Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Irish of Old New York

After six years of self-guided New York City tours, I felt the need to break out and find better ways to discover/uncover all the city has to offer. I found "Friendly Native New Yorker Walking Tours" on Meetup and figured, what the heck, and signed up. The first tour available, The Irish of Old New York, was yesterday.

Because of the extreme heat we're experiencing right now, our guide Linda kindly moved the original time of 12:45pm to 6pm (thank you very much!). With my $15 cash in hand - the charge for each tour, comfortable walking shoes, and lightweight clothing, I met up with the group in front of St. Paul's Chapel to begin the tour.

Why begin a tour about the Irish at an Episcopal Chapel, you might wonder (as did I)? Well, it seems two early prominent Irish transplants have monuments in St. Paul's cemetery, though neither is buried there. Thomas Addis Emmet (1764-1827), Irish revolutionary and American lawyer, and Dr. William James MacNeven (1763-1841), the father of modern chemistry, have cenotaphs - both engraved with the Irish harp and clasped hands - in cemeteries on either side of the church. And smack dab on front of St. Paul's is a monument in memory of Brigadier-General Richard Montgomery, who died at the Battle of Quebec in 1775.

We moved on to City Hall, co-designed by Irish-American John McComb, Jr. in 1803. He also designed Gracie Mansion and Castle Clinton, by the way. Our guide enlightened us about one of the early governors of New York, Thomas Dongan, whose residence stood on the site of what was the New York Times building and is now Pace University. We heard wild stories of the Irish who helped build the Brooklyn Bridge. How that thing ever got built is beyond me.

At Chambers and Broadway stands what once was A.T. Stewart's Marble Palace, the first department store in the United States. Next door (on Chambers) is the old Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, which provided financial services for Irish emigrants. Both are across the street from the Tweed Courthouse (yeah, that Tweed). Boss Tweed was not Irish, but his Tammany Hall cohorts bought many a vote from Irish emigrants via jobs, health care, and other services.

We passed through the splendiferous Municipal Building on our way to notorious Five Points, famous for Gangs of New York. Once the roughest area of the city, it's now an area with a little park, row houses, businesses, courthouses, and government buildings. Such scary history, though. When the old brewery was converted to tenement housing in 1837, as many as 1200 people lived there. Murder, disease, dead bodies. Lovely. We also got the scoop on the Draft Riots of 1863. Seems most of the names drawn were poor Irish, and violence ensued.

The tour ended at St. James Church, where the United States branch of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians was founded in 1836. The AOH sponsors the ever-popular St. Patrick's Day Parade each year in New York City. Erin go yadda-yadda.

So, there you have it. A recap of our two-and-a-half hour walking tour. Well worth $15. The group - many of them regulars - was friendly and our guide knowledgeable. I'll definitely be on the lookout for the next meet-up.

But I don't think I'll ever want to live any place called The Old Brewery.

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