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.