Sharing the burden
Fr Joseph McShane, President of Fordham University in New York, recently gave a mesmerising address to the American Irish Historical Society annual gala —at which he received the Society’s highest award — on the obligations which go with being Irish American.
“We live with the burden of being Irish,” he told his audience. “What exactly is the burden of being Irish? The burden of being Irish is rising to the challenge of embracing and living life as the heroic figures of our past would have us live it. It means living life with the faith-filled bravado of Saint Brendan the Navigator, and with the generosity of heart and warm hospitality of Saint Brigid of Kildare.
“It means living life with the same fresh, surprised belief that grace is lurking at every turn and in every face that so marked the life of our great Patriarch, Saint Patrick. It means living life with the same indomitable spirit of faith and adventure that led our immigrant ancestors to come here to these shores. It means living life with the same sense of humor and purpose that made it possible for our forebears to turn the language of the oppressor into a vehicle for the poetry of our lives.
“It means living life as if the lives of others depended on our mercy and kindness. It means turning the memory of those sufferings that stand at the center of our ethnic identity into a firm and unshakable determination to stand with and to champion the poor and marginalized wherever they are found — even if their names don’t begin with Mc or O or Fitz. The burden of being Irish: bravado, wonder, hospitality, mercy, grace, compassion, advocacy, humour.”
I thought of those uplifting words when I visited Coogan’s Bar in Washington Heights (in not-so-glamorous upper Manhattan) on Friday past to congratulate publican, raconteur, playwright and civic leader, Peter Walsh, on living to fight another day. Peter’s landlords had threatened to hike his rent to a rate which was certain to put him out off business — until the community intervened to save this venerable institution (Check out Jim Dwyer’s New York Times’ masterful piece online).
Peter’s pub is the heartbeat of a hard-pressed neighbourhood which is just five miles but also fifty light years away from Wall Street. For 40 years, as bartender, head dishwasher and fear a’ tí at Coogans, Peter has been giving back to the Dominican and African American community on his doorstep. “The survival of Coogan’s is bigger than us,” he told me. “It’s about aspiration and the wider struggle for housing, education and jobs which underpin any successful community. In life, you don’t get loyalty unless you give back and the support we received when we said the extortionate new rents would force us to close proved that we had earned the loyalty of the people.”
Our visit was fleeting: Rob Walsh, former Commissioner to Mayor Bloomberg but better-known as tour guide at the annual New York-New Belfast conference, and Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick, a steady friend of Belfast, hustled me in and out after a fabulous visit to Manhattan College — home to Gaelic Park and another Irish jewel in the Big Apple.
But Peter Walsh only needs a moment to make a big impression — as you would expect from someone who carries the burden of being Irish lightly.
I will be in the Cultúrlann, Belfast, on Thursday evening, to celebrate St Brigid’s Day and raise some much-needed funds for the professional theatre troupe Aisling Ghéar. I have promised to shift 40 tickets and am seven short of my target. If you want to be one of the Magnificent Seven and keep this Gaeltacht Quarter engine revving, please pick up a £50 ticket on eventbrite.