New York and Ireland are inextricably linked. Marjorie Brennan talks to five creative people about their time there.
THE connection between Ireland and America is at its strongest in New York, where generations of Irish have lived, worked, visited, and harnessed the energy of the city in their creative endeavours.
The I.NY festival in Limerick this month celebrates the cultural relationship between Ireland and New York, through music, literature, film, theatre, talks, etc. Here, some of the contributors to the project speak about their experiences of New York.
I moved to New York in late 1993 with a guitar, $200 and a promise of a gig. I had started to visit New York a few years previously when my band Hinterland was signed to Island Records. I loved the city right from my first visit. We played gigs in CBGB’s at night and stared up at the skyscrapers during the day. When my record deal ended and all I had left was a decent leather jacket, I knew that New York was my destination. It was only after moving there that it dawned on me that this was going to be a tough climb. The leather jacket proved to be no match for the brutal New York winter cold and the fact that New York already had many fantastic guitar players was also chilling.
Early on, when my first tour had finished up and I found myself in the doldrums, I booked myself a solo show in Sin-É in the East Village and gave myself six weeks to come up with something. It was a gamble that paid off much later when David Bowie came to my show to check me out for his band. When I say my show, I mean a 50-seater coffee house with broken chairs and a good vibe — very downtown New York. But David just joined the party and even heckled me. This broke the ice and we just played as if our lives depended on it. It was one of the greatest things ever to be in his band and perform with him. And New York remains one of the greatest influences on my life.
One of my favourite memories of New York was when I worked there in the 1980s straight out of the National College of Art and Design. I went with two best friends and it was my first proper time living away from home. The weather was so much colder than we were used to and therefore it was a joy to discover a small old cinema in the East Village called St Marks. It was perfect for a wintry Saturday afternoon.
They used to run a programme of classic old Hollywood films which they would show one after another, changing day to day. We used to park our bikes in the storage area behind the screen, and often with the theatre all to ourselves and never any heads in our view line, settle into the best of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Audrey Hepburn. It was an absolute treat and an inspiration. We would leave the cinema bleary-eyed and cycle to Mullen’s, our local Irish bar around the corner from our apartment for an Irish coffee or two.
Having no Irish family members, past or present, New York City is my teacher on the subject of Ireland. When I first moved here, New York seemed Irish in the ways that other American East Coast cities seem Irish: a huge St Patrick’s Day parade, flags posted above Irish pubs, a legacy of Irish politicians in city government. But quieter connections between Ireland and New York continued to emerge over my time here, including my move to a block of the East Village where the only bar happens to have an Irish music session every Sunday night.
On those nights in the 11th Street Bar, the sounds of fiddles, flutes, and a harp fill the space and spill out onto the sidewalk. When you see someone wheeling a harp into a Manhattan bar, you have to wonder how they got it there, and the effort it takes to carry it, both the harp and the tradition, with them in New York City.
What does Irish New York look like to me? It looks like a crowd of young Irish people gathering to listen to music on a block shared by an Irish pub, a West Indian bike shop, a Korean nail salon, and the apartment building I call home.
I learned about choice in New York. I’d never played hurling for money. My motivation was an energy form that had burned brightly inside of me for 30 years. I didn’t know there was another way of being. Then one Tuesday evening we pulled up to a baseball diamond in Yonkers and a chasm opened up inside of me. I was about to step on to a training field for money. There was obligation. Not choice. This was New York, a place where even hurlers get paid. In that moment I knew that sport for money is less. When joy is substitute for duty.
New York gave and gave in the time I spent there. I worked in bars and took money from people that had so much they weren’t sure what to do with it.
I saved up and travelled the world on the proceeds. You might think that would have been the great gift of my experience there, that it got me to the monasteries of Lhasa, Tibet, or the coastline of Vietnam or to base camp at Everest.
But it wasn’t. It was learning that the great gift we have here is a purity in our sport, where people play to represent a depth of themselves and their place that money can’t touch.
Seán Ó Cualáin
It is impossible to understate how important the Irish were in building New York.
When you come in from the airport in the taxi and you are going over the bridges, the vastness and vertical height is like nothing you’ve seen.
A memorable moment for me was when we were filming Men at Lunch and we were at Ground Zero; we had filled in form after form trying to get permission to film at the World Trade Center, which was being rebuilt.
We were getting nowhere. We were right below the towers filming but we couldn’t get up there. We were talking in Irish and a photographer came over to talk to the cameraman.
It turns out he was a staff photographer for the rebuilding project, his name was Joe Woolhead and he was originally from Dublin.
By that evening, we were filming up there, as it was being built. That shows the power of the Irish connection, helping you cut through the red tape.
It made the film for us.
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