On Thursday, December 21, 2017 Savannah, Georgia lost a legend. Billy Lee was a respected and beloved Savannah native. Lee began his career as a United States Marine; proudly serving his country during the Korean Conflict. After attending Armstrong University, Lee entered the insurance business but realizing insurance sales was not his passion he became a well-known publican in the Savannah community owning local bars such as Rascals, Fosters, and Chuckles.
Knowing his community clung to its Irish history and heritage, Lee decided to open another pub on St. Patrick’s Day 1987! Just a few squares off the beaten path, or just a few “to-go” drinks away, from the hustle and bustle of tourist traps in downtown Savannah, Lee opened McDonough’s. Lee and his best friend, Robbie Davis (or “Snake”) had a long running joke about who actually named the bar or even why. But, no matter who actually named the popular pub, and no matter the reason, McDonough’s quickly became a local favorite among the Irish community, Savannah School of Art and Design students, local military, first responders, and tourists.
Jason Kerr, 25-year veteran of the Jacksonville Fire Department, remembers meeting Billy Lee for the first time in 2011. Kerr and his fellow firefighter, Dave Ellsworth, were in Savannah ready to march in their first St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Kerr recalls feeling “thirsty” as he walked by Savannah Firehouse #1 and asking one of his “brothers” where he could find a drink. Kerr was told to “Walk 2 blocks down and you will see McDonough’s.” Kerr thanked his “brother” and he and Ellsworth headed straight to the pub. Walking in, in his full-dress uniform, Kerr recalls a “ruff but regal man” approaching him and thanking he and Ellsworth for their service and dedication to their communities. Kerr said thank you and extended his hand when this man introduced himself, Billy Lee. Since 2011 Kerr has brought the Jacksonville Firefighters to Savannah for St. Patrick’s, and every year, Billy Lee, has welcomed the Jacksonville firefighters, as well as other first responders from near and far to McDonough’s and Billy’s Place.
Always giving back to his community, Billy Lee, always remembered to give back by supporting local charities such as 2nd Harvest and Kiss a Pig among dozens of others. Lee welcomed everyone into his pub no matter who you were, where you were from, and no matter your politics. Lee was known to never turn away anyone hungry or cold and was even known to have opened his pub up on cold nights to the less fortunate that had no where to sleep.
McDonough’s has always been known as Savannah’s favorite community pub with the best karaoke! Almost a “Cheer’s” like atmosphere where everyone knows your name. Not only will you find Hibernians, Parade Committee members, and the Knights of Columbus enjoying a pint of Guinness, you see local college kids, military, and tourists singing karaoke at the top of their lungs. You see tour groups walking in the pub absorbing the history while savouring the taste of spirts such as Jameson Irish Whiskey.
In the late 1990’s, Lee decided to open Billy’s Place above McDonough’s for a more refined and older crowd. You won’t find Karaoke, but you will find a pianist. You won’t be able to order the best buffalo wings in town upstairs, you will order the local Crab Cakes (but, don’t forget to order the buffalo wings, downstairs, on the way home!).
The night of Lee’s 75th birthday in 2007, McDonough’s and Billy’s Place caught fire destroying a majority of the 150-year-old building. Luckily, no one was injured but sadly McDonough’s and Billy’s Place would close for the next 8 months while the local favourite was being restored. As “they” say; from the ashes a Phoenix will rise! And, again, on St. Patrick’s Day 2008 McDonough’s and Billy’s Place reopened!
While Savannah still mourns for one of its favourite publicans, Lee’s children have now joined forces to ensure that McDonough’s and Billy’s Place remain a staple in the Savannah community as well as carrying on Lee’s legacy of donating to various charities and welcoming in all who pass through the doors of Savannah’s favourite pub.
St. Patrick’s Day 2018, before the parade, Firefighter Kerr brought his brothers from Jacksonville back to McDonough’s. Kerr, dressed in his uniform, took to the karaoke stage and commanded everyone’s attention… Kerr asked everyone there to take a moment then raised a glass to the memory of Bill Lee.