Green in the Big Apple


After the second World War, after they'd seen Paree, you couldn't keep 'em down on the farm or anywhere else. Besides, they hadn't come from farms. Maybe their parents had - come from the farms, that is: dug the potato, milked the cow, tended to the pig, lowered the pint, sung the sad song.

Back from the wars, the young Seans and Michaels and Marys said "Hi" to their parents, took a look at the old neighbourhoods, and headed for the suburbs. They chanted the mantra of the time. We Want A Better Life For Our Kids, and with GI Bill as the great, shining key opening university doors, they were able to get that better life. It was the last generation of Irish-Americans who might have heard stories of Risings and Civil Wars directly from the lips of participants, the generation that would spawn the baby boomers who wanted no part of history.

The Irish-Americans, "narrowbacks", were leaving a New York City still largely Irish. Third Avenue, from 14th Street to 96th Street, was one long Irish bar. It was said you could go in the door of the downtown Treaty Stone and not emerge till you reached the uptown Ireland's Thirty Two. All around Manhattan there were Irish dance halls: The Caravan, the Tuxedo, City Center, the Jaeger House, the Leitrim House. In all five boroughs there were dinners and dances sponsored by various social, cultural, political, and country organisations. All you needed to fill your calendar was an Irish newspaper, the Irish Echo, the Irish World, the Irish Advocate. On Sundays, you could head up to the Bronx and cheer for your county in hurling or Gaelic football.

There was comfort in knowing, too, that the Irish were still powerful in politics, that one of "our own" sat in the mayor's chair at City Hall - Bill O'Dwyer from Bohola, Co Mayo, though you might wonder about his brother, Paul, and his strange left-wing leanings. There were rumours that Paul was involved with the IRA and, strangest of all, that he was helping run arms to Israel.

There was comfort, too, in the thought that the post-war police department would be forever in the hands of the Irish. All you had to do was think of the long line of recent police commissioners: O`Brien, Murphy, Monaghan, Kennedy, Leary, Codd, McGuire. The department door was always open for the young Irish-American recruits and if they didn't want the cops there was always the fire department. More Irish commissioners: Quayle, Monaghan, Cavanagh, O'Hagan.

Italians, Germans and Poles had complained for more than a century about Irish control of the Catholic Church in New York City. And no wonder. The roster of archbishops and cardinals, reading from present to recent past, is proof of the Irish stranglehold: O'Connell, Cooke, Spellman, Hayes, Farley. Over in Brooklyn they let in an Italian bishop, Mugavero, for two decades but we have a Dailey now, they way it should be, Sean.

From the earliest days of Tammany Hall the Irish in New York understood the nature of power and they knew how to get it. They provided the organisation's bosses from the 1860s to the glory days of Al Smith in the 1930s. It was said the first Irish boss, Honest John Kelly, found Tammany a horde and left it an army. Richard Croker inherited the army and passed it on to Charles Francis Murphy who put Jimmy Walker in the mayor's chair. Croker and Walker shared an experience - they were caught with their hands in the till and had to leave the country.

Out there in the suburbs, Irish-Americans were now engaging in that most American of all pursuits: wondering who they were. There was the St Patrick's Day Parade. Kiss me, I'm Irish. Wear green. Think green. Drink green. Listen to Governor Hugh Carey: "The Irish march up Fifth and stagger down Third."

Yeah, let's take the kids to the parade or let them march with their schools, Our Lady of This or That. Let 'em be proud of their heritage, whatever the hell that is.

Wait, wait. We have something to be proud of and here he comes. John F. Kennedy. We've been drifting towards the Republican Party out here. After all, if you join the country club and play golf you know it's gonna be Republican. But still - Kennedy!

He's so glamorous: that smile, that hair, that tan, and he's got that drop-dead beautiful wife and that family. He makes it so exciting to be Irish we don't mind admitting we might vote for him.

An Irishman, Mike Mansfield, leads the United States Senate. Another Irishman, John McCormick, is Speaker of the House. Robert Wagner, half Irish, is mayor of New York. A great time to be Irish.

The times they are a-changing. The veterans who moved to the suburbs and, for the most part, shuffled off the Celtic coil, are now wondering what's happening to their kids, the boomers. You break your ass working to send your kids to college, hoping they'll have a better life. But look at this: the boys are letting their hair grow, the girls look like slobs, they're hanging out with Negroes, for Chrissakes, singing protest songs over Vietnam and Civil Rights and the goddam environment.

The Irish began to disappear from New York City politics. They were resting, regrouping, expressing themselves in other ways. For 50 years - and more - they had dominated New York journalism: E. L. Godkin, Jimmy Cannon, Bill Corum, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill.

But where now are the playwrights and poets? Where are the bards of the New York Irish experience? Tommy Kelly (New York) and Colum McCann (Dublin) have given us novels of underground New York, Payback and This Side Of Brightness, respectively. Where is the big O'Neill-type play, the significant "narrowback" poem?

The bars of Third Avenue are now pure Celtic chic: wood panelling, stained glass, menus offering "lite" food for the expanding waistline. Midtown Irish bars are a moveable feast of travellers from the Old Country - journalists, actors, politicians. Everywhere the sweet smell of success. Nowhere the voice of the poet.