Close Encounters

Patricia Harty - Editor-in-Chief.

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
June / July 2006

” I always keep thinking of James Connolly and the great calm and dignity that he showed right to the very end, his courage and resolve.” – Bobby Sands

As I’m writing this, I can hear the sound of bagpipes. Wafting up to my 21st floor office, high above busy Sixth Avenue, are the mournful strains of “Sean South from Garryowen.”  It’s a reminder that one can never really be away from “home” in New York City.  I suppose immigrants from other countries feel the same way.  Chance encounters with “the tribe” happen all the time: A bunch of girls over from Ireland on a shopping trip; an Irish construction worker ordering “tea with milk, extra sugar” at the coffee wagon outside my building.  The city is constantly reinventing itself, but there are always signs of how Irish it is: Irish plays on Broadway, Irish music sessions and concerts, and there are probably more Irish pubs here than anywhere else in the world. Connolly’s, where Black 47 belt out their signature tune “James Connolly,” is one of my favorites.  Then there’s historic New York, and the tracks the ancestors left behind.  Within a 20 block radius of Irish America’s office you will find many corners of Ireland.  Duffy Square, named for the famous World War I chaplain, Fr. Francis Duffy, also boasts a statue of George M. Cohan, currently the subject of a revue by the Irish Repertory Theatre, located on 22nd Street.  There’s the Emmet Building on 95 Madison Avenue built by Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, brother of Irish patriot Robert Emmet.  Thomas lived in the top floor apartment.  And on 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, work continues on converting the Hugh O’Neill building into condominiums. The Belfast-born O’Neill emigrated to New York at 16, and built the giant store – a full block long – in 1887. To the north lies Carnegie Hall, where on St. Patrick’s Day the Chieftains played to a sold-out house. Ninety years ago this month, in May of 1916, just one month after the Easter Rising, over 20,000 Irish-American nationalists and their supporters assembled here to protest the execution of the leaders of the Rising, which ended on May 12 with the injured James Connolly being strapped in a chair to meet his fate. (Tom Deignan writes on the Rising and its effects on America in this issue.) Connolly lived in New York and worked as an organizer for the International Workers of the World (David Smith writes of plans for a movie on Connolly’s life). He was also the founder of the Irish Transport Union, but he didn’t think of politics just in Irish terms. He wrote about “a great continental uprising of the working class” and about the British colonization of India.  His influence is still being felt down through the generations.  Bobby Sands, the subject of a new book (excerpted in this issue) as the 25th anniversary of his death is being marked this May, found inspiration in Connolly, and “the great calm and dignity he showed right to the end. . . . Connolly has always been the man that I looked up to,” Sands wrote in his diary during the first days of his hunger strike. More recently, New York City Transit Union chief Roger Toussaint took a book on James Connolly along as reading material when he was jailed for calling an “illegal” three-day transit strike in the city last December. Much as Connolly is idolized today, let us not forget who he was as a man. Smith reminds us that he had a good sense of humor. “This really is revolution deluxe,” Connolly quipped, as he lay wounded in the G.P.O during the Rising. He refused morphine, lest it damage the morale of his men, settling for a borrowed detective novel instead. (Now there’s a good thesis for a student of history: “How Humor Saved the Irish During Oppression.” ) What if George Carlin had been born in the North of Ireland (his father was born in Donegal to a father from Tyrone) instead of New York? Would his anti-authoritarian bent have gotten him in trouble? Would he have been a rebel instead of a humorist? If Bobby Sands had been born in New York, would he have become a great writer instead of a revolutionary? I muse on all this as the mysterious pipers now morph into the “Wearing of the Green,” also know as “The Rising of the Moon,” which relates to the 1798 Rising, and was written by the blind harper O’Carolan (who may or may not have been an ancestor of George Carlin’s). To reassure myself that I haven’t conjured up a ghost of Risings past, I take myself out to the street to investigate. No sound of pipes greet me. I walk down the block, and in the midst of all the construction, where the City of Hope Cancer Center is at last taking shape, the Franciscan friary and church is an oasis of calm, and it is here that I see three young men in kilts, puffing on cigarettes.

“Were you playing the pipes?”

“We were.”

“Who are you?”

“We’re from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.”

“James Connolly . . . I’ve been writing . . . Have you heard of him?”

“Of course I know James Connolly,” the dark-haired young man says, looking at me quizzically.

“It’s Workers’ Memorial Day,” he continues, pointing at a sign posted on the church wall: “In memory of all the workers who died on the job.”

As the families of the “Workers of the World” begin to file out of the church – babes in arms, and wives and mothers, all races and all hues – I think of the influence of Connolly and Sands (who has a street named after him in Tehran), and the solace they bring to people all over the world. Two days later, the Sikh Parade, the nation’s largest, winds its way down Broadway, and floating up to my window comes “It’s a Small World After All,” played not on bagpipes but on what sounds like triangles. I can’t help but think that somewhere out there James Connolly is having a laugh while sending a gentle reminder that it is indeed a small world after all.

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