Jimmy Neary: Two Super Bowl rings and an epic emigrant life

Sligo native made quite the mark on New York among the rich and famous

Jimmy Neary inside his restaurant on East 57th Street in New York in 2019. Photo: Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Jimmy Neary inside his restaurant on East 57th Street in New York in 2019. Photo: Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

 

Jimmy Neary never threw a pass, caught a touchdown or made a tackle in his life but ended up as the only Irishman with two Super Bowl rings and a footnote in New York Giants’ history. A world-renowned barkeep who poured generously yet wouldn’t touch a single drop. A restauranteur for half a century, he couldn’t tell you how to make a hamburger. A devout Catholic, he made a daily pilgrimage to his late wife Eileen’s grave yet remained steadfast in his support for his old friend Donald Trump. A featured character in more than 20 of Mary Higgins Clark’s novels, he never found time to read any of the books.

A wonderful profile in contradictions then, his death earlier this month at the age of 91 earned a mention on NBC’s Today show by the presenter, Hoda Kotb, another old pal, and lengthy obituaries everywhere from the New York Times to the Sligo Champion to Fox News Channel. At St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, they afforded him the type of funeral more befitting a statesman rather than the owner of storied Neary’s Bar on 57th Street. The homily was read by Cardinal Timothy Dolan (a regular customer) and one of the eulogies was delivered by former New York City mayor, Mike Bloomberg. The company he kept.

“I first started going to Neary’s 40 years ago, when I lived in an apartment around the corner,” said Bloomberg. “Some people went to eat, some went to drink, but most of us went to see Jimmy. He came here with hardly a nickel and worked like crazy, served in uniform and built a New York institution. America needs more Jimmy Nearys. ”

Invited to Ballymote, Co Sligo in 2006 to unveil a monument to the Fighting 69th Regiment, Bloomberg insisted Neary join him on his private jet and take him to visit his hometown of Tubbercurry along the way. Even though his car number plate had Sligo on it, it took some arm-twisting to persuade him to abandon the shop for a few days. Once he got him back to Ireland, however, Bloomberg recognised that the people-handling Neary honed over half a century serving food and drink gave him the skill set of a silver-tongued diplomat.

Upward mobility

Born in Tubbercurry in 1930, Neary was 24 when he sailed to America, his passage famously funded by poker winnings and cash earned breeding pigs. He arrived with $94 and the name and address of a friend of his mother’s. His first job was as a swimming pool porter in the New York Athletic Club. Neary only worked there a little while but made the inevitable dent in its history, returning one day to become the only former employee ever to be granted full member rights. The kind of relentless upward mobility that hallmarked one of those epic emigrant lives.

PJ Moriarty, a garrulous Kerryman who’d arrived a generation before, handed him his first break. A long-standing member of the NYAC and owner of the eponymous restaurant on 52nd Street, Moriarty recognised the newcomer’s work ethic and gave him a start as a bar boy and coat checker. That evolved into full-time bartending, and, following the obligatory stint driving tanks in the US Army (a common feature of the Irish experience in America in that era), Neary and his friend Brian Mulligan put down $500 to lease a vacant pub on 57th Street, opening the doors for the first time on a cold, wet and unpromising St Patrick’s Day in 1967.

They imposed a strict dress code (jacket always required) and, pretty soon, were presiding over the favoured haunt of politicos, journalists and power-brokers. The night Neary walked in and saw the astronaut John Glenn sitting at a table, he knew the place had taken off. Through the decades, he counted mayors, governors, senators and cardinals among the regulars. The New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner, actress Maureen O’Hara and writers like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin became staples too. The New York Giants grew so fond of the place that after their 1986 and 1990 Super Bowl triumphs, Timothy Mara, co-owner of the club, presented Neary with Super Bowl rings, an accolade usually reserved for those working directly with the team.

Enduring impact

Invited to the White House by George HW Bush, Cardinal Dolan once brought him and his wife to the Vatican for an audience with the Pope. His enduring impact was such that his clippings file includes every major magazine and newspaper from New York to Los Angeles, every guide to eating and drinking in Manhattan. Each invariably referred to the quality of the cuisine and the charm of the “leprechaun” in charge. Truly, the curse of every successful Irish person in this country, even somebody who stood just five foot three, is to be compared to a diminutive character in green.

Of course, Neary wore it well because the reviews were always uniformly positive, acknowledging that his establishment was much more than a bar or a restaurant but an institution in the city. A fact perfectly captured in a 2017 documentary about him and his work called, Neary’s - The Dream at the End of the Rainbow. He is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and an indelible contribution to the folk memory of his adopted homeland.

“If St Peter ever stops me at the pearly gates,” said Bloomberg in his eulogy. “I’ll tell him, go ask Jimmy Neary.”

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