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Jersey’s Irish Riviera stays strong after Hurricane Sandy -- Irish flags still licking the salty air as community Jersey Shore assesses the devastating damage

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Sand now covers homes and streets along the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy
Sand now covers homes and streets along the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy
I consider myself ridiculously fortunate to live in a section of the Jersey Shore known as the Irish Riviera. This section of Monmouth County has one of the highest Irish American populations per capita in the nation, as evidenced by the number of Irish flags licking the salty air as it blows through the expansive porches of the vast Victorian homes that dot the shoreline.

Of course, that shoreline has changed forever with the relentless onslaught of Hurricane Sandy last week.  I just came in after riding my bicycle (the National Guard closed off the area to car traffic) through my broken and battered town.

There was not one board on the boardwalk here in Spring Lake. The boards, benches and rails that used to sit perched atop the concrete pilings were now in mangled piles two blocks from the beach. Bulldozers pushed shrouds of sand back out to sea from the blacktop on Ocean Avenue.

Further down the shoreline, boardwalk amusements hang like broken limbs on buckled piers. These spots you will likely know, as they have gained a certain infamy on MTV’s Jersey Shore.
For me and millions of Jerseyans, this is the sacred carpet of sand you raked with your fingers as the dawn ushered in the morning after your high school prom.  Those memories are now washed out to sea, and while it is our way here in the Garden State to come back stronger after adversity, it is both heartbreaking and difficult for myself and many others to comprehend that the unique landscape immortalized in those Bruce Springsteen songs is now gone forever.

The winds surely spat and hissed at the Irish flags that flew in the skies above our town during this terrifying storm, but like the motherland they represent they remain defiant and strong in the face of such adversity.

I also saw plenty of examples of Irish resiliency closer to the ground.

As my family sat in the dark, huddled closely to the lone fireplace emitting any warmth in the house, I reflected on how similar these living conditions were to the rural life of my parents before they moved from remote outposts like Ballyglunin (Co. Galway) and Ballylanders (Co. Limerick). Uncluttered by the distractions of electronic gadgetry zapping our attention span everywhere you looked, the family had random conversations and easy laughter that forged new pathways with my wife and daughters. Fortunately my relationship with all of them was excellent before the storm, yet I found myself falling in love with each one of them all over again.

No wonder the Irish race of the previous generation have either strong bonds or deep-seeded resentments with their siblings; one can only imagine how intimately you would come to know one another if you found yourself huddled in a pack with the same people over a turf fire night after night!

The street lights were snuffed out with these electrical outages and the inky blackness outside reminded me of the evening windows at my Uncle Mattie’s house on the margins of the bog land. It’s the same view that WB Yeats had from Thoor Baylee, the castle he occupied in nearby Gort. What a gift a night sky uncluttered by modern electrical grids is to the creative spirit!

In the absence of color you can imagine an active’s writer’s mind filling the void with vivid words, sonnets, songs and stories. As the street lamps return, I find myself missing the velvety darkness.

When I attended my cousins’ weddings in Ireland, it always amazed me to watch neighbors from miles around wave in front of the bonfires they set in their driveways as the newlyweds drove past them. It provided a stark contrast to the insular way we live in our American neighborhoods, where being related to one another is not much more than nodding the head and smiling politely as you scoot into your house with the groceries before the neighbor decides to strike up a chat in your driveway.

The storm brought us together with the good people on our block, Irish style! I found myself happily dismantling the elaborate awnings of my elderly Italian neighbors prior to the storm, and I was rewarded that night with a container of “Sunday gravy” with meatballs bobbing in the succulent tomato sauce. I drank so much whiskey and beer with the folks in my cul de sac over the last few nights that my liver took out flood insurance!

Hurricane Sandy toppled many trees on the lawns of homes here in the Irish Riviera, revealing deep and long-buried roots. Despite the waves of grief that crash into your soul amidst the devastation at every turn, I feel fortunate to have connected with the traditions of family time by the hearth and a sense of community within one’s village that are such an essential part of our Irish roots.

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