100 Irish things in 100 days in New York

Olivia Barry

Having lived in New York for over five years now, you would think I’d have already seen all evidence of the Irish influence on the city. But on the contrary, I feel I have only just begun, even after dedicating the past five months to documenting it on film.

As part of my MA in Branding at the School of Visual Arts, I was invited to choose a personal activity to do for 100 days, and to document it — an idea originally created by Michael Beirut of the venerable design firm Pentagram in New York.

I chose to seek out 100 manifestations of Ireland in New York. I wanted to better understand the history and impact the Irish have had on this city, to explore the modern Irish diaspora, and perhaps even attempt to dispel some of the commonly-held stereotypes of the Irish in New York, which tend to centre around pubs and drunkenness on St Patrick’s Day.

The only parameters I set myself were that the subject be a person, place, object or brand, but all must be Irish in origin or meaning. I named the project Céad Léiriú — Irish for 100 Manifestations, and set up a tumblr site (ceadleiriu.tumblr.com). This turned out to be a great opportunity to travel all over this fascinating city, to places I may never have otherwise discovered.

Where to begin with the contribution made by Irish people and those of Irish origin to American history and culture? Besides the well-known, there are many surprising and unexpected examples. Not only Irish Catholics left a rich legacy for generations of Americans. Francis Makemie from Ramelton, Co Donegal is known as the father of American Presbyterianism. Philip Embury, a German-Irish immigrant from Co Limerick, the father of American Methodism, set up his church in Lower Manhattan in 1768.

New Yorkers discovered a new way of shopping when Co Down man Alexander Turney Stewart built a huge marble-faced store on Broadway in 1846, thus establishing NYC’s first department store. It later became the offices of the New York Sun. It was a surprise for me to learn that Galwayman and band master Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (whose grave is pictured above) established Gilmore’s Concert Garden, the forerunner of Madison Square Garden, and that he led the festivities at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886.

Dubliner Augustus St Gaudens (1848–1907) was a prolific sculptor, with over 500 pieces to his name, many of them in New York. The most iconic must surely be the golden General Sherman statue at Grand Plaza on Fifth Avenue (below).

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) was headed in NYC by Michael Mann, a Dubliner, who was very proud of his dual Jewish/Irish heritage. This society was founded in the 1960s by Jews of Irish heritage but as the decades rolled on the Yiddish Sons of Erin became just a memory. You can read more about them in Frank McNally Irishman’s Diary.

Dublin Architect Kevin Roche has also left his mark on the New York cityscape. His Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park (above) is an 85-foot tall testament to the rich tapestry and history of Jewish History. Among his many prestigious commissions are additions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 2010 Convention Centre in Dublin.

The Irish are well recognised for their contributions to the arts and culture in New York life. Patricia Cronin, Ellen Driscoll (whose mosaic at Grand Central Terminal is pictured below) and Isamu Noguchi are all eminent sculptors of Irish descent. Dublin-born Carmel Snow, editor of Vogue Magazine and editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar (1934–1958), was the Anna Wintour of her day (her book is pictured above). She encouraged people like Andy Warhol, Maeve Brennan and Christian Dior. Her maxim was “well-dressed women with well-dressed minds”. I was delighted to discover that she was my cousin’s wife’s grandmother.

This still resonates today with contemporary Irish designers making their mark, from Orla Kiely’s impressive Soho shop to a remarkable Simone Rocha installation (below) at the newly-opened Dover Street Market New York outpost.

Historically, many Irish notables have contributed significantly to NY life. William James McNeven from Galway, a medical doctor and United Irishman, is regarded as the Father of American Chemistry. Wexfordman Commodore John Barry (no relation) is known as the Father of the American Navy. He was the first commissioned naval officer in the new US Navy in 1797, by president George Washington.

The oft-derided Irish pub contributes vibrantly to the daily fabric of life here. The Ulysses Folk Tavern on Stone Street (pictured above) is jointly owned by Irish and Greek proprietors. “What happens when a Greek and an Irishman open a bar? You get Homer and James Joyce and that’s Ulysses,” according to them. But a new breed of Irish pub is emerging, the latest being The Late Late Bar and Spirit Grocer, recently opened in Manhattan’s Lower East Side by young Dublin entrepreneur James Morrissey (pictured below). It aims to challenge stereotypical perceptions of the Irish bar, similar to its namesake TV programme.

I have not mentioned the immense contributions to the life of this exhilarating city by many other individuals, groups and organisations like the hundreds of undocumented, the GAA, the Irish Arts Center, and Irish-American publications.

The project has taught me a lot about myself — who I am as an individual, a member of a proud and enterprising nation and, like thousands of others, a diligent contributor to life in this great melting-pot. My research has clearly illustrated that my past is my present and my present is my past. I am what I am because of what and who went before me.

So, with my recent qualification of Masters in Branding from SVA, I am looking forward to a challenging career in that field, initially in New York, the centre of branding, and eventually to taking my newly-honed skills eastward across the Atlantic.

With James Joyce in mind, I remember “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”

For all 100 photographs in Olivia Barry’s project and a blurb about each, see ceadleiriu.tumblr.com.

Originally published at www.irishtimes.com on October 7, 2014.

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