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Vol. 17 No. 7 · 6 April 1995

Being Irish in New York

Ronan Bennett

Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, they assured us, would be ‘like Galway on a Saturday night’. I assumed this meant the place would be teeming with Irish people, hearty and green, enjoying a good night out. A vision leapt unbidden to mind, embarrassing in its insistence and sentimentality, of a prelapsarian Ireland, the Ireland of The Quiet Man, of fresh-faced cailins and freckle-faced lads, soft brogues, mischievous matchmakers, innocent fun, uileann pipes, sea-wind in the hair. Even if you swap John Ford’s Ireland for something more urban and contemporary, say that of Roddy Doyle, in which a good night out is more likely to involve soul music and a ‘ride’, it is still possible to find yourself idealising: Ford and Doyle (pre-Paddy Clarke and Family, at least) offer essentially the same vision, promise the same reward – the uplifting sensation that comes from watching easy-going people, a little rough around the edges but with hearts as big as their sometimes foul mouths, struggle against adversity without ever losing the twinkle in their eye, the smile on their lips or the song in their heart. This portrait of my country and its people is fanciful and romantic, but in my weaker, more atavistic moments, I am, like many Irish people, and perhaps thirty to forty million Americans (estimates vary), susceptible to its emotional undertow.

When I arrive in Bainbridge Avenue with Scott, my (Scots-American) guide, and Hamish, my (Scots-Czech) radio producer, the streets are deserted and desolate. I have been in Galway on a Saturday night, and this is not it. We peer through the windows of a series of uninviting bars, looking for potential interviewees. None seems to have a clientele greater than three. The Derby, which we finally enter, has two.

‘My instinct tells me this isn’t your busiest night,’ Scott says by way of a warm-up.

‘It is,’ the barman replies, and I don’t think he’s joking.

We order drinks. This is not Ford, and it’s worse than the Doyle of Family. I comment on the grimness of things to the barman.

‘And it’s going to get worse.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘The niggers and spies are all moving in.’

Trust your compatriots to let you down in front of your friends. We get half an hour’s worth of ‘niggers this’ and ‘niggers that’. The bar’s owner was recently mugged and shot. You never got that sort of thing, of course, before the niggers arrived. The Irish are moving out of Bainbridge, building by building, block by block. The district is now economically depressed, decaying. Its heyday, they tell us, was eight or nine years ago. There have been riots. Thirty minutes in this place is enough to dispel any illusions about the nature of Irish America. Forget solidarity between oppressed peoples. Forget Doyle’s Irish as the blacks of Europe. Once these Corkmen and Dubliners settle here, the relationship between Irish and black becomes strictly and uncompromisingly a struggle.

In New York, these tensions are deeply rooted. In the 1830s, when the Irish took over Tammany Hall, one of the most keenly debated policy battles was over the abolition of slavery. Daniel O’Connell told his fellow countrymen in America that slavery was a ‘foul blot on the noble institutions’ of their adopted land. The Liberator exhorted them: ‘Treat the coloured people as your equals, as brethren. By all your memories of Ireland, continue to love liberty – hate slavery – cling by the abolitionists – and in America, you will do honour to the name of Ireland.’ By and large, however, Irish-Americans ignored O’Connell, and the appeals of Frederick Douglass for Irish and black to make common cause. The Irish newspaper in New York changed its name from the Citizen to the Caucasian. The animosities deepened, culminating in the Draft Riots of 1863, sparked by the anger of the poor immigrant Irish at their forcible enlistment in a cause to which they were hostile or indifferent. An estimated thousand people died in four days of disturbances, which included the sack and burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum; elsewhere, blacks were lynched and their property destroyed. The novelist Peter Quinn has identified this moment as crucial for the Irish: it was a fight between two disadvantaged groups to see who was going to wind up bottom of the heap. The Irish won but, judging by Bainbridge Avenue, the war is not over.

Though undoubtedly the ugliest aspect of the Irish presence in America, racism isn’t its only blemish. Almost as hard to take is the collective idiocy of St Patrick’s Day, when green beer is swilled by men whose shaven heads have been tattooed with emerald shamrocks. Then there is the fiercely reactionary and sectarian Ancient Order of Hibernians (the Catholic equivalent of the Orange Order). There are the unlovely exploits of the deeply unendearing Kennedy family. There is the Republican activist we interviewed whose name I will never know because he had repudiated his ‘slave name’ – the new, Gaelicised version, spoken in a thick Bronx accent, went past both me and the tape-recorder. Irish America is an easy target: if you want to find blarney, you’ll find it. If you’re looking for half-baked, drink-fuelled, ballad-sustained nationalism, you’ll get it.

But with every visit I make to New York I also find things which run against the stereotype. Take ‘community’, for instance. Because modern developments are everywhere obscuring its concrete significance, ‘community’ has come increasingly to exist in the mind only, mostly as an idealisation of the past: when it is common to speak of the ‘film community’ and the ‘academic community’ and the ‘financial community’, you know the concept is in trouble. The New York Irish are as divided as any other group along lines of class, background, occupation, location, and political preference. There is another interesting divide: older-established Irish-Americans – who, generally speaking, are politically and socially conservative, and supporters of one form or another of Irish nationalism – tend to dislike the newer arrivals.

The products of modern Ireland are upsettingly familiar to the sober, hard-working descendants of the ‘Famine Irish’: the streetwise, apolitical kids with their earrings, baseball caps and torn jeans coming in on their Morrison visas bear too little resemblance to the rosy-cheeked, gambolling youths preserved in the Irish-American imagination and too much to the good-for-nothings seen everyday around bars and street corners. As the man who had repudiated his slave name told us, ‘the Irish Americans object to the Irish coming into their bars, taking their girlfriends, taking their jobs, not working properly when they take the jobs. The older Irish don’t like their lifestyles, the way they conduct themselves, they don’t like their outlook on life. These new arrivals are happy-go-lucky kids who hang around the bar all night and get up to go to a construction site in the morning and do nothing. This is not why Sean and Maire are working two jobs to put their kids through university, to see them turn into navvies and paddies.’ The hostility has resulted in street fights.

Nevertheless, in spite of its fissiparous and contradictory qualities, there is an Irish community in New York, one with a real social and economic function, as well as an idealised one. The lower down the social scale you are, the more economically vulnerable, the greater its importance. Young Irish people arriving in New York get a head start on other immigrants if they can connect with this community. Some we interviewed chose to stay aloof from then compatriots, preferring to have a go at making it on their own, but most had the name and number of someone in their town or village who had emigrated earlier, to the address of a second cousin or an old school friend of their brother’s. Those who arrive without contacts do not necessarily end up alone. They can find assistance by going to any one of the large number of Irish bars that dot Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. ‘We were all put up when we first came over,’ a customer in the Derby tells us. They sleep on the floor or on the sofa until they find a place of their own; they are introduced to people who can help them with jobs. The help on offer is informal and practical, and the unspoken understanding is that, circumstances allowing, today’s recipient will be tomorrow’s provider.

‘It’s a family thing,’ the barman of the Derby assures us, which may be a little hopeful. It is not that big a step from family to clan to tribe to race and all the consequent rivalries and hatred. But the idea that a stranger, in a city like New York, can turn up at a bar and find shelter and work says something for the survival of old notions of communal solidarity. A young woman we found in a more crowded bar said simply that being part of the Irish community was ‘great – everyone looks out for you.’ Like many New York Irish, this woman had come over on a tourist visa and had simply not gone home. ‘Dodging the Feds’, she said, was all right when you’re young and footloose, but the problems of illegal immigrants deepen with time: everyday things like medical insurance and drivers’ licences take on a grail-like property.

For some, salvation arrives in the form of amnesties, periodically negotiated, often as a result of political pressure. Others, condemned to an existence of semi-clandestinity, rely on the community. ‘These people,’ the girl said, ‘have amazing networks. IDs are passed round. Say, if somebody has medical insurance, he’ll give it to somebody who’s sick so they can get medical attention. This happened when a friend of mine broke his leg really badly. They got him to hospital on someone else’s ID. In the end, he had to be sent back to Ireland and they took up a collection for him in the bar to pay his way. They’d do anything for you.’

If you are an immigrant with pressing economic needs, being Irish in New York is straightforward and involves no philosophical inquiry. You’re Irish, other Irish people will help you, later you can help them – it’s as simple as that. For those who progress economically, those who move from ‘steerage to suburbia’, from the Lower East Side to Westchester County, Irishness becomes more problematic, It isn’t just to do with the passing of time, though that of course plays its part. It is more to do with economic and physical distance from the community, and membership of a new network, one less concerned with country of origin and more with occupation and place of residence. Among the middle-class, being ‘Irish’ necessarily involves self-conscious effort: they are, after all, trying to hold onto something that increasingly has no sustaining material purpose. For some, the effort may be an attempt to learn Gaelic; for others, it may be membership of a society or study group (anything from the Irish Arts Centre to Friends of Sinn Fein). For many, perhaps most, the effort will be confined to taking part in the St Patrick’s Day parade. This latter group tend to be looked down on by those closest to the community. One interviewee, a former patrolman in the NYPD, told us: ‘The one good thing about these people is that you’re free of them 364 other days of the year. They come out, they throw up on each other, and they’re jerks, they tend to be your racists, they tend to be your conservatives, and they identify themselves as Irish but usually just the one day of the year, which is cool enough.’

The British view of Irish America is not usually sympathetic, as one recent comment, prompted by the success of the latest Adams visit, illustrates: ‘the East Coast Irish political circus ... is posturing, tribal, self-indulgent and unhelpful. It’s old-fashioned and it’s lazy’ (the Guardian). A horrible hybrid, particularly offensive to British tastes, has been produced: American brashness and Irish sentimentality meet in the antics of the St Patrick’s Day jerk. He is a laughable figure, but he is no longer harmless. He can now give money to Sinn Fein.

On Third Avenue, around 23rd Street, there is a concentration of Irish bars: PJ Reilly’s and Fitzgerald’s are two of the livelier ones. Many of the customers will be nationalists or Republicans, more than you would find in the average bar in Dublin, Sligo or Limerick. Why? A friend explains: ‘You’re much freer here than you are at home. You’re not ashamed to be Irish, you’re not ashamed of your political views. It’s not as dangerous. No one’s going to come knocking on your door.’ Another friend agrees: ‘Most of the people in the New York Irish community who are aware of their Irishness, tend to lean towards Republicanism. There’s no pressure not to.’ ‘As long as you don’t do anything illegal, no one’s going to say you shouldn’t be a Republican.’ An alternative explanation, the one favoured on this side of the Atlantic, is that Irish-American support for Sinn Fein is the outgrowth of ignorance, bias and hatred. The simple fact is that, when it comes to Ireland, Irish Americans are sadly incapable of following the British example of dispassionate inquiry and discussion.

I have never seen this view seriously challenged. Six months into the IRA ceasefire, it may still be impossible to discuss Adams’s activities, pronouncements and character rationally (Adams has ‘his bloody paw’ stroked by Clinton, was the Sunday Telegraph’s measured comment on the infamous St Patrick’s Day meeting). But, however one may value it, the United States has had a significant role in the peace process; if anything, that role is likely to become more important as the process develops. So it seems in order to question the governing assumptions about Irish Americans.

Do they really know less about the conflict than people in Britain? Are they lost in nostalgic ‘Celtic mists’? Are they silver-tongued, Blarney Stone-kissers who have taken in the gullible Yanks? Those we interviewed, the ones I’ve spoken to since, displayed varying levels of knowledge and interest. Some had strong pro-Republican opinions without being too clear about the facts; others with equally strong views had read widely, knew dates, places, names and organisations; several had taken the trouble to visit the North. I have discussed the forensic evidence in the Maguire, Ward and Birmingham Six cases with a homicide detective named Brian McCabe (he acts as one of Gerry Adams’s unofficial bodyguards when Adams is in New York). McCabe can tell you, without reference to notes, about the results of the Thin Layer Chromatography test carried on samples taken from Billy Power, and discuss the Court of Appeal’s comments in 1987 on the Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry test. McCabe may not be typical, but the point is whether the knowledge of the average Irish American is so different from that of the average Briton. Have you ever tried to pass a Northern Irish banknote at your local off-licence?

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