They came, they saw, and then they went to work with shovels, disinfectants and other essentials – that’s how 1,000 volunteers spent last Saturday’s Irish Day of Action for the Rockaways, the traditionally Irish peninsula in Queens which is still struggling with the overwhelming after-effects of Hurricane Sandy.
Coordinated by the Irish Consulate in New York in conjunction with several other Irish American groups, the Day of Action was a rousing success, with buses full of workers from Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Westchester and Rockland – not to mention those who traveled independently – descending on various Rockaway communities to offer their physical and moral support.
Wearing “Irish Day of Action” t-shirts donated by Aer Lingus, the brisk, windy day didn’t deter volunteers both young and older from pitching in to help clean out basements, rip down walls, toss damaged furniture and distribute meals to local residents, many of whom continue to be displaced by Sandy’s unprecedented punch.
“What I witnessed last Saturday was all that is best about the Irish and Irish American communities in New York -- Irish people of all ages and backgrounds coming together to do practical work for the benefit of those who suffered most, irrespective of their ethnicity,” Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny told the Irish Voice.
“Seeing nearly 1,000 Irish going about restoring the homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods destroyed by Sandy would make you so proud. It was certainly the proudest moment I have experienced as consul general of Ireland in New York.”
The Irish outreach centers – the Emerald Isle, Aisling Irish Center and the New York Irish Center – have been sending volunteers to the Rockaways since the storm struck on October 29, and their knowledge of the area proved instrumental in ensuring that the Day of Action was well coordinated from start to finish.
Buses were dispatched to five locations throughout the Rockaways, including Breezy Point, the area most rocked by the storm with more than 100 homes burned to the ground. Irish organizers also worked with locals and New York officials to ensure that the man, woman and even kid power they supplied was used to maximum effect.
Most of the volunteers who traveled on the buses – which departed their locations at 7 a.m. – were in place and ready for assignments by 9 a.m. Trucks provided by Liffey Van Lines once again transported heavy goods to places where the volunteers were working, and the day wrapped up after 3 p.m. as darkness began to set in.
The locals were exceptionally grateful for the assistance from their Irish friends. “They are such wonderful people,” said Sandra Boyle as she dished out hot pasta inside a food and warming tent donated by Irish company Navillus Construction at St. Francis De Sales Church on Beach 129th Street.
Boyle works at the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Queens and was glad to give her Saturday over to helping those who badly need it. So was Mary Cassells, a native of Clare who lives in Putnam County with her husband Martin and daughters Siobhan and Courtney.
“We really wanted to do something,” Mary told the Irish Voice. “And when we saw that there was an Irish Day of Action we signed right up.”
The Cassells family went home to home with a number of other Irish volunteers. They helped one elderly lady clean out her ruined kitchen.
“It’s such a different experience being here as opposed to seeing it on TV,” said Siobhan, a sentiment shared by most of the Irish volunteers, some of whom were visiting the Rockaways for the first time.
Laurence McGoldrick lived in New York for 45 years, and moved back to Belmullet, Co. Mayo in 2007 with his wife. They have two children who still reside in New York, and McGoldrick was here visiting them for Thanksgiving.
“I definitely made a point to volunteer today,” he told the Irish Voice. “I used to come out here in the 1960s so I really felt like I wanted to help.”
McGoldrick worked in construction with Structure Tone, so his skills came in handy. He helped to take up a floor in one person’s home that had been covered in three feet of sand, and he worked on a kitchen demo.
“I watched the storm on TV in Ireland,” he said. “It was scary. And I can’t believe what I’m seeing here today.
“But I also have to say that the volunteers I’ve met have been just wonderful. The Irish really know how to help each other out when we need it most.”
Young members of the Shannon Gaels Football Club in Queens flexed their muscles and used their seemingly boundless amounts of energy to shift heavy couches and tables from one residence on Beach 128th Street. The furniture pieces would have been tough to carry down the narrow staircase – “but someone had to have gotten them up here,” one of the teens rightly noted – so the guys opened the doors of the small porch and heaved them down on the street.
Many of the volunteers were strangers to each other when they arrived in the Rockaways, but left as friends. Given that so many of them were Irish-born, it was no surprise that six degrees of separation turned out to be more like one or two.
Cha Connaughton, one of the driving forces behind the Shannon Gaels, was talking to Noreen Hussey from Bronxville, who was part of his volunteer group. Turns out that Connaughton, from Williamstown, Co. Galway, knew Hussey’s uncle when he was growing up.
“He was a big strong man, a lovely man, and I remember that he accidentally hit me with a shovel,” Connaughton laughed while one of his sons worked in the background.
Eugene Smyth, a landscaper from Co. Wicklow, was also part of the group. His wife has spent much of her free time helping friends affected by the storm, particularly in Long Beach, Long Island.
“We’ve been trying to give as many people as we can a helping hand,” says Smyth.
The generosity of spirit among the Irish volunteers didn’t go unnoticed by Noreen Doherty, a long-time resident of Beach 122nd Street who stayed in her studio residence for the duration of the storm because “I’m a thick Irish mick,” as she described herself.
“My friends thought I was nuts, but I managed to stay warm. Us Irish are very resourceful.”
Doherty, whose parents hailed from the Donegal Gaeltacht, grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in the Rockaways for 25 years. A retired schoolteacher, she spends lots of time meeting volunteers from all walks of life, and “making new friends,” she says.
“Every time I go out I meet a new friend,” she adds.