Just In Time For St. Patrick’s Day – A History of the Irish in Greenpoint!
On Friday everyone becomes Irish for a day—at least in the local bars, but Greenpoint actually has a long and colorful Irish history. The first Irish came to Greenpoint way back in the 1850s. Like many of the others who arrived here then, the Irish were lured by jobs in the booming shipbuilding business. An 1855 Greenpoint census revealed that about thirty percent of the locals were Irish born. Other Irish soon followed to work in the many factories and refineries that sprung up locally after the Civil War.
In 1864 Captain James McAllister, from County Antrim, Northern Ireland, started his maritime transport company with a single sail lighter, but it was the perfect time and place to open such a business. McAllister soon got more work than he could handle transporting the oil of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. He brought over many of his family and neighbors from his hometown Cushendall, Co. Antrim and many of the present day Irish families in Greenpoint have Cushendall roots. Quickly the Irish dominated the waterfront and worked the many nautical and longshoremen jobs along the bustling East River and Newtown Creek shorelines. One of these Irish-American longshoremen was the colorful Pete McGuinness, “The King of Greenpoint,” for whom McGuinness Boulevard is named. He later entered politics and ran the area as the last old style Irish ward boss until his death in 1948.
By the 1870s the local Irish population was exploding, and the growing community needed a large church. In 1873, the Irish laid the cornerstone of the iconic St. Anthony of Padua church, which still stands majestically on Manhattan Avenue. Within twenty years Irish-born Monsignor Edward McGolrick rebuilt the gorgeous St. Cecilia’s Church on Herbert and North Henry streets. By 1900 the congregations of both churches reached an amazing ten thousand souls, many of whom were Irish.
Ireland’s struggle for freedom affected Greenpoint as well. In the 1890’s a group of Irish Greenpointers tried to bomb England in a terror campaign to end British rule in Ireland. The bombers, however, were arrested before they planted any of their bombs and the group’s leader, a Greenpoint medical doctor named Thomas Gallagher, was convicted and sent to prison where he went mad. One of Gallagher’s co-conspirators was Thomas Clarke, who survived fifteen years of brutality in an English prison. After his release he married and returned to Greenpoint, living on Russell Street. Clarke returned to Ireland to lead the 1916 rising and was the first signer of the Declaration of the Irish Republic. Shot by the British, Clarke is considered a heroic martyr in Ireland.
Over time, many of the Greenpoint Irish died or moved away. However, there are still many large Greenpoint Irish families who have lived locally for generations. The Darraghs, Sheehans, Bolans, Curtins and Murphys are just some families of a list too long to name. You will find that many of them return to Greenpoint to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Irish pubs like Shays Lounge and The Capri Social Club, which many local Irish still refer to as Murphy’s. If you do raise a glass to celebrate Ireland this Friday, you will be part of a tradition dating back locally more than a century and a half.