PUBLISHED BY MOSHOLU PRESERVATION CORPORATION

Vol. 20,  No. 6 March 22 - April 4, 2007



     
 

Remembering When the Irish Painted the Town Green
Many Still Return to See Old Friends on St. Patrick’s Day

By ALEX KRATZ

In the 1980s, 204th Street and Bainbridge Avenue – two Norwood streets that form a slightly bent elbow of a commercial district – was a hotbed of New York City Irish culture known as either “Bainbridge” or “Little Belfast.”

During its apex, a thirsty resident or visitor could walk down that crooked corridor and pick and choose from any one of the 18 different Irish pubs (one from each Irish county, people used to joke).

Along with the saturation of watering holes, there was an immigration support office, a handful of Irish delis and a Celtic gift shop that sold county newspapers from back home.

While “Bainbridge” was the commercial district, Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans populated a majority of Bedford Park as well.

Richard Smith, a retired Irish-American banker who has lived in the area for 27 years with his wife Carmen, estimates that the neighborhood was “90 percent Irish.” He moved to Norwood from the Grand Concourse because of that fact. “I felt like I was back in the homeland,” he says.

Today, only remnants from that era remain. The Irish have been replaced by Mexicans, Salvadorans, Dominicans, Albanians and Bangladeshis. A couple of newsstands and bodegas, mostly operated by men of Middle Eastern descent, carry some of the Irish weeklies. A sprinkling of gritty Irish pubs refuse to close their doors. And some of the old-timers, like Smith and his wife, still call the area home and eat breakfast at the McDonald’s on 204th Street.

Irish in America
The Irish have been living in the Bronx since colonial times, says Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian. The first Irish to migrate were mostly Protestants with means. “They could afford to make the swim across the Atlantic,” Ultan says.

Irish signed the Declaration of Independence and fought in the Revolutionary War. American war hero Richard Montgomery (who has several counties, towns and cities named after him) was an Irishman who lived in the Bronx.

It wasn’t until the Great Famine in Ireland that the native Irish, the Catholic Irish, began moving to the States in droves. Thomas Ihde, a professor at Lehman College’s Institute for Irish American Studies, says during that bleak period (about 1845-1849), a million Irish died and a million immigrated, many to the United States.

In the land of opportunity, the Irish, who worked hard and cheap, found employment in New York City’s thriving construction industry. As the subway lines moved into the Bronx, so did the Irish. Many of them settled in Bedford Park and Norwood because they were working on projects at the New York Botanical Garden, Ultan says. By the 1970s, living among pockets of the area’s waning Jewish population (which had dominated the community for decades), the Irish were well established in the northwest Bronx.

Irish Hotbed
Mickey Burke, who grew up in Williamsbridge, just east of Norwood, began exploring his Celtic roots at Hunter College in Manhattan, where he created a pan-Celtic club (the first in the country, he says). In 1977, he fulfilled a lifelong dream by opening up Keltic Connections, a Celtic gift shop that not only carried all the Irish newspapers and a host of gifts and crafts, but also what he says was the largest selection of St. Patrick’s Day cards on the planet. Burke carried five full racks and many of his cards were written in Irish (otherwise known as Gaelic).

During the 1970s and into the ‘80s, illegal Irish immigrants began flooding into Norwood and Bedford Park to either find work in the Bronx’s booming construction industry or to escape the political violence in Northern Ireland, commonly known as “the Troubles.”

“The Irish would come straight from the airports and onto the subways,” Burke says. “They would take the D line all the way to the end,” where they would stop in Norwood.

Sometimes tension arose between the new Irish, the “Greenhorns,” and the old Irish, the “Narrow Backs,” Burke says, but mostly everyone got along.

“You felt so proud to be Irish then,” especially on St. Patrick’s Day, Smith remembers.

It was during the late ‘80s and into the early to mid-‘90s that Little Belfast received its nickname as a breeding ground for Irish politics and socializing. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams (1995) and former Irish President Mary Robinson (1993) visited the strip’s Tir Na Nog Young Irish Center. Politically raucous Irish rock band Black 47 (the name is an ode to the worst year of the Irish famine, 1847) played various “Bainbridge” pubs and refers to the area in a couple of its songs. Thomas Maguire, the owner of The Phoenix, a bar on 204th Street and Decatur Avenue, was charged with smuggling bomb detonators from the United States to Ireland in 1994 (a jury found him not guilty).

By then, most of the Irish were either on their way back to Ireland to take advantage of the resurgent Irish economy, known as the “Celtic Tiger,” or had moved just north to Woodlawn or Yonkers. Many of the illegal Irish found it increasingly difficult to make a living without proper documents, Ihde reasoned. Others moved to find cheaper rent and more space in the suburbs, Burke says.

The Irish exodus from the area began in 1990, Burke says, and within a few short years their presence had all but disappeared. “It dropped off radically,” he says. Burke finally closed his shop in 1995.

“There’s so few [Irish] left,” Burke says. “The Irish population is almost gone.”

St. Patrick’s Day
Last Saturday, on the great Irish holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, a black man wearing a green plastic necklace with a four-leaf clover around his neck, smokes a cigarette outside of Madden’s Irish pub on Bedford Park Boulevard. Neil Young blares from the speakers. (Up until a few years ago, out in front of the Madden’s, the Bedford Park Shamrock Club would paint a giant shamrock in the middle of Bedford Park Boulevard.) Inside, 80-year-old Irish-American Patricia Dugard, wearing a long green T-shirt, cleans up around steaming pans of corned beef, cabbage and Irish shepherd’s pie – a gift from the bar’s owner.

Dugard, a Bedford Park resident for the past 24 years, points to a wall of pictures that look semi-recent. “They’re all gone,” she says, her eyes drifting to the other dozen or so folks in the bar. “I don’t know any of these people,” she says. But her daughter, Kathy Maloney is there, along with bar regular Trisha Karney and her own daughter Bernadette Lynch, who just returned from the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown. “We all get along here,” says Karney. The rest of the bar clientele is made up of Latinos, black transit workers and an old Finnish American guy named Donald Anderson.

Around the corner on Jerome Avenue, at Shea’s, which has been owned by the O’Shea family since 1954, the scene is livelier. The place is packed. Irish visiting from the home country and Irish-Americans mingle in the crowded, skinny bar. Kids wearing floppy Irish hats scurried beneath armpits and through legs. The owner, Tim O’Shea, grew up here, literally, in the apartment upstairs. Like most of his customers that day, O’Shea has since moved to Yonkers. Former neighborhood residents, some still loyal customers, have returned to bask in nostalgia and catch up with old friends. On the stereo, traditional Irish music mixes with pop and country hits from the ‘80s.

“It’s a nice family place,” says Mike Utke, who made the trip here from Queens. “Everybody knows everybody.”

An Irishman who moved to Bedford Park 15 years ago, but now lives in Yonkers, is at the bar with his wife (an Irish woman he met at Shea’s) and a small army of red-headed children. With a smile, he declines to give his name. “I’m on the run,” he says. “The whole lot of us.”

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