My first home in America was in the Bronx, a basement apartment on Briggs Avenue off Fordham Road. It was a happy time. We were a revelry of young Irish immigrants caught up in the glorious freedom of having shed parents and small towns and farms for apartments and subway trains that we took down into the city to work as waitresses and bartenders. At the end of the day we’d meet up in the Bunratty or Durty Nelly’s on Kingsbridge Road, young women waiting for our men to finish their 4-12 shift in the Water Tunnel Construction Project. They mostly ignored us when they showed up, talking over our heads to each other about manly things like “the headings” being flooded. We didn’t mind. They were our heroes doing dangerous work hundreds of feet underground, so we cut them some slack. On Sundays we’d go to Gaelic Park on 240th Street, a scrappy piece of ground under the stewardship of John O’Donnell, always known as John “Kerry,” for the place of his birth. We’d sit in the stands watching our boys play hurling and football, and moan about the Irish-American girls (the Narrowbacks), who came over from Queens to compete with us for their attention. In the bar after the games, we’d dance to live music that would now be classed as Country & Western; to us it was just the music we had grown up with.
Those glory days would be over too soon. The city went broke in 1975, the water tunnel project was put on hold, and almost overnight our men left en masse to work on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. I moved downtown, and then to San Francisco, and back to New York to start the magazine in the mid-1980s. I would never live in the Bronx again, but it left its imprint on my heart. And two stories in this issue, Peter Quinn’s beautiful recollection of the Bronx of his childhood, and Tom Deignan’s piece on All Hallows High School, filled me with nostalgia for that time and place.
While I was enjoying the liberating freedom of being young in New York, dark clouds were gathering in Northern Ireland. Just months before I left for America, in 1972, the British Army shot 28 unarmed civilians, killing 13, during a protest march against internment without trial. (Read Rosemary Rogers’ piece on Dolours Price in this issue, it will break your heart).
Sometimes you have to leave a country to really see it for what it is. The discrimination that was happening to Catholics in the North was largely ignored in the part of Ireland I grew up in. Here it was a different story. Irish Americans were more concerned than the Irish back home, and more ready to do something about it, which brings me to our cover story.
Richie Neal, the U.S. congressman from Springfield, Massachusetts, was just a young councilman when he first became involved with Northern Ireland. It was 1981, during the Hunger Strikes. “They were just letting them die,” he tells Niall O’Dowd in this interview, and he had to try and do something to bring American weight to bear on the British governmnt. He went on to lobby for the MacBride Principles, the set of fair employment practices that became a corporate code of conduct for U.S. companies doing business in Northern Ireland, and he helped pass them into law. And, as the co-chairman of the Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus, he played a central role in passing the Good Friday Agreement. Now, at a time when tensions are rising in North over the possibility of a hard border being reinstated, we turn once again to Richie Neal for help. As the newly appointed chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee, he will play a key role in overseeing any future trade agreement between Britain and the United States after Britain leaves the European Union. And as he has already shown with his recent trip to Northern Ireland with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he’ll be there for us, as he always has been.
There is no truer friend of Ireland.
Mórtas Cine. ♦