Manhattan: the other Emerald Isle. Yes, it's a long, long way from Tipperary. No, St. Patrick never drove the snakes out of Times Square. But every March, a touch of Ireland descends...
NEW YORK Manhattan: the other Emerald Isle.
Yes, it’s a long, long way from Tipperary. No, St. Patrick never drove the snakes out of Times Square. But every March, a touch of Ireland descends across Manhattan, converting it into Dublin on the Hudson.
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From the top of the Empire State Building, swathed in Gaelic green light for St. Patrick’s Day, to the bottom of Manhattan, where the Irish Hunger Memorial recalls the deadly famine, March arrives in New York like a lion and leaves like an Irish lamb stew.
The Hunger Memorial, dedicated two years ago to the 1 million Irish victims of the 1845-52 famine, sits on Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan between the Hudson River and the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack.
The stark, spare site re-creates the Irish countryside, with its gently sloping hills and stones collected from all 32 counties in Ireland including a single gravestone marked with a Celtic cross. Visitors walk into a ruined fieldstone cottage imported from County Mayo.
Looking south from its top is the view that greeted millions of Irish immigrants in New York Harbor: Ellis Island, flanked by the Statue of Liberty.
Why it’s a quarter acre
The memorial occupies a historically significant one-quarter of an acre. In 1847, British law stipulated that no Irishman occupying land larger than that size was entitled to assistance in the face of the killer crop failure.
“The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine,” reads one of the quotes on the memorial’s side.
The mood is much brighter at McSorley’s Old Ale House, an East Village landmark since 1854. You won’t find a lot of tourists at the East Seventh Street bar, and there’s good reason for that.
“It’s very hard to get an ale-drinking tourist trap,” explains owner Matty Maher, himself a native of County Kilkenny.
It’s a classic Irish saloon, putting the shame to its pale imitators with their green beer. There are just two drinks served inside dark ale, and light ale. The cost is $2.50 for one, $4 for two and nobody drinks just one.
Although most Manhattan bars are open until 4 a.m., McSorley’s closes at 1 a.m. “If you’re not drunk by 1 a.m.,” Maher explains, “you’re not trying very hard.”
McSorley’s has long provided inspiration for artists, with poet e.e. cummings, singer Woody Guthrie and painter John Sloan among its clientele across the centuries. Gregory de la Haba’s sketchbook of scenes from the bar is the centerpiece of a March tribute to McSorley’s featured at the Ireland House.
The exhibit on the campus of New York University runs through April 9, and a catalog with an introduction by noted author Frank McCourt (“Angela’s Ashes”) is available.
In Midtown, Fifth Avenue gets a green stripe every year for the nation’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, a New York City tradition since 1766. An estimated 2 million people and 150,000 marchers turn out for the March 17 spectacular, far more than similar parades in Savannah, Ga., Chicago, Boston or even Dublin.
History on the corner
At the corner of Fifth and 50th Street rises St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the 19th-century landmark where Cardinal Edward Egan will review the parade. Open its enormous bronze front doors, and step back into history.
The cathedral, with its ornate stained-glass windows, is bigger than a football field. Two popes have visited St. Patrick’s; funerals and wakes for many dignitaries have been held inside.
Among those remembered inside were Robert F. Kennedy, former New York Gov. Al Smith and New York Yankees greats Joe DiMaggio and Billy Martin.
Across from the grand cathedral on 51st Street is the St. Patrick’s Gift Shop, with an assortment of religious medals and keepsakes.
Two blocks east, at 51st Street and Lexington Avenue, a little-known bit of Irish history hides inside the front door of the Metropolitan Hotel: a plaque identifying the site as the birthplace of Ireland’s most dominant politician of the 20th century, Eamon De Valera.
De Valera, born in a long-defunct children’s hospital Oct. 14, 1882, returned to his mother’s native Ireland at age 3, eventually taking up the cause of Irish independence. He escaped execution after the 1916 Easter Rebellion only because of his American citizenship.
It’s a short hop from the De Valera plaque to the Third Avenue home of another famed Irish haunt: P.J. Clarke’s, launched in 1884 and later named for an immigrant named Patrick J. Clarke.
While not quite as old as McSorley’s, Clarke’s has a legacy of its own. Ray Milland filmed a memorable scene from “The Lost Weekend” at the bar, earning an Academy Award for his portrayal of a tortured alcoholic.
Buddy Holly proposed to his wife at the bar, and Johnny Mercer wrote the hit song “One For My Baby” on a Clarke’s bar napkin. In his drinking days, Irish-born actor Richard Harris would walk in and order “the usual”: six double vodkas, lined up neatly along the bar.
One of the bar’s current owners offers a bit of celebrity cache, too: actor Timothy Hutton.
When it comes to Irish music in New York, few do it better than Black 47. The band, led by transplanted Irishman Larry Kirwan, just released a new album, “New York Town,” featuring its musical eulogy for Sept. 11 victim Father Mychal Judge.
Black 47’s only New York date in March is set for St. Patrick’s Day at a non-traditional venue: B.B. King’s Blues Club on 42nd Street, right off Times Square.
No green beer will be served.