Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What Happened to All the Irish?

When I first moved to New York in the late 80s, it seemed like you couldn’t walk five feet without running into an Irish immigrant: a bartender, nanny or construction worker, usually. Then again, it may have been that I was living in the Bronx, a place that had a small Irish immigrant community up around Bainbridge Avenue, and I went to bars a lot more often, which often serve as meeting points for immigrants in a given neighborhood.

But it’s one of those quiet realizations that I hardly ever over-hear Irish accents on the street or in a bar or restaurant much these days. I’m living in an apartment that previously had two Irish immigrant tenants before I moved in. The first was in the early 90s, a guy whose name I can’t recall, but he lived here with girlfriend, whom he eventually married, and they moved to London for restaurant work. The guy’s famous with my landlord for passing out one Saturday morning, and his fall breaking the bathroom sink in half. Apparently, he was quite a charmer, and she got over it.

Then again, a few years ago, his now-wife turned up in the neighborhood to visit an old friend, a New Zealand girl in the neighborhood who did nanny work. She was visiting for good reason – their marriage had entered a strange, volatile zone and was in deep trouble. It blew her mind that I was now living in the apartment they once shared. Last time I saw her was at O’Hanlon’s Bar, the local dive under the N train station, having drinks with our New Zealand friend, when some guy who looked like a dumpy Sean Connery (old Sean), came in, saw her talking to me, positioning himself between us, and said, “So, luv, why are you talking to strange men in America?”

It turned out to be a friend of her husband’s, and if I had any sense, I would have knocked him out right there for his lack of manners. Go ahead, call the cops, we’ll have a long talk about expiration dates on work visas, asshole. The guy really threw a wet blanket on the evening, putting her in a foul, crying mood and pretty much alienating the handful of people at the bar – not an unusual thing from what I learned, the guy was a notorious shitbird. I understand she went back to her husband, eventually back to Ireland, and who knows from there on. Made sure to change the locks on my place after that strange visitation.

It’s through that bar, O’Hanlon’s, and the girl from New Zealand, that I came across a fair number of Irish immigrants in the neighborhood. I just couldn't keep pace with those folks when it came to drinking. Back then, a big night out for me was to hit the bar around eight or so, and build up to that "buy three/get on free" drink special the bar had. I'd do that twice: eight pints. And I would be hammered to the point of sickness. That's a lot of alcohol for anybody, and my propensity for going that far didn't last more than a few years. Most of these folks would filter in around 10:00, and when I left around 1:30 or 2:00, they'd just be getting their motors running. My friend often told me stories of bolting the door at 4:00 am, and getting wild with the remaining people and the bartender. Or drinking literally until 9:00 or 10:00 the next morning. I may have done that once in my life: these folks did it every weekend.

Most of those Irish immigrants, I’m assuming, are long gone if they didn’t have a solid relationship with the landlord, as the two-bedroom apartments they were renting for $800 a month at the time are now going for over twice as much. It was through that scene that I met John, another Irish immigrant, who had taken over the apartment from the previously mentioned troubled guy and his fiancĂ©, and who happened to be moving out to buy a house just as I was looking for a new apartment back in 1999 or so. It was perfect timing, and my rent dropped about $150 a month. I was just glad to get out of my old apartment, in which the noise level was just too much: front apartment at street level, upstairs neighbor who I once described as Orson Welles jumping around on a pogo stick, and my landlord living behind me with his two teenage daughters, who drew loud-assed, obnoxious teenage boys to their house like honey bees.

John ran his own business out of the apartment – not quite sure what it was, but I threw out a huge fax machine after he left. He was also a bit of a ladies man, had what was basically pornography on the walls, bare-assed woman throwing spreads, those faux-art shots photo galleries sell that are really sort of high-class porn, which is fine. John also liked the drink, told me of passing out on the steps a few times here because he couldn’t find his keys. I know his girlfriend and son spent a lot of time here just before he moved out.

So, I guess my landlord should be fairly happy with me, beyond all the shit I do for her on a regular basis (most of her bills, reading all her mail as she doesn’t read English, yard and sidewalk cleaning, snow shoveling, any sort of physical labor that needs to be done, etc.). The days of me getting plastered (as opposed to pleasantly warm) are down to about one or two a year (can’t afford to have a shitty, wasted Saturday or Sunday … don’t want to after doing so plenty of times in my 20s and early 30s). And when I do, I sure as hell won’t be coming home and smashing a sink or in any other way damaging the apartment. I don’t smoke either – both of those guys did, like chimneys. My landlord’s husband did, too, and he passed on from lung cancer back around 2000. You rent an apartment in a house, someone smokes, chances are you’ll catch whiffs of that in the entire house.

So, the apartment has gone from one Irishman to another, and then to an American with Irish lineage. And if my landlord ever decides to hike the rent to market standards, I suspect whoever would move in here would not be Irish in any sense. Astoria was never known as an Irish stronghold, but you’d be surprised how many immigrants lived around here until that point a few years ago when the rents sky-rocketed. Most of the immigrants lived a few miles to the south east, in Sunnyside, which still has a healthy stretch of Irish pubs, and probably more immigrants still over there.

O’Hanlon’s was the one place to go for Irish immigrants in the neighborhood. With Kathy, the friendly bartender from Donegal, and her amazing set of tits that all the guys either ogled or appreciated. The other bartender, Veronica, many thought she was a lesbian, despite her claims otherwise and the occasional boyfriend, who didn’t seem quite like a boyfriend. That was one tough bitch. She was always getting into fights with men and women. I understand their darts team had a rough go because she would get nuts on occasion during a match. But I liked her – everyone did. One of those scrappy Irish chicks with a good heart. All of the Irish folks at the bar tended to be younger, in their 20s and 30s, as they were literally off the boat or plane just a few years and doing any sort of cash labor they could find.

For me, it’s always been a kick to run into Irish immigrants in New York. We usually get along like gangbusters. I don’t try to pretend I’m Irish, they don’t try to pretend they’re American, and we both sense a common bond in our senses of humor. It’s strange for me to realize that while I come from a place, the Pennsylvania Coal Region, that was partially built by Irish immigrants and has always had a strong Irish thread running through it, there was never any overwhelming sense of Irishness in my upbringing. I know it was there in so many things – the way we spoke, simply how we looked in the face, the hair, the eyes – things I’ve recognized since in people not just from Ireland, but Scotland, too.

But we never had any sense of Irish culture or customs, unless they were already absorbed into the larger American culture. There were towns in the Coal Region, particularly Girardville, that were overwhelmingly Irish in lineage. Still, even with that, basic tenants of Irish culture, like going down to a pub for a few pints of Guinness after work, just never happened. For one, Guinness, as an import, was just too expensive and no competition with Bud, Miller or Yuengling on tap for less than half the price. (Even now, if a rare bar back there has Guinness on tap, I don’t get it, because I know that Guinness has been sitting in its keg a long time with so few people willing to pay $3.00 for a pint with Bud on tap for $1.50.)

Unfortunately, the one Irish tradition that did pass down through the years was bad food, boiled cabbage in particular, and you’d have to drag me into an Irish-themed restaurant to eat. Back when I was a kid, we were raised in that strange, smiley 70s culture, mixed with that gritty, rural working-class take on life, and I can see that’s my spiritual home more than some smoky little village along the River Shannon or something.

I would like for that imaginary vision of Ireland to be my culture, but it just isn’t so. I suspect it just isn’t so for the people living in such a place now. We all have that vision of a white mortar house with a blue-painted wood window sills, the thatched roof, smoke coming from the chimney, a family warming itself by the fire while a girl with long red hair plays an old song on the fiddle.

Or something like that. These days, it’s probably the same cultural static so many of us have always known, a too-loud TV on 16 hours a day, angry kids who don’t give a rat’s ass about culture or heritage, parents too worried about making a meager living to indulge in any sentimentality.

I understand that the reason there are so few Irish immigrants now in New York is simply that the economy really picked up in Ireland, Dublin in particular, around the turn of the century, and there may well be real work for these people closer to home. I’m sure coming to America and trying to make it was quite an adventure, and some loved it enough to stay, but I’d also bet plenty of people thought, “fuck it, this isn’t home, and I really miss my family, as much as I claim to hate them.” In my early 30s, I thought of trying to move to Ireland or Scotland, not quite sure how this would have happened without any real prospects for tolerable work over there. But that was all before my father passed on, and the realization that I’d rather be able to see my mother a lot more before her time comes. Living on another continent and having that happen maybe once a year just doesn’t sit well with me.

So, I sit here in 2007, not just wondering where all the Irish went in New York, but also wondering where all the Irish went in me. I know it’s still there. I’m not going through those cultural revelations I went though upon first moving here, reading all the J.P. Donleavy novels I could find (most of them suck, same story told many times over), worshipping W.B. Yeats and all sorts of older Irish poetry and literature, fleshing out my Pogues collection, getting a much more in-depth take on celtic music, history and culture. That was a good time of learning, although I was probably laying on the “begorrah and fiddlesticks” bullshit a little too thick. What the hell, though. I still think The Quiet Man is a great fucking movie, and the Irish folks I've met who claim to hate it are taking their "Irishness" a little too seriously.

That brings to mind the Blarney Star, the old bar that used to be just north of the World Trade Center, but was wiped out not by the building collapses on 9/11, but by the months of area restrictions and total lack of foot traffic for a good year afterwards – along with so many other businesses around there. Like most good Irish pubs, the place had shitty food, hamburgers like hockey pucks, and the Guinness was nothing to write home about.

But downstairs, they had music every Friday night, and I mean solid, traditional Irish music played well by the best musicians in the world, most a few hours off a plane from Dublin. The place looked like a bingo hall in a church basement, probably couldn’t hold more than 200 people. At each show, there was this big blind Irish girl with that sort of Dylan Thomas mop of wirey red hair on her head, who would sit at the middle table and bob back and forth to the rhythms. This gentle hippie guy who promoted the shows would take admission and sell CDs during the intermissions – I probably bought at least a dozen CDs at various shows. Dave from New Jersey would always get me going to these shows, on his suggestions that such-and-such a fiddler from County Claire was playing the Blarney Star next Friday, and it would be wise to be there.

And Dave was always right about Irish music – he really knew his shit, still does, I’m sure. The intensity of celtic music being played live by masters is something worth experiencing – unlike rock, it’s much more quiet, but also more intense and emotional. If there’s one thing I wish I still had from those days of Irish cultural immersion, it would be a place like the Blarney Star, with traditional Irish musicians doing their thing every Friday night. The crowd would be dead silent during a number and wildly appreciative once it ended. And I got the sense that if you went to see the same players in a small town hall over there, it would be much the same.

Now, I’m not quite sure if that sort of place even exists in New York, which seems a shame and borderline criminal given this town’s Irish roots. Or if it does, I’ve just drifted so far from that sense of knowing these things that I’m totally unaware of it. Who knows. But I can't help but think there's been some sort of silent mass exodus of Irish from New York over the past few years, and I guess it's only those of us living in the margins who knew them that recognize the space left behind.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

There is a place on W 47th, just off 8th Ave, called the Mean Fiddler that just opened -- they have live Irish music & are a hit with the labor unions. There are (as I'm sure you know) a few new skyscrapers going up in the area -- the ironworkers have taken to hanging here. The one time I went, though, was their *non*-Irish music night -- I got to hear a lot of BTO and Edgar Winter Group.

Also: Is the Baggot Inn still open down on W 3rd St?

Also Also: The White Horse near Battery park (not the famous White Horse -- this is the *other* White Horse) they don't have live music, but the vibe is alive there.