occasion, the two of them went off to one of the quietest Islands in the Caribbean, Anguilla.
“I remember we went into what was supposed to be the big town in Anguilla. It was two stores. This was at 8 a.m. We had just got off a plane. Rented a car. I was looking for a drink. I got directed out to a place in Island Harbor, which sold drinks any time. That was it.”
Around 1990, Cyril sold Eamon Doran’s in Manhattan and another bar he owned called Squirrel’s on 52nd Street. They kept the apartment and moved to Montauk. Cyril now felt he needed to find something new to do.
“I was in Mombasa, Kenya on safari and there was a guy I met who had heard of Montauk, and when he mentioned it, I thought, well, I could open a bar in Montauk.”
Cyril wondered about this clam bar he had passed so often on the Napeague Stretch called Skipper’s Galley. Before that it had been Fish and Chips. What about that? He stopped in and came away with the belief it was badly run. Just down the street was the Lobster Roll, which was packed. This place could be packed. So he bought it. And that’s how it started out to be Cyril’s.
The following year, he and his wife, back in Anguilla, bought that bar where he’d gotten that 8 a.m. drink. But they kept the name. It’s called The Fish Trap, and, seven months a year, from October to April, you’ll find him there, just as you find him here at Cyril’s in the summertime.
Sheila divorced him in 1995. He didn’t want it.
“I’d still be married today if it was up to me,” he said. “But that’s what she wanted.”
He never went to court. She got the apartment on Sutton Place South and he, he thought, got the house in Hither Hills. But then he found out that she’d gotten that, too. Now he lives near the beach on a two-acre property in Amagansett. He commutes every day.
“I’m here every day, seven days a week,” he said.
“Tell me an interesting story about Cyril’s,” I said.
“Well, we’ve never had trouble, never had a fight or anything, everyone’s pretty good. But then one night a couple of years ago, it was 9:30 at night, the girl was counting the register and I was in the back, and these two men came in and robbed the place at gunpoint. One of them pistol-whipped the girl and I ran at him and tackled him, but they got away with everything. I called 911, didn’t have the license plate or anything but told them it was a black Lexus. Inside of five minutes they had a roadblock set up five miles west of here—it’s only this one road gets you off the peninsula—and they got ’em. They had $28,000 on them.”
“Nope. Just good times.”
“Paul Simon. Jerry Seinfeld. Billy Joel came here back in the day.”
“I notice you’ve just been drinking coffee.”
“Haven’t had a drink in five years,” he said.
“Nope. Just work and these books. Then I go home.”
Cyril is happy to meet anybody anytime. Go see him. Order Cyril’s BBC, the special drink Cyril made famous in the Caribbean. The BBC is Bailey’s Banana Liquor, piña colada mix, white rum, a whole fresh banana, put in the mixer and serve with a float of dark rum on top. Also order a fresh fish sandwich with cole slaw. That’s what I did. Big portions. Price is fair. And meet Cyril.