The Bronx’s own Green Isle celebrates

The next generation of Irish kids growing up in Woodlawn. Photo Credit: Michelle Bialeck

Photo montage of Woodlawn’s St. Patrick’s Day Celebration

By Michelle Bialeck

When parade goers and bar hoppers, many in shamrock sunglasses and leprechaun hats, line the streets of Manhattan trying to get a glimpse of the parade, or win St. Patrick’s day T-shirts, a little pocket of down-home revelry takes place in the Northeast Bronx.

About a block away from Yonkers on Katonah Avenue, kids paint their faces green, the Irish musicians of Jameson’s Revenge play the violin and Irish flute, and neighbors and friends celebrate the country they left behind.

“Oh! And I wish I were with the gentle folk, Around a hearthened fire where the fairies dance unseen,” recited Martin Miller outside the Rambling House pub a few days before the St Patrick’s Day celebration. Taking not even a full moment to recall the verse by the Irish nationalist Bobby Sands, Miller, 32, began reciting the poem while successfully lighting his cigarette in the cool wind.  The sound of his own words had such a nostalgic quality, they almost brought him to tears.  He stopped short, but not from lack of memory.

For Miller, being away from home, a small town outside of Belfast, is difficult, but he wouldn’t want it any other way. Miller, like the many young Irish men and women who have come to New York for work, has found not only a job here, but a home away from home in Woodlawn, or the Bronx’s little Ireland. For Miller and his friends, Woodlawn is a community, a safety net, and a starting point, for a new life.

This St Patrick’s Day in Woodlawn, there is not only a celebration of history, but of the future of the vibrant Irish community that has withstood its own tremors of prejudice, immigration back and forth, and the ever-changing city around it.

The Irish neighborhood of Woodlawn, with Katonah Avenue as its backbone, is not slipping away, but teeming with Irish and Irish-Americans of all ages, new and old to the U.S. It is truly an Irish Diaspora, as alive as the green mountains of home.

The Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that amid an economic downturn in Ireland, a thousand people leave that country every week in search of opportunity abroad. The unemployment rate has peaked, almost reaching 14 percent, in the past few months, and it’s difficult to find a person on Katonah Avenue who will leave a conversation without speaking of his or her friends on welfare back in the homeland.

Watch this video to see what residents of Katonah Avenue have to say about recent immigration:

William Hurley, historian and librarian at the American Irish Historical Society, speaks of a tightening on American visas and the flow of many Irish immigrants to Canada and Australia where it’s easier for Irish to obtain legal status, but he acknowledges that there is still a pull to the U.S. for those who are willing to try and stay illegally, and especially among young Irish immigrants who are lucky enough to get legal sponsorship.

“If you want to work, you’ll get work here,” says Miller who has found work in construction.  There is a sense of looking after each other in the Irish community in New York.

Danny Maloney, owner of the moving company Liffey Van Lines & Storage, says that the number of people who go to him from Ireland asking for work has risen by 70 percent in the past couple of years. Maloney’s son, also Danny, was quick to chime in, “I’ve seen what’s happening over there, and it’s a disaster.” The elder Maloney says he is willing to do whatever he can to find work for his fellow countrymen and women in the many branches of his business, but it’s tough work finding something for everyone.

Maloney estimates that for every five people he knows who went to Ireland a decade ago, four of them are coming back. Many homeowners or business owners in Ireland are stuck with mortgages they can’t pay; many are simply stuck in Ireland because they own instead of rent.  This is why a good part of the wave of Irish immigrants to the U.S. remains young. They are looking to start a life here and haven’t yet bought a house in Ireland or started a family.

“If you think you are going to have a mortgage and a car payment there…” he laughs with slight disappointment in his squinting eyes and uneasy round face.

Hugh O’Lunney is another business owner who has seen the effects of Ireland’s high unemployment rate here in New York. “The Celtic Tiger is dead, or very sick,” says O’Lunney, referring to the economic boom that Ireland experienced starting in the mid 1990s. The owner of O’Lunney’s Times Square Pub, O’Lunney has been in New York for more than 30 years, longer than most of the new immigrants have been alive.

Hurley speculates that Woodlawn remains a pocket of Irish culture, not only because of the connections to loved ones in Ireland, but because of the zoning. Many people own their own homes in Woodlawn, as opposed to renting, said Hurley, this causes families to stay in the area instead of moving out like in other New York City neighborhoods such as Woodside, Queens.

While Irish neighborhoods have dwindled and populations moved away from areas like  Riverdale, Norwood or Woodside, many people come to Woodlawn to stay, start families and raise kids.

Woodlawn has one of the best schools in the Bronx. P.S. 19 Judith K. Weiss is located right in the heart of Katonah Avenue.

“The focus and discipline is significant…above and beyond,’’ said Donna Katz, a substitute teacher who works at schools all over the Bronx. “I don’t know if it’s the administration, the kids or the parents.  I think it’s the connection between the three.”

The neighborhood also has two popular churches and a well-known Irish bank, Country Bank, all within walking distance.

Mike Mullen, a native of Ireland who was employed by Danny Maloney at Liffey Van Lines & Storage after he finished college, says a big part of the success of Woodlawn as an Irish enclave is its outward distinctiveness.

“From a city planning perspective, you know when you arrive and you know when you leave,’’ he said.  “You can sit and read your Irish paper and have your Irish soda.”

And he’s right, on a normal day, you know you’ve arrived because Irish accents fill your ears and that quintessential Guinness sign tags most of the storefronts.  There are people old and young, buying Irish products, reading the Echo, ordering chicken burgers at Mary’s Celtic Kitchen, listening to either football or the faint swing of traditional Irish music in the background of any of the local bars — there are about two on each block.

“It’s warm here, that’s the word,” Miller said as he scoured his head for the perfect way to explain what keeps his friends and family in Woodlawn.

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