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FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Irish dancehall, the Bronx 1954 by George S. Zimbel. Courtesy International Center of Photography (ICP). Children at a picnic table in Van Cortlandt Park playing games, October 1, 1939. Courtesy of Parks Photo Archive. First commencement at Keating Hall, Fordham University, June 10, 1936. Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., prepares to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the students from the Flynn School for Irish Dance at his annual Bronx Irish heritage celebration. The event took place on March 14, 2012, at the Rambling House in Woodlawn, and drew a crowd of more than 150 from all corners of the Bronx.

Sometimes the rivalries were humorous. One Italian carting company emblazoned on its garbage trucks “We Cater Irish Weddings.” When I heard talk of “intermarriage,” it referred to Irish-Italian nuptials. It wasn’t until later that miscegenation escalated into ethnic meltdown and bred a new strain of Hiberno-Mediterranean offspring notable for their good looks. Over the years, I’ve heard from Jewish Bronxites about suffering verbal harassment (epithets like “kikes,” “sheenies,” “Christ-killers”) and physical abuse from, as one friend put it, “Irish pogromists.” Without doubting their accounts, that wasn’t my experience. Through all my years of parochial school, I never heard anti-Semitic professions by teachers or clergy. We were told it was our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross. If either of my parents suspected we were cursing or bullying Jews, retribution would have been swift and severe. Yet I had no Jewish friends. We lived separately together. Still, one thing shared by gentiles and Jews was a familiarity with Yiddish. To be a Bronxite was to schlepp and kibitz, and to understand the difference between a schmuck and a mensch. I had no acquaintance with Jewish girls, except one. We rode the 20 BX bus together, she to Walton Girls High School in Kingsbridge, me to the all-male Manhattan Prep in Riverdale. I sat in the back with my school buddies, she in front with her classmates. The first time I saw her, I was smitten by her thin and graceful figure, clothes loose and flowing (our style then was tight), thick black curls (the fashion was long and straight) – an early-blossoming flower child. It was part of growing up in the Bronx to figure out, as quickly as possible, a person’s tribe. I identified her Jewishness in the same way, if she bothered to notice, she perceived my goyishness. We never spoke. And then, one September, she was gone, off to college, I presumed. I spent months bereft. Recently, for the first time in 50 years, I rode a bus along the old route, and it all flooded back, my

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lonely-hearts Bronx tale, unbridgeable worlds in the same borough, on the same bus. My first ancestors arrived in New York when Margaret and Michael Manning fled the Great Famine. Margaret Manning, their daughter and my paternal grandmother, was born in 1863, in the village of Fordham – at that time part of Westchester County – and baptized in the university church. (It was then called St. John’s College.) My grandfather Patrick Quinn, a union organizer, was born in Tipperary in 1859. His family emigrated to New York in 1870. He married Margaret Manning, a seamstress, in St. Brigid’s Church on the Lower East Side in 1899. They moved to the Bronx in 1914, where they bought a small house in the West Farms neighborhood which, despite its name, was absent all things agricultural. Contrary to the notion of Irish obsession with ancestry, my family showed little interest in the past. My mother had an active disinterest, routinely tossing out documents and obfuscating or bowdlerizing the fate of relatives who fell victim to impoverishment or their own misbehaviors (or both). The primary focus of my parents and grandparents wasn’t on the Irish past but the American future, and their children’s role in it. My father recalled that as a boy on the Lower East Side he shared a room with his older brother in which they rarely stayed. My grandparents hosted relative after relative as they arrived from Ireland, until none were left to bring over. If my grandfather heard anyone sentimentalizing about the old country his instant riposte was, “If you miss it so much, why don’t you go back?” Romantic Ireland didn’t ring very convincingly in crowded tenement rooms. Catherine Riordan of Blarney, County Cork, landed at Castle Garden in 1888. (It would be four years before Ellis Island opened and processed its first immigrant, Annie Moore, also of County Cork.) Though Catherine claimed to be 18, it’s more likely she was 15 or 16 and lied about her age so she could join her older sister as a domestic and begin sending remittances home to finance her siblings’ journeys. She stayed in maid’s work until she met James Murphy, a native-Irish speaker from near Macroom, who worked as a mechanic at Yorkville’s Rupert Brewery. My mother, Viola Murphy, the last of their six children, was born on the top floor of a four-story walkup on 149th Street in the Bronx. Coming of age in the 1920s, my parents belonged

Profile for Irish America Magazine

Irish America May / June 2019  

Irish America's May / June issue, featuring Congressman Richie Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means committee of the U.S. House of Represent...

Irish America May / June 2019  

Irish America's May / June issue, featuring Congressman Richie Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means committee of the U.S. House of Represent...