Céad Míle Fáilte: My Irish New York

St. Brigid's Cross

The St. Brigid’s cross that adorns my wall

This Thursday, the country’s largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade is back on Fifth Avenue after a three year hiatus due to the Pandemic.

According to the Census Bureau, Irish is the second largest ethnic group in the United States with New York being one of four states with the highest percentage of Americans claiming Irish heritage. In fact, New York City is home to one of the largest Irish populations outside of the Emerald Isle itself. According to a recent article, New York City ranks #3 of 2022’s Most Irish Cities in the United States. You can include me in that figure.

Skibbereen

Colorful buildings in the center of Skibbereen, Ireland, my family’s hometown.

My grandfather was from a small village, Skibbereen, County Cork, in southwest Ireland. Growing up, St. Patrick’s Day for me was about getting together with my family for dinner and spending time together. My mother would cook, and family and friends would fill the house. The last of my family members who were born in Ireland passed away in 2013, so while those connections have been lost, I like to use the day to commemorate them – I’m Irish 365 days of the year

Though the Irish aren’t emigrating to the United States at the rate they once were, there still are a few enclaves in and around New York City.

Sean Og's

A block in Woodlawn fashioned to look like a typical Irish building

Woodside, Queens

The 7 subway line has long been crowned “The International Express”, each station representing a different culture of region of the world. The 61st Street elevated station runs through the heart of Woodside, a neighborhood in Western Queens buzzing with activity on the streets below. Like most Irish neighborhoods, our numbers have dwindled over the past few decades, but we’ve definitely left our mark.

At one point many years ago, I briefly lived in Woodside, where the supers of my building were a young couple from Derry, in Northern Ireland (notice I wrote “Derry,” not “Londonderry” – without going off on a political tangent, here’s why.) She was a bartender and he was a construction worker, two jobs many young Irish take upon arriving in New York. He was also a talented artist, who painted a gorgeous mural on the side of Sean Og’s Bar, a tribute to September 11th. He also, I later found out, worked with stained glass and made beautiful window ornaments.

Sean Og's Bar

You can’t miss Sean Og’s façade, reminiscent of a typical Irish village bar

Sean Og’s 

This bar is just down the block from Roosevelt Avenue and you really can’t miss it with its brightly painted exterior, reminiscent of Ireland itself. Inside, there’s a long bar with seating in back and a library lining the walls near the ceiling of its cavernous dining room. They have a decent selection of draft beers, as well as a menu featuring Irish comfort food, like chicken curry, shepherd’s pie, and bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes.)

Sean Og’s
60-02 Woodside Avenue
Woodside, NY 11377
https://sean-ogs.business.site/

Donovan’s

If you ever lived in Queens, you know that they’ve won awards over the years for the best burger. Whether they do or not is subjective, but you haven’t really experienced Woodside if you’ve never been to Donovan’s. They’ve been around since 1966 and while it’s much more Irish-American than Irish these days, stopping off here does bring you back in time. What to order? Take the burger and you can tell me what you think in the comments!

Donovan’s
57-24 Roosevelt Avenue
Woodside, NY 11377
https://donovansny.com/

Fun fact: Ireland has two official languages, English and Irish. Contrary to popular belief that Irish is a “dead language”, there are three regions where it’s spoken as a first language, called the Gaeltacht. When you’re in Ireland, you’ll notice bus and train announcements, as well as street signs in both languages.

Midtown, Manhattan

Lots of New Yorkers avoid the Times Square area at all costs. That said, if you do find yourself in the area, there are a number of Irish bars to kill some time in. You know your Irish bar is authentic when you find your bartender off-duty enjoying a pint in Woodlawn, where he goes home to at night. True story.

Perfect Pint

Guinness is good for you!

The Perfect Pint

There are actually two on 45th Street, one off Times Square and the other on the eastside. When I’m passing through, I like to pop into the one on West 45th Street. Naturally, its location makes it ideal for both tourists and people stopping in for a round before catching a Metro-North or LIRR train. Pre-COVID, the place got crowded on a Friday or Saturday night. No worries though, this place has four floors – that’s right, you can drink at the main bar, go upstairs for a quieter dining room, or even reserve a room for a party. I’ve had a few of my birthdays here. The staff is friendly and the food is always superb.

Perfect Pint
123 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
https://www.theperfectpintnyc.com/

Connlly's

The view from the rooftop bar

Connolly’s

Like Perfect Pint, there are two locations: one on West 45th Street and one on East 47th Street. I prefer the 45th Street location, which is – surprise! – right next to Perfect Pint. On the nights that Perfect Pint became too crowded, the staff would work with Connolly’s to seat the spillover. Connolly’s is solid in its own right and they have live music several times a month. Hang around the Irish circuit and you’ll begin to recognize the bands who play all over the Metropolitan area, from Woodlawn/McLean Avenue and Midtown to Pearl River and East Durham.

Connolly’s
121 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
https://www.connollyspubandrestaurant.com/

Welcome to Woodlawn

Welcome to Woodlawn, painted on the side of a Katonah Avenue business

Woodlawn, The Bronx /Mclean Avenue, Yonkers

At the end of the number 4 subway line, you’ll find Woodlawn station. A local’s tip: despite the signage, it’s not actually Woodlawn – it’s Norwood, or what older Irish people might call Bainbridge, a Northwest Bronx neighborhood with a once-huge Irish immigrant community from the 1970s through the mid-1990s.

Tayto

Tayto, Irish potato chips sold at a store in Woodlawn

The real Woodlawn is a five minute drive from the station, just north of the mammoth Woodlawn Cemetery. Like Woodside, it too is changing and not quite as Irish as it once was, though the influence is unmistakable. The main drag, Katonah Avenue, is adorned with pieces of Ireland, warmly greeting you in with a “Welcome to Woodlawn” mural on the side of a building complete with the American and Irish flags. The local C-Town Supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to Irish foods and you’ll even find Irish products being sold at the corner Yemeni deli.

This is a close-knit community where if you hang around long enough, you’ll soon recognize people. When an Irish person here is diagnosed with cancer or is in a horrific accident, the Irish community will rally around them and in typical Woodlawn style, throw them a fundraiser, complete with raffles, games, and music. When Emerald’s Pharmacy and Behan’s, the bar next door, sustained extensive damage after a fire, how did they rebuild so quickly? One word: community.

Full Irish

A full Irish breakfast I devoured on a trip to Ireland

Rambling House

Heading out to Rambling for a pint (or a few) and a bite to eat is a way of life for people from around this legendary bar and grill. I spent many a Friday and Saturday night taking the Bx34 bus up here to meet up with friends in my mid-twenties. You can sit at the bar and chat about sports (or the next fundraiser!) or get a booth for a more intimate feel. If you come with an appetite, order the Irish Breakfast, a meat-heavy platter that’s tasty at any time of day. When the waitress comes to your table with a basket, it’ll often be full of mini Irish soda breads. On a lucky night, you may catch a seisiún here – a jam, if you will – of musicians playing traditional Irish music. In Ireland, traditional music is often just called “trad.” 

Rambling House
4292 Katonah Avenue
Bronx, NY 10470
http://www.ramblinghousenyc.com/

Corned beef

Corned beef and cabbage, not a true Irish meal. Read more to find out why!

You’ll notice “Irish bacon” on the menu of many Irish bars. What is it? It’s cut more broadly, is pink, and is similar to the Canadian bacon, not the crispy, narrow strips Americans are used to. While American bacon is typically made of pork belly, the Irish equivalent is from the back of the pig, as is Canadian bacon. And about that corned beef? When Irish immigrants began arriving in Lower Manhattan, they lived in close proximity to Jewish immigrants and adapted their cooking style to substitute corned beef for Irish bacon. So, sorry, while corned beef is about as Irish as pastrami and rye, it is 100% New York.

Emerald Mile

The sign at the Yonkers/Bronx border

Despite there being a border between New York City and Westchester County, locals don’t make much of a distinction between Woodlawn, on the Bronx side, and McLean Avenue, on the Yonkers side. Many simply call the contiguous neighborhood Woodlawn-McLean.

Rory Dolan's

Rory Dolan’s during the annual Mclean Avenue Fall Festival

Rory Dolan’s

If you are Irish or Irish-American from the New York City area, chances are that you’ve attended a birthday, anniversary, funeral reception…or yes, a fundraiser (See, you’re getting it!) here. My own great-uncle’s 90th surprise birthday party was held here, complete with family flown in from Ireland and the UK. 

Rory Dolan is a real person – the owner of the bar, in fact – and hang around long enough, you will meet him. This is a huge space that is known for their legendary Halloween parties and fall festival free pig roasts in the side yard. This is a fun place to be where you can sit down, order a drink, and chat up your bar stool neighbor. This is and was a place, like many Irish bars, where a young Irish person fresh out of JFK could find him or herself a job as a server or bartender. Bartenders tend to stay here for years and some have been there since around the time it first opened in the late 1990s.

Rory Dolan’s
890 McLean Avenue
Yonkers, NY 10704
https://www.rorydolans.com/

Upon entering an Irish bar, you may be tempted to ask for an Irish Car Bomb or Black & Tan – please don’t. Here’s why: Ireland has had a tragic past. For three decades (1960s – 1990s), conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists led to violence during a period known as The Troubles. During that era, many car bombs were detonated and Molotov cocktails were thrown, leading to thousands of deaths and injuries. This is what The Cranberries song, “Zombie” and U2’s “Bloody Sunday” were referring to. The Blacks and Tans was a nickname given to the British soldiers in the 1920s, who invaded Ireland to foil independence efforts. To give it context, my grandfather was born in 1916 mere weeks before Easter Rising.

Anna's Attic

Stop at Anna’s Attic for beautiful Irish-themed gifts

Anna’s Attic

This small jewel has a variety of Irish imported gifts from jewelry to clothing and even that Corcaigh flag you’ll want to bring to the next football match. Want to give somebody a housewarming gift with an Irish flair? Buy them a St. Brigid’s Cross to hang up on the wall, who is said to protect a house from fire, evil, and hunger. I was gifted one of my own by an Irish-American friend when I moved into my home some years ago.

Anna’s Attic
952 McLean Avenue
Yonkers, NY 10704
https://www.facebook.com/Annas-attic-Irish-gift-shop-197873853756662/

Kingsbridge/Riverdale, The Bronx

Most of the Irish of a generation or two ago have moved on from Kingsbridge and only a few remain, some moving up the hill into Riverdale, the neighboring community. Today most Irish watering holes and meeting places have vanished, though the remnants are there in bits and pieces. 

The storied Punch Bowl is still on the corner of 238th Street with its revolving cast of characters. Over twenty years ago, the super’s wife (different super, different wife) of the building I lived in was a bartender there and used to tell me about having to cut people off, sometimes needing to threaten them with a bar stool over the head. 

Piper’s Kilt was one of the casualties. It was an Irish-cum-dive bar with some of the best burgers you could find. It was sold and its new owners renamed it P & K Grille, a play on the nickname given to it by locals.  As the demographics shifted and the neighborhood became more Dominican, they incorporated a more Latin feel, though they’d sell the business after only a few years. Its final – and current – owner gut renovated it and changed the name again, first to The Kilt, and finally to Bronx Public. By then, there was no trace of the bar’s Irish origins. The venue is now sleek chrome and neon LED lights with a Hip Hop theme.

238th Street shamrock

The annual tradition: a shamrock painted on 238th Street

A neighborhood tradition that has stood the test of time is that every year, the night before St. Patrick’s Day, giant shamrocks are painted on 231st and 238th Streets, two of the busiest stretches. Then cars and buses drive over it, the weather fades the vibrant green shade, and it’s refreshed the following year.

Gaelic Park

I’ve only really been there once for fundraiser, because of course (seeing a theme here?) A few local Irish-American bands played and seemingly every Irish person from the Bronx and Southern Westchester was there. I’ve never actually been on the field itself. It was run by GAA (Gaelic Athletics Association) until 1991, when the adjacent Manhattan College (Go, Jaspers!) bought it. It’s a unique in that one can watch and participate in traditional sports, like rugby and hurling. It’s banquet hall was demolished before pre-COVID, drawing the end of an era.

Gaelic Park
201 West 240th Street
Bronx, NY 10463
https://gojaspers.com/facilities/gaelic-park/3 

An Beal Bocht

So much history on the walls of An Beal Bocht

An Beal Bocht

Translated from Irish as, “the poor mouth,” a visit to An Beal Bocht is like walking into a museum. Part bar, part gallery, the walls are adorned from floor to ceiling with Irish art, history, and memorabilia. They often host lively music shows, open mics, and comedy nights. Patrons range from young students from nearby Manhattan College to middle age artists and musicians, as well a families and seniors. The eclectic vibe, warm atmosphere to mingle, and solid Irish comfort food makes it a quick favorite. 

An Beal Bocht
445 West 238th Street
Bronx, NY 10463
http://www.anbealbochtcafe.com/

Doorway of An Beal Bocht

Collectibles hang over the doorway of An Beal Bocht

 

This list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Irish communities and businesses in the United States, or even in New York. I love St. Patrick’s Day, seeing all of those Irish flags and hearing the pipe and drums, feeling like a part of something much bigger. I definitely go out and have a few beers and laughs with friends. St. Patrick’s Day not only is a day of celebration and heritage, but also one of family, friends, and nostalgia. I am Irish-American 365 days of the year. I thank you for sharing this journey with me and I invite you to experience the food and drink of these communities – this pint’s on me.

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