Austin Delaney: He was Mayo's Finest

Posted by Niall O'Dowd at 5/19/2009 5:05 AM EDT

Austin Delaney died on Friday May 15 in New York and the world is a much poorer place.
He was a great Irishman, a proud son of Mayo, who was one of Manhattan's most successful Irish businessmen. He co-founded Rosie O'Gradys and Harbor Lights, to name but two incredibly successful ventures.

He was so widely known for his business acumen that when he sold out his business in Ireland a few summers back we all instinctively knew the Celtic Tiger was over before the doctors of economics did. Austin could sense the prevailing trends better than the federal reserve.

But the business skill was only a minor part of the man. One story I loved involved an Irish immigrant who had fallen on hard times and was in the final throes of a battle with cancer. Austin never knew the man, but heard about this plight and visited him right until the end.

That was a typical gesture. There are so many bar owners and successful small businessmen in New York who owe their success to him. It was always done quietly, a nudge in the direction of a certain premises, a quiet word in the ear of a well known Irish businessman that maybe this young lad out from Ireland deserved a chance. He'd be the first to deny he had anything to do with it.

I experienced it myself when I started the Irish Voice newspaper back in the 1980s.
Harbor Lights, Austin's beautiful flagship premises in South Street Seaport looking out on the East River, advertised every week for the first few years. There was no reason for it, the clientele of his establishment were Wall Street types who hardly read an immigrant newspaper. That didn't matter to Austin Delaney.'Shure aren't you doing the right thing?' he told me one time -- 'looking out for our own' -- that was Austin.

And the horses-- my God the horses. No one knew them better.On a pouring wet day at the Breeders Cup in Belmont a few years back I met him at the parade ring. He was looking intently at the horses feet. ' Big hooves means they can get through the muck much better ' he whispered to me pointing at one filly -- 'that girl there will surely win.'
The filly was called Ridgewood Pearl and she won in a canter.

Austin owned two great fillies, Irish Actress and Irish Linnet both trained by fellow Irishman Leo O'Brien. Every year he brought them to Saratoga and every year they won. They won two stakes races on the same day two years in a row if my memory serves me right. Afterwards we all gathered at The Parting Glass and had one of the best parties I can ever remember.

For years I'd watch out for the Mayo colors of an Austin Delaney horse. if they were bet it was a sure sign they were ready to run for their lives. Saratoga will not be the same this summer without him and his great family.

He had the same routine every time we met. He knew a pair of brothers from Mayo I knew when I lived in San Francisco. Every conversation would start off with Austin tugging my sleeve and asking me if I had heard from them.

Then he'd laugh at some story about the pair of them and off we'd go, horse racing, gaelic football, his beloved Mayo, the news from Ireland and always an inquiry about how everything was going, and about whether the young Irish undocumented needed any help. Many checks were quietly written-- more than I will ever know. He was that kind of man.

And he loved the singing-- he hadn't a note himself, but a good Irish sing song late in the evening, got the juices flowing. A well known bar manager I knew well had the misfortune to have a wonderful singing voice. Austin would sometimes show up and demand a ballad before closing time. Because the man was working he couldn't refuse not that he wanted to anyway.

He'd clear his throat and the sophisticated Americans would look on in wonder as he broke into 'The Fields of Athenry' or some such number . . soon they'd all join in. We had some fun those nights.

His own premises were beautiful. He and Mike Carty transformed Rosie O'Gradys into the finest establishment in town. Harbor Lights was a credit, a beautiful upscale restaurant where we were always so proud to bring family members for special occasions.

It was always better when Austin was on, nothing was too much trouble and there was always time to chat about things back home.

My mother loved him, always asked for him when I went back to Ireland. He plied her with champagne when he found out it was her birthday during one visit long ago and the craic was ninety as the Irish say.

A friend met him recently and reported him as upbeat as ever despite his illness. They sat and watched a cowboy movie -- Austin loved good cowboy movies -- and talked about the old times back in Mayo.

We've lost a few great Mayo people in recent years, Frank Durkan, the great lawyer and partner of Paul O'Dwyer was another as well as Paul himself of course.
If there's a heaven there is place there reserved for people like Austin and Frank and Paul. They embodied everything good about Irishmen I have met in this life.

In that Mayo heaven, the Sam Maguire finally crosses the Shannon again and rests in Castlebar, Austin's horse is favorite for the feature at Saratoga and the sing song and craic is about to begin because the Brits have just announced they have pulled out of Ireland. It will be some night
So long and Godspeed Austin, you were one of the greats.

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