The image above was taken at Rockaway Beach on 115th Street, what was then the heart of the Irish Riviera. Irish immigrants flocked to Rockaway for a day at the beach, followed by Playland and an evening on the boardwalk. Lucky Irish families came here to spend their summer vacations, staying in boarding houses, usually in one room sharing a communal kitchen, bathroom and outdoor shower. Rockaway was a great place to meet people from “home,” swim in the ocean and soak in the sun. Unfortunately, many of those just off the boat landed in the Emergency Room with 3rd degree burns—the sun on the Rockaway side of the Atlantic far more unforgiving than the sun on their native side.
In this picture, my sister Eleanor is on the left, my sister Kathleen is on my mother’s lap and I’m in the center. A week earlier, we had taken the three-hour, two-fare subway ride from the northwest Bronx carrying cartons of clothes, pots and towels for our Rockaway room. My father looks healthy and rested, apparently recovered from working nights as a bartender in Manhattan where he stood for eight hours straight. (The recently released 1911 Irish census told us that my father was older than we thought: it seems his father lopped three years off his son’s age to avoid possible conscription into the British army. He was 52 when this picture was taken, not 49 as we originally believed.) My mother, a Co. Monaghan native, came from a fair, blue-eyed family who never took the sun—or, for that matter, wore low-cut bathing suits—but she managed to get as tan as her husband and children, forgoing products such as Coppertone, Noxzema and sun hats.
We sometimes stayed in the home of our cousins, Bridie and John Duignan who, like my father, were from Co. Longford. On weekends our families went to 103rd Street, Irishtown, the hotbed of Rockaway nightlife where the dancehalls were named after counties—Leitrim House, Sligo House, Dublin House, etc. The entertainers—the McNulty Family, starring handsome tenor Peter McNulty, Ruthie Morrissey and Mickey Carton—traveled up and down 103rd street spending time in each hall, the longer their visit, the greater their fee. Peter McNulty became something of a headliner drawing the largest crowds despite persistent rumors that he wore a girdle under his flashy plaid cummerbund.
Queens corner boys, like my husband Bob, preferred nearby bar, Gilday’s where the eponymous owner would ask a misbehaving customer to step outside. Once on the boardwalk, Mr. Gilday’s 320 pounds would assume a John L. Sullivan pose as he prepared to challenge the ruffian. Bob never saw Mr. Gilday lose a single fight…and he saw lots of them. Irishtown Saturday nights became known for the standing army of cops and paddywagons that parked in the center of the street.
But mostly it was a quiet time. My parents, the Duignan’s, other boarders, our cousins, the “greenhorns” and those just passing by, would drop by and rock back and forth to the spoken refrain on the porch, “There’s no place like Rockaway!”