Sunday, March 16, 2008

Irish New York

New York City has the largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the country. Every year on March 17, legions of high school and college bands, policemen, firemen and fraternal societies led by vote-hungry politicians march down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan from midday to dusk, when everyone disperses to their favorite watering hole.

New York’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the city on March 17 — the anniversary of the saint’s death. But for a more recent back-story on Irish New York, drop by the Irish Hunger Memorial overlooking the Hudson River at Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan.

The Irish potato famine of 1845-1852 killed more than a million people and drove hundreds of thousands out of Ireland. Many settled in New York and Boston. By 1850, the population of New York City was one-quarter Irish.

The memorial, which was dedicated in July 2002, was erected to record the suffering of those who perished and the courage of those who came to the United States to start over. It was also designed to raise awareness about hunger that still afflicts large parts of the world. It is sited on a half-acre, the maximum amount of land an Irish farmer was allowed to own if he were to receive any government assistance during the famine.

From the west side, the entrance to the memorial is through a passage whose walls are made of 300-million-year-old Kilkenny limestone interspersed with glass strips bearing quotes from eyewitnesses to the Irish famine and statistical information. This is accompanied by an audio track.

Just beyond is a roofless, two-room, stone crofter’s cottage that once stood in County Mayo. The cottage was built in 1820 and used by an Irish farming family until the 1960’s.

A field planted with Irish clover, grasses and heath slopes gently upward to yield views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the portal for so many immigrants to their new life. Large stones from each of Ireland’s 32 counties are placed in the field, with an ancient pilgrim’s stone at the top, inscribed with a cross associated with St. Brendan of County Kerry.

You can follow in the footsteps of the Irish immigrants with a walking tour created by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Download it at

The tour starts in Lower Manhattan at St. Peters Church, at 22 Barclay St., which was founded by an Irish priest in 1785 and is the oldest Roman Catholic church in the city. Next it takes you to 280 Broadway, where a boy named Alexander Turney Stewart who emigrated to New York in 1818 from County Antrim grew up to found America's first department store.

Some of the other sites on the tour include the Brooklyn Bridge, largely built by poor, Irish laborers, the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank on Chambers Street, which was founded expressly for Irish immigrants and the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street, which served the desperately poor people of nearby Five Points — a slum so filthy and dangerous that even Charles Dickens was appalled. (Five Points is now perfectly safe and is on the edge of Chinatown. Several courthouses long ago replaced the tenements.)

This informative tour ends at McSorley's Old Ale House on East 7th Street, founded in the mid-19th century by an immigrant from County Tyrone. Here you can rest your feet and have a pint. Or two.


Friday, March 7, 2008

Tea at the Plaza

When the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South in Manhattan was sold in 2004 and closed for conversion to condominiums, many New Yorkers were sad — really sad. They remembered tea in the Palm Court, drinks in the Oak Room, masses of crystal and flowers, celebrities awash in swank and mischievous Eloise, who had the run of the place.

However, after a $400 million overhaul, parts of the century-old Plaza have reopened. The hotel now consists of just 282 rooms, with most of the building allotted to condos and time-shares. But a harpist is again on duty in the Palm Court and tea is being served under a stunning stained glass ceiling that replicates one that was there between 1907 when the hotel opened and 1944, when it was replaced. Happily, the mirrors and caryatids on the rear wall are also still there, reflecting the room's new furnishings. Diners now sit on heavy, tall-backed blue velvet chairs that make each table seem private, though moving those chairs to get in and out of them requires the help of a waiter!

Tea, I'm happy to report, is better than ever with an exotic tea selection, beautiful, mini- open-faced sandwiches, superb scones, jam and clotted cream and a tempting array of exquisite pastries served on a silver, three-tiered tray. The service is impeccable and there is absolutely no pressure to finish up and move along.

All of this comes at a price — quite a price. Tea starts at $60 per person, and is more if you order champagne or a heftier complement of sandwiches. (Tea at the old Plaza used to cost $29, or $35 if you ordered caviar blinis.)

Of course, for visitors with Euros in their pockets, at the current rate of exchange, tea at the Plaza would only cost $39 — in my opinion, a bargain — and conveniently located near the high-end stores of Fifth Avenue, which offer additional bargains to those with foreign currency.

I predict that for the foreseeable future, there won't be too many New Yorkers in the Palm Court, but lots of overseas visitors having a wonderful time.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Side Streets: New York City Firehouse

I had turned off Broadway, a main thoroughfare of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, onto 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues yesterday when a building on the south side of the street stopped me in my tracks.

Amid West 83rd Street’s late 19th-century tenements and down-at-the-heels walk-ups was a five-story, brick firehouse with a broad, red door trimmed with gold. It was decked out with carved, stone trim, stone lintels above the windows and a lovely iron pulley at the top to hoist hay for the horses that pulled the fire trucks in 1888 when it was built.

A plaque named the fire commissioners at that time, and the architect, N. Le Brun & Sons. When I got home, I looked them up. Napoleon Eugene Henry Charles Le Brun was born in Philadelphia, which is where I come from, and was the architect of several beloved Philadelphia landmarks, including the Academy of Music and the vast Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul on Logan Circle.

Le Brun moved to New York City during the Civil War, and by 1888, was in business with his sons, Pierre and Michel. They designed many New York City firehouses as well as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, one of the city’s first skyscrapers.

The other names on the firehouse plaque were equally interesting. All were Tammany Hall politicians — Tammany Hall being the organization that ran New York City politics for almost a hundred years, dispensing graft and patronage in exchange for votes.

Richard Croker, for instance, whose name appears on the firehouse, was two years old when he came to the United States from Ireland. Eventually he became the leader of Tammany Hall, where he became enormously wealthy off the bribe money he took from the owners of brothels, bars and gambling dens. He spent the last years of his life in Ireland, where he died in his castle.

When you travel, I recommend leaving yourself enough time to turn down the side streets. Often they are as interesting as the attractions touted by the guidebooks!