James Nevius is the author of three books about New York City, the most recent of which is Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.
New York's Irish history stretches back almost to the origins of the city—there were certainly as least transient Irish here when it was still New Amsterdam—and Irish immigrants have indelibly shaped the city over the last four centuries. So this St. Patrick's Day, instead of drinking green beer and eating emerald bagels, why not spend some time exploring New York's Irish remnants? Below are a dozen significant Irish sites, from modern memorials and mausoleums to whole neighborhoods and 200-year-old churches, that can be found in all five boroughs. As always, the usual caveats: this list does not pretend to be exhaustive, so your favorite Irish spot may have been left off. Also, because of the city's desire to wipe the most notorious neighborhood, Five Points, off the map, a number of significant Irish sites have unfortunately fallen to the wrecking ball. Many of these entries are adapted from the book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.
St. Patrick's Old Cathedral
263 Mulberry Street
Though the largest wave of Irish immigrants came following the disastrous potato famine of 1845-1851, there were already significant numbers of Catholic Irish here in 1809 when the cornerstone was laid for the city's original cathedral. A year later the city's first Irish paper, The Shamrock, began publication, and when the cathedral opened in 1815, Bishop John Connolly described the diocese as being "mostly Irish." The building, designed by City Hall architect Joseph-Francois Magnin, was considered "out of town" when it opened, but soon found itself in the heart of the Irish community of Five Points.
Built for the War of 1812, Castle Clinton saw no action in that conflict and was soon converted into a theater known as Castle Garden. After the large number of Irish and German immigrants began to flood into the city in the 1840s, the city took the building back and opened the Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot. Between 1855-1889, nearly 8 million people passed through the doors of this building, many of them in the second wave of Irish immigration, and by the dawn of the Civil War, New York was the second largest Irish city in the world outside Dublin. No trace of the building's use as an emigrant depot remains, but it has been restored to what it would have looked like as the original fort and contains a small museum.
Irish Hunger Memorial
Vesey Street and North End Avenue
Opened in 2002, Brian Tolle's Irish Hunger Memorial is the city's only commemoration of An Gorta Mór ("the Great Hunger") that devastated Ireland between in the 1840s. In the worst year of the famine, 1847, nearly 200,000 Irish left for New York. Considering that the city's population in 1840 had hovered around 312,000 people, it's clear that the famine forever changed the landscape of the city. The memorial invokes the ruined landscape of Ireland during the famine, with stones imported for each of Ireland's 32 counties.
St. James Church
32 James Street
In the 1820s, the area behind City Hall grew into a teeming immigrant area known as Five Points (named for the now-demolished five-cornered intersection at Baxter and Worth streets). Though few traces of the original Five Points remain, there is one significant exception: St. James Church, the birthplace of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). In November 1831, a parish called St. Mary's on the Lower East Side (the city's third oldest Catholic church) was burned down by anti-Catholic arsonists. After the construction of the neoclassical St. James a few years later, parishioners formed AOH to combat future attempts on Catholic life and property, as well as to serve as a fraternal organization in a city where few opportunities were available to immigrants. Today, AOH is best known for organizing the St. Patrick's Day parade.
Alfred E. Smith House
25 Oliver Street
Born in the Five Points in 1873, Al Smith was the among first Irish politicians from New York to achieve national fame, running for president in 1928, but losing badly to Herbert Hoover. Smith lived most of his life at the townhouse at 25 Oliver Street, a three-story brick building that actually predated the influx of Irish immigrants. Smith attended St. James School and was an altar boy at St. James Church around the corner.
49 Hudson Avenue
Though Manhattan would see the bulk of the Irish immigrants in the middle of the 19th century, Brooklyn boasts the oldest Irish neighborhood: Vinegar Hill. The area was likely named for the 1798 Battle of Vinegar Hill, where Irish rebels were defeated by British forces in County Wexford. A number of Irish fled to America at the time, settling in the area that was being developed by Irish shipyard owner John Jackson. (Jackson would later sell most of his waterfront property to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.) Jackson and his heirs built much of the area (PDF!), including the modest townhouse at 49 Hudson Street, which may date all the way back to 1801. If so, it is not only one of the few Federal townhouses from the dawn of the 19th-century, but also the oldest Irish-built home in the city.
William Niblo, born in Ireland in 1798, would become the biggest theater impresario in New York in the middle of the 19th-century. Niblo's Garden (which stood at the corner of Prince Street and Broadway) hosted exhibitions, opera, plays, and, in 1866, "the Black Crook," considered the first modern musical. When Niblo's wife died in 1851, he began construction on a mausoleum for them both on a high spot in Green-Wood. In the era before public parks (Central Park was still a few years from opening), cemeteries served as recreation centers, and Niblo built a large lawn and pond next to the tomb so that he and friends could come and picnic on weekends. It is said that the goldfish that live throughout the cemetery today are the descendants of the ones Niblo stocked in the 1850s.
Celtic Park Apartments
(former Celtic Park Athletic Field)
4810 43rd Street, Woodside
In 1901, the Irish American Athletic Club (IAAC) opened a track known as Celtic Field. Built atop farmland, the club was the training ground for a generation of athletes, and members of the IAAC who would bring home 54 Olympic medals between 1900 and 1920. Not every member was Irish; John Baxter Taylor, Jr, the first African-American to win Olympic gold trained there, as did Myer Prinstein, the only Olympian to win the long jump and the triple jump in the same games. The club disbanded after World War I, and the field first became a greyhound racing track before being razed for the Celtic Park Apartments (now co-ops), which were built in the 1930s.
Calvary Veterans Park
34-2 Laurel Hill Blvd, Maspeth
Nestled entirely within the confines of Calvary Cemetery, Calvary Veterans Park is not only the final resting place of a number of Irish soldiers, but also houses the monument to the 69th Regiment, popularly known as the "Fighting Irish" or the "Fighting 69th." When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, the 69th was one of the first volunteer regiments to head to the front, getting a massive send-off from St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. The regiment served with valor in numerous battles including Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Though decimated by the war, the 69th continued as an active National Guard unit, serving in World Wars I and II, and, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The monument in the park here is by Daniel Draddy, a prominent Irish stonemason, and was unveiled in 1866, making it one of the earliest Civil War monuments in the city. Governor Al Smith (whose house in on this list) is buried elsewhere in the cemetery.
New Staten Island Supreme Court building
Central Avenue and Hyatt Street
During the potato famine, the north shore of Staten Island was home to the Marine Hospital Quarantine Station, where thousands of incoming Irish immigrants were housed upon their arrival. Many died here and were buried in unmarked graves which were unearthed during the building of the much-delayed new Staten Island Supreme Court building. Eventually, a memorial green will open here as a testament to the thousands of Irish who perished on Staten Island in those years. (Note: this is still an active construction site and not open to the public.)
In some ways, Staten Island has the oldest Irish history. One of the first governors of New York, Thomas Dongan, was an Irish Catholic, and when he was appointed to the post in 1683, he was granted a large tract on Staten Island (today's Castleton Corners neighborhood), which was named for his home in Ireland. The Dongan Hills area is also named for him.
In 1840, Bishop John J. Hughes purchased the Rose Hill Manor in the Bronx as the site for what was to become the first seminary and Catholic college in New York. Opened a year later as St. John's College—with a student body of six—the school was soon under the guidance of the Jesuits. It changed its name to Fordham, in honor of the surrounding neighborhood, in 1901 when it became a full-fledged university. Notable Irish-American alumni include Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, CIA director William J. Casey, Cardinal Spellman, actor Dylan McDermott, and Virginia O'Hanlon—the Virginia who wrote to the New York Sun as a child asking if there was a Santa Claus.
Katonah Avenue's "Little Ireland"
New York's Irish-American heritage is most on display along Katonah Avenue in Woodlawn Heights. Nestled between Woodlawn Cemetery, Van Cortlandt Park, and Yonkers, this small area plays host to a number of Irish restaurants, bars, shops, and Woodlawn Arts and Music House, a community space that promotes Irish arts and culture.