Bronx Irish at the Ramparts transcription

Bronx Irish at the Ramparts transcription


By Daniel W. Patterson

NARRATOR, TOM QUINN (standing in front of St. Raymond’s Church: The Romanesque towers of St. Raymond's Roman Catholic Church still dominate the streets of the surrounding North Bronx neighborhoods, just as they did a quarter of a century ago when I was a boy. But the world for which these towers were a beacon is ebbing away. My name is Tom Quinn, and for a hundred years this was my family's home. It was from a hundred parishes like Saint Raymond's with their network of saloons and parish halls, political clubs, and rectories that the New York Irish wove their power and presence. But they lived out their time as a people apart while they struggled to enter the American mainstream, helping to create this city's body and soul in the process. It was an immigrant place, the Parish world of which St. Raymond's was a part. A place where I, my father, and his father before him worked at the business of becoming more fully American. Our success has undone our identity. "Irish-American" I say, when people ask me what I am. But there is more riddle than reason to that term, really. I'm not yet American, but neither am I Irish. I'm as much a process as a person, sliding down the hyphen that bridges those two words. The Parish of St. Raymond's has been that bridge for me. Three Celtic crosses loom over the cemetery in front of Saint Raymond's. They memorialize the three monsignors who shepherded this parish's people for almost a century. The first Irish born, the other two Irish-American. These three crosses are a kind of distance marker too. The immigrant journey ends here. The entrance into America begins.

(continuing over shots of other places illustrating what Tom Quinn is describing)

The Irish were the first of New York's great immigrant populations, a vital, often dominant force in the city's life. At the beginning of the century, they followed the subway lines North out of their first settlements in lower Manhattan to the Bronx. It was the first jut of mainland America they remade in the image of their institutions and culture. They arrived here with a sense of having emerged from the first phase of the immigrant struggle. And they stayed together, still aware of their separateness and not yet ready to let go of it. The lawyers and doctors and merchants among them raised up row houses in a lock-step of middle class stolidness and adorned them with stained glass, polished wood interiors, and laced curtains on their bayed front windows. In the same neighborhoods, the mass of Irish working men and women lived with their large families, crowded into a new generation of tenements and apartment houses, still trusting to their priests and political chieftains to lead the way.

The Bronx-Irish built one of this nation's most impressive ecclesiastical establishments and one of its most powerful political machines. Set side by side, together they provided education, jobs, hope, and a deep sense of identity to bring this people ever closer to the American dream. In the heyday of that partnership the Bronx could boast seventy Catholic parishes, seventy-two Catholic grammar schools, twelve Catholic high schools, two Catholic colleges, and Fordham University. And the president of that university, Father Robert Gannon, could remark the Jesuits need never fear for the location of their school, since the neighborhood would always be, in fact, Irish. The parish churches were the organizing principles of the neighborhoods. They were landmarks and foundations, and they gave people as much a sense of temporal as eternal place. The steeples loomed over the long spreading corridors of apartment buildings and two- and three-family houses, overseeing as much as overshadowing them. They reaffirmed the church's continued dominance from that other time and other country an ocean away, hometowns in Ireland etched into the stone of this new place, as well as into this people's memory. Interwoven with this kingdom of parishes was the political organization of Ed Flynn and his successor Charlie Buckley. For almost five decades The Bronx democratic machine was one of the most influential in the state, and at times in the United States.

To grow up Irish in the Bronx was to become a connoisseur of brick without ever knowing it. The miles of variegated brick, most of it raised within our fathers’ times, seemed ages old, rough, porous, and to our minds immovable. Brick shaped into the awesome churches’ Byzantine and Gothic and Romanesque styles—alone now, looking for all the world like stranded whales. Bricks shaped into the numberless details of the apartment buildings, with turrets and crenelations and Tudor flourishes, with the forbidding angularity of fortresses or the sweeping streamlining of the Art Deco. Brick ribbed with the skeletal steel of fire escapes. Red brick, brown brick, tan brick, rust brick, cream brick. Brick the colors of the fall and winter woods.

To grow up Irish in the Bronx was to know a special kind of light too. We lived our lives amid a gathering of shadows finding the churches and the apartment houses with the dingy steel belts of the elevators, shackling the sky. Flattering and bleak by day and closing and atmospheric by night. The popular myths told and retold north and east and west of the city have it that the Irish were driven from New York, surrounded, overrun. Some were—that was part of it—but it was the American dream and its accessibility more than any plague, or fires, or muggers that unraveled the old fabric. I have lived my life in the midst of this great goodbye. Watched the slow weathering of the world of the Bronx-Irish block by block, parish by parish subway stop by subway stop. Watched its people trickle down the expressways towards the suburbs and assimilation. Watched the Bronx-Irish play out their last chapter as a people apart. This last stage of their final dispersal is being played out now in St. John's Parish, centered along 231st Street in Kingsbridge in the Northwest Bronx. It is one of only a handful of places left where the twin pillars of church and saloon still support and define the people's sense of neighborhood.

Not that the world of the Bronx-Irish ever existed as a place apart. Things are never that simple in New York. New York's Immigrant neighborhoods are confederations really. Separate worlds sharing the same streets, tied to each other by their common purpose of acquiring all that America offers. The Bronx-Irish set their compasses between their saloons and parish churches. But side-by-side in the clustered settlements that were bunched among the stretches of apartment buildings and the spanning ELLs were kosher butcher shops and synagogues, Italian pizzerias and social clubs, German delicatessens and Lutheran churches, Korean vegetable stores, Hispanic bodegas and Pentecostal storefronts. The Irish who settled St. John's Parish were working people. The only white collars among them were worn by their priests. They were the bones and sinew of the city. They laid the tracks and ran the trains, they dug the city's tunnels and raised the towers of lower Manhattan and Midtown. They policed the streets of New York and fought the fires. Brian McAleer was born and raised in St. John's Parish. He has moved beyond the city, but his parents Michael and Mary are here still.

(inside the McAleer home)

BRIAN McALEER: Mom and dad, how did you come about deciding upon living here?

FATHER, MICHAEL McALEER: Oh the way I got here I was walking down on Third Avenue minding my own business one night and I met this lady here. So the next thing you know, we started going together.

BRIAN: Was it at a dance?

MICHAEL: I was going to a dance, yeah. I was going to Ireland 32. That was the name of the place. And her and her girlfriend was going for coffee.

MOTHER, MARY McALEER: Before the dance.

MICHAEL: But they were right, as soon as I told them I was going to Ireland 32, I don't think they even had coffee. They were back in Ireland 32 in no time flat. Anyway, to make a long story short, six months later I moved in here. Got married of course first.

TOM: Have you seen a lot of changes?

MARY: Around our area hasn't changed too much but, you know.

WOMAN (off camera): Would you ever want to move out of this neighborhood?

MARY:- No, never. I love it here.


MARY: I just have a lot of friends and I always liked the place and the children grew up here and there's a lot of memories. I like it very much. You can get anything you want in 231st Street. You don't have to go anywhere else.

MICHAEL: This neighborhood used to be like the East side downtown, clean as a whistle, you know? But now it's paper, dirt, everything like that. This neighborhood here. That's about the only change to it. I didn't mention that before.

BRIAN: What about crime? Any semblance of crime here or problems like that?

MICHAEL: Believe it or not thank goodness we never noticed it.

MARY: We have no experience with anything like that. So far thank goodness.

BRIAN: Now I've always wanted to ask you what it was like when you came into New York Harbor, you were by yourself, right? When you came in on that boat.

MARY: I traveled by myself from Ireland and my father was here in this country and he met me at the boat.

BRIAN: What was the feeling like when you came in and saw in New York city for the first time?

MARY: A feeling of wonder. Everything was very, you know wonderful I thought.

MICHAEL: Difference was day and night. You know over there we're working on the farm all the time but then when you came here we got away from that you go to work every morning, you didn't handle money over there at all. As soon as you walk out here in the morning you have to have money for the subway money to eat lunch and money to come back. And it's just money all the time.

TOM: Do you like going back?

MICHAEL: Always lovely to make a trip, yeah sure. It's nice to make a trip. But it's better to come back here again.

TOM: This is home then?

MICHAEL: This is home, you're always so glad to get back here. You like it so much here, better than back there, you know?

TOM: Why?

MICHAEL: Because you get so used and everything is so handy here. Everything's at your fingertips here.

MARY: It's just a beautiful place to live with a lot of lovely people all around you.

MICHAEL: And you know, people, you know, you get to know people like I was asking you if you want to move to Rockaway and you says, "I wouldn't know anybody down there" so, you didn't want to go there.

BRIAN: So really the people are the neighborhood.

MICHAEL: The people are the neighborhood would be the answer, yeah, right.

TOM (over more shots of the Kingsbridge section): For Michael and Mary McAleer, their sense of neighborhood is rooted in the events and ceremonies and circumstances of the past. Amid memories of friends alive and dead who played out their lives on these streets, that connected church and home and pub. For them Kingsbridge is as much a small town as it is a part of the greater metropolis. A place where they can still find an atmosphere of friendliness in the streets where people still cherish their relationship as neighbors. Where there is always time to stop and chat and share, worry and wonder over each other's lives. It is still a place of small shops and markets where the shopkeeper remains a vital part of the intricate exchange of pleasantries and neighborhood news. And as has always been the case in Irish neighborhoods on both sides of the Atlantic, the pub is at the heart of this careful congeniality. It is the premium meeting place, the village green where more than just a polite word or a snippet of information can be created among neighbors. Where issues local or cosmic can be argued and mulled over. Where gossip can be raised to an art form. To the Irish, the pub has always served as the worldly counterpart to the church that other place to go to sense you are a part of something greater than yourself. The Piper's Kilt is one of these places. From outside on 231st street, it might look like just another dank battered place for people to sit alone along its length of bar, and drink and to forget. But for the Bronx-Irish men and women who settled here in Kingsbridge, the Piper's Kilt has serve higher, wider purposes than that. Jim McKenny, a New York city police officer was raised 20 blocks South of the Piper's Kilt. Coming to Kingsbridge was his move north.

(Jim McKenny approaches and enters the Piper’s Kilt bar, where the next long scene takes place)

TOM: Do you think that this pub here, the Piper's Kilt, plays any role in the fact that this neighborhood is stabilizing?

JIM McKENNY: Oh without question. A neighborhood pub, you'd have to look at it not just as a place to drink. It's a really a clearing house for all the information that goes on in the neighborhood. Jobs, any family problems, a lot of times they can be resolved through here. And just giving people a sense of security even if they're going down the block and they're going home that they would know that they could go in, there's going to be responsible people here who could help them.

TOM: Richard Doyle is the manager of the Piper's Kilt. When people come in and talk and tell a story of this neighborhood and of the Bronx, what is it, what do they talk about?

RICHARD DOYLE: The saloons, the churches. They still distinguish areas rather than say Kingsbridge. "I came from St. John's Parish" or "I came from Visitation Parish" or "Sacred Heart Parish", whatever. And that's even if I go up to Rockland County or Westchester County or out to Jersey, where are you from? "I'm from St. John's" or "I'm from Sacred Heart". It's not "I'm from the Bronx" or "Inwood". It's always the parish.

TOM: What kind of a function does the bar have? Is it simply a place where people drink?

RICHARD: No, we loan money.

JIM: It's a bank

RICHARD: It certainly is. But we usually get it back.

TOM: Did you grow up in the neighborhood?

RICHARD: Born and raised in the neighborhood, in fact my mom still lives here.

TOM: And when you say your mom still lives here you don't still live here.

RICHARD: About three years ago, I moved to Dobbs Ferry with my wife and children.

TOM: Where is that in relation to here.

RICHARD: About 10 miles North. 10 minutes away.

TOM: It seems whoever we talk to, when a move occurs, it's always North. Why is that?

RICHARD: Well 10 years ago, 20 years ago it was a beautiful neighborhood but it starting to run down a bit. It's still nice two blocks on the other side of Broadway, it's still beautiful over there. I felt a little unsafe with my children. They are school-age now, so we moved. We had an opportunity to move, so we moved.

JIM: A friend of mine was out in Ohio and when he come back, it was very important to always come back and make the pilgrimage to the old bar and find out what everybody was doing with themselves and keep up on all the neighborhood news. Now P&K's as far as I'm concerned, this is the new place.

TOM: Do you have a lot of pilgrims coming.

JIM: Oh yes.

TOM: From the North?

JIM: Unfortunately, a lot of them in suburbia, they're crying. You know, now the oil is strangling them, and you can almost see how they go in their pockets. You know, I think they measure how much they drink by how much gas they have to go home. I feel it's a strain on them. I feel very sorry for them, but I think it's important. You have to live. You just can't be paying bills.

RICHARD: I work here but if I have time off, I come down here. And it's social more than business.

JIM: I live in a co-op, and I feel that's the answer to a lot of the problems in the city. You know if everybody, if we had more co-ops and people started digging in instead of just abandoning neighborhoods and running away, I think that's what will stabilize a lot of your neighborhoods.

TOM: You've got a lot of hopes that this last holdout neighborhood will hold.

JIM: Oh I think without question that it is going to hold out and I think you're going to see things turn around in New York, it's going to be a very exciting place.

RICHARD: I think as people, their incomes increase they just move north to greener pastures, and that's where I'm at now. But I still like it down here. I still enjoy it. I'm a little concerned about my mother at times. She wouldn't move on a bet.

JIM: Is she still living down Corlear Avenue?

RICHARD: Certainly. Two blocks on the other side of Broadway.

TOM: Is she American born?

RICHARD: No, she was born in Ireland in Kerry. As my father was.

JIM: Do your parents own that house?

RICHARD: Sure do.

JIM: How long?

RICHARD: My grandfather before, you know it was my father's home and his father's before they moved over from Ireland. In fact, they built the house.

JIM: So that's their piece of -

RICHARD: They were one of the first people in the neighborhood.

TOM: But the truth of all immigrant neighborhoods is that they are two places really. For those born here, Kingsbridge is a point of departure. But for those still making the crossing from Ireland—and even after a century and a half, the wave of Irish immigration has not completely ebbed—Kingsbridge is a point of entry, a place they have been told by relatives or friends where they can live among their own. At different stages of the same journey, the two groups are not always comfortable with one another. And this attitude is reflected in the bars where they choose to gather.

BRIAN: It might as well be an ocean apart from here. It's an Irish bar in the strict sense. Most of the clientele of Harpur's would be Irishmen. Not just old Irishmen either. Younger Irish fellows. even fellows my age who immigrated to this country. The Irish-American bar has the trappings of Ireland in that you'll have for instance over on the wall there you have a map of Ireland, you have an Irish flag, but if you go to the jukebox you're not going to find too many Irish songs. The Irish-American pub is kind of a throwback to what they think a pub looks like in Ireland. And in some cases . . .

TOM: A kind of romanticized notion of what

BRIAN: Romanticized, kind of rustic looking, even Medieval somewhat design. In some cases that's true, but some Irish pubs don't look like that. Most of the bars that the Irish-born, especially the older Irish-born like my father would frequent, wouldn't have those kinds of designs. They'd just sort of be very plain, very utilitarian. And I think it's kind of a reflection that they don't really hold any delusions about what Ireland looks like, and they don't have any preconceived dream. They experienced it on a certain level. And now they're here in this country, and they just go in a bar for different reasons.

JIM: It's funny, I really don't know all that much about Ireland.

TOM: Have you been there Jim?

JIM: No. And I'd say only in the last couple of years have I gotten a strong interest in going to Ireland, or a desire I should say. Growing up as a boy I really didn't have that much of an interest in Ireland. I was more interested in the United States, per se. And as my son got older and raising my children I really had an interest in where my roots came from. And I guess as you get older, you start getting an interest in where you're coming from and what traditions and values are you're leaving your children.

TOM: Brian would you say that there are different dreams then, underlying the different bars?

BRIAN: Most definitely. I would say that, for instance, in an Irish bar among the older patrons of the bar, the dream is for their children and their grandchildren to make their way in America. And they've striven for that all their lives. Among the younger Irish immigrants the dream many times is to go back to the Old Country with a pot of gold. And they were over here to try and make as much money as they can and get back to buy a little piece of land in Ireland to settle down. With the Irish-Americans, especially many of the people that frequent this bar, their dreams are also for their families, but the location is different. It's more of a suburban dream. It's more of the American dream. They're interested in what goes on with their property values and their land, their houses in Westchester and Rockland.

(in the rest of the film shots of the streets and landscape are interwoven with the conversation in the bar and illustrate the speakers’ words)

TOM: For now, Kingsbridge appears little changed by the recent decades that have brought so many changes to the Bronx. The stores that spread out from the hub of 231st street and Broadway still bustle with people who seem more concerned with their shopping lists than their safety. The old rows of apartment buildings are still well kept, their lobbies scrubbed, their stoops swept. But there are changes. The old street sign that stood outside the Piper's Kilt for half a century has been brought inside the bar by the Irish-American patrons. The relic of a time that will never come again. The time of the Bronx-Irish.

BRIAN: Albany Crescent is the street fronting the bar, just beyond Albany Crescent, you have the Major Deegan Expressway or Major Deegan Highway, which in many ways is the symbolic Exodus point for the Bronx retreat from the chaos and turmoil that's existed in the South Bronx.

TOM: Do you think it caused some of that, was the culprit? These highways that were built?

BRIAN: Yes, I think in some respects it did, because they divided neighborhoods. They cut neighborhoods in half.

TOM: When you were a boy was that road here?

BRIAN: No, when I was a boy that was a huge vacant lot. It almost looked like the prairies of Kansas, believe it or not. It was a place called The Hollow. And all the little kids used to go down there, and we used to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers, and everything. All of the imaginative fantasy that little kids get involved in.

TOM: For many of Brian's generation, their sense of identity remains here in Kingsbridge, even as they pursue their dream somewhere else. But for them, the Bronx is a place where you return to recollect your past, to visit your parents. And after a time, a place where you return only in memory. But there was nothing final about the Bronx except the finality of change. People have always lived here expectantly, even if it was for a generation or more, as if this place were a sort of halfway house. They knew this was not where the journey ended and readied themselves to move north or resigned themselves to watch their sons and daughters move north.

BRIAN: This bar is right on the edge of the sword between the South Bronx and the beginning of the suburban dream. Many of the people who live up in the suburbs still come down here because this bar is considered to be the bulwark of this neighborhood. And I maintain that if this neighborhood is to remain intact this bar will have to stay here. Should this place fold, you can rest assured the neighborhood will fold soon thereafter.

TOM: Once the New York Irish could boast a thousand places like this. The Lakes of Sligo, Ireland's 32, Riley's Golden Oat Cafe, the Bronx Irish Center, the Erie Bar, the world that sustained most of them has slid away into the suburbs. They were neighborhood forums, these New York Irish saloons, where you went for word of work, when the next police or fire department exam was being held, who to see about a job as a . . . or carpenter or steamfitter. Where you could witness, like it or not, much of the good and bad of your neighbors’ lives. They were communal confessionals, where you could lament or laugh over all the harsh things life had done to you, give voice to your wildest dreams or fears. For the young, they were places to find out who it was they would become. For the old to remember who they'd been. They were rallying grounds and loan associations, these bars. Stages and proving grounds. In its bars, a neighborhood story was woven hour by hour, day by day, peopled with all the local heroes and fall guys, sinners and saints. A neighborhood discovered who and what it was and celebrated these discoveries in its bars. The Piper's Kilt is still all of these things, but it is one of the few. South of here, none of its kindred bars remain. The city ends a dozen blocks north. Here is the highway, spewing its sooty backwash across this neighborhood, roaring off somewhere else. An elongated hyphen, that's what this road is, hurrying the New York Irish away, bearing them across from one identity to another, bearing them into America.

(over music of a band playing “God Bless America”)


Produced & Directed by MARCIA ROCK
Written by TOM QUINN

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