On Growing Up Irish in New York
I grew up in one of those Irish Catholic families where the Clancy Brothers music was always playing and everybody dropped everything if the Chieftans came to town. There was the brief flirtation with step dancing (Riverdancing to the rest of you) and the dreadful sounds my sister Kathleen and I made during our brief and painful (for those within earshot) period of bagpipe lessons.
I still remember a sight from a family party, it might have been Arthur and Clair McLaughlin’s anniversary party, when my dad got all the men in the place in one long—and a bit unsteady—line and they serenaded all the women and children with the full set of stanzas of “Danny Boy.” They sounded pretty good, too.
Then there are the bars. Peter McManus Pub in Chelsea, my daddy’s old haunt, which he told me was the inspiration for the soap opera “Ryan’s Hope” because Old Mr. (James) McManus—his son Jamo took over the bar later—had been a Democratic District Leader, just like the title character Jack Ryan. And, of course, The Mad Hatter, once run by the man who founded the rugby team at my high school. Gibbons Potcheen Still in Queens (my old haunt), where on Sunday nights, they used to fly in the newspapers from Ireland and videotapes of sporting matches and TV shows from the other side, and you could buy Irish Bacon, Crunchies and Barry’s Tea in the shop in the corner. Andy Cooney was a regular behind the microphone there, and at the Irish Circle in Rockaway, back in the day. He would often sing the Black Velvet Band for me, long ago it was my theme song.
And, of course, the much missed Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion where almost every Thursday night my aunts and my mother’s cousins—and many times my cousins—would be at “their” table near the front, singing along with Tommy Makem, and whichever of the Clancy Brothers happened to be around that week. I would stop in most weeks on my way home from the law library when I was a student, sure of the warmth of family and Tommy’s famous hot toddy, which would chase the bitterest cold out of your bones, and which I swear cured me of pneumonia my second year of law school. Whoops, I almost left out the Village Lion, which was not merely a bar, back in the old days when Alan Whelan owned it, it was a rugby club. I miss that.
I am so nostalgic now because HuffPo is reporting that another icon of being Irish in NY may be leaving us. Frank McCourt, of “Angela’s Ashes” fame, has meningitis, and it appears to be terminal. I am so sad. I remember when he would hold forth at the White Horse Tavern in the Village. He had such an agile mind and strung words together like fine jewels. He was an artist and words were his palette.
I remember one Sunday, going there for brunch with Margaret Breen, and it was our great good fortune to be there when “himself” was telling stories. I don’t think that either of us girls said a word, just ate our brown bread, eggs and tea and listened in awe.