St Patrick's Day



A thick-fisted gent brayed the bar and cheered as I flung the third shot of bourbon down my raw throat. The big hand said feck o’clock in the morning. My stomach said blurgh. The celebrations had somehow lost their way. Or perhaps they hadn’t. Perhaps I was going to be sick instead. Yes, that was more likely.

Such was the messy culmination of my first St. Patrick's Day spent in New York City, although I was hardly the first to raise three too many glasses in celebration. The parade first weaved through the streets of New York City in 1762; today it is the largest parade in the world with 200,000 marchers and 2 million spectators. During the late 1840s the southern ports of Manhattan were swamped by tens of thousands of Irish refugees escaping their homeland's deadly potato famine. The city's Emerald lineage means everyone's an Irishman in the days leading up to March 17th; foam hats adorn bemused grandmothers and frat boys alike, Midtown's Irish bars can't keep up with tourist demand for the black stuff.

The day before I found myself on the wrong end of that Guinness and bourbon-topped binge, I travelled across the city in search an altogether more authentic Irish experience, one that I would discover in the Bronx. Catch the MTA train from the palatial Grand Central station and you'll be plunged into the cavernous steel underworld of the city, emerging nearly 60 blocks later on the Upper East Side as it melts into Harlem, before crossing into the Bronx. Seven stops later and the conductor calls for Woodlawn, a neighbourhood at the northern limits of the city, miles from the lights and sights of Manhattan. What you'll find is a gentler, suburban side to New York City;
 free-flowing, care-free traffic; unobstructed views of the horizon.

The modern-day Irish who emigrate to New York often move to Woodlawn; around two thirds of the neighbourhood’s 8,000 residents are Irish or Irish-American; many new arrivals often live with friends and family in the neighbourhood while working in the city. My host Rachael, a fiery Irish twenty-something red of hair and green of eye, moved to Woodlawn to live with her cousin and friends: "You feel you're in a community which understands you and why you've come here. It's nice to think that, as corny as it sounds, there will be people here to look out for us if we need it."

Undiluted Irish accents wash across Katonah Avenue, a long stagger up a short hill from the MTA station and the main drag through Woodlawn. The Traditional Irish Bakery to the left and Sean's Quality Deli over the road are the first of a near-endless procession of Irish stores and bars. Riley’s Carpets, Behan’s Pub, the Emerald Pharmacy - if Disney ever set about building a theme park they couldn’t make it more Irish, save for dressing everyone as a Leprechaun.

We strolled along Katonah for late supper at The Rambling House, a modern single storey building with a faux-traditional restaurant sat alongside a darkened rectangular bar. I waded into their special mixed grill, beaten back only by the liver, which left a little room for a Guinness with the regulars. The evening before Saint Patrick’s Day and
  the good people of  Woodlawn were singing, drinking, laughing anddancing. And smoking, as if it the ban in New York had never existed.

"It’s not just here, the police turn a blind eye everywhere in Woodlawn," pointed out regular bar-prop Kieron, "so long as everyone's enjoying themselves and there's no trouble, but better you don’t talkabout it, eh?"

I promised never to mention it again and ordered a round of drinks for Rachael and the school friends she’d spotted across the bar and not seen for a decade. It wasn’t that unusual to chance upon a familiar face from the back home, explained Rachael: "On my second night here, I met a woman in a restaurant who came from the same village in Ireland as my dad," Rachael added, “her sister was my babysitter twenty years ago."

Irish blood often seems thicker than most, and in Woodlawn that sense of family matters more than anything. There isn't the legacy of Harlem
 or the shopping of Soho, but on the edge of the Bronx is a neighbourhood as unique as any other in New York City, and one the Irish truly call home on St. Patrick's Day.