St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ellis Island, Castle Garden and Tammany Hall are on everyone’s list of top New York Irish places. An old New Yorker has some other spots that need to be added to the list.
The Empire State Building – Fifth Avenue and 34th Street
Construction on the Empire State building started on March 17, 1930. Former governor Al Smith headed the construction committee and Jim Farley’s company supplied the building materials. As everyone knows, Smith was the first Irish Catholic to run for President of the United States. He was also the first Italian and German American to run for the office. Farley had a smile for everyone and never forgot a name. He was Roosevelt’s savvy campaign manager who quipped, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.” A lot less well known is that when Farley headed the New York State Athletic Commission, he took a politically risky stand and refused to let Dempsey fight Tunney until Dempsey fought African-American contender Harry Wills. The fight was moved to Philadelphia where Dempsey lost his title to Tunney in 1926.
The Riker Homestead and Cemetery – East Elmhurst, Queens, New York
Built around 1654 by Abraham Riker, a Dutch immigrant, it is believed to be the oldest inhabited dwelling in America (or at least the United States). Take a right turn before the Rikers Island bridge and you’re in the neighborhood. Riker’s descendants singlehandedly made the expression “Melting Pot” a reality. Their lives intersected with the Inmans and Edgar Allen Poe. They married Kellys and O’Brians long before Jane Margaret Riker married Dr. James MacNeven, a leader of the United Irishmen who is buried in the cemetery adjoining the Riker house. Wolfe Tone’s son and daughter-in-law were buried here for a time, too, before being moved to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn where Wolfe Tone’s wife Matilda is buried.
At St. Paul’s Chapel, Episcopal Parish of Trinity Church, there is also a memorial to the widely admired Dr. MacNeven. The inscription reads:
Dr. William James MacNeven (b. 1763 Galway, Ireland – d. NYC 1841) is known as the father of modern chemistry. His ancestors were driven by Cromwell from the North of Ireland where they had large land holdings At the age of 12, he was sent abroad by his uncle because education for Catholics was impossible in Ireland. His uncle, who was a baron and an Irish exile physician, was made an Austrian noble by Empress Maria Theresa. MacNeven made his collegiate studies at Prague, his medical studies at Vienna. In 1784, he returned to Dublin to practice, became involved in revolutionary events and was arrested and jailed. He spent three years in jail and was released in 1803. He went to Paris and sought an interview with Napoleon Bonaparte to get French troops for Ireland, but Bonaparte refused to help. He entered the French Army as a surgeon-captain in the Irish Brigade. He went to New York in 1805 [along with his friend and fellow United Irishman Thomas Addis Emmet, who became the most prominent New York attorney of his era].
In 1807, Dr. MacNeven delivered a course of lectures on clinical medicine in the recently established College of Physicians and Surgeons. He became the professor of chemistry. Later he taught at Rutgers. He was co-editor for many years of the 'New York Medical and Philosophical Journal.' MacNeven was an active Roman Catholic. He was active in many Irish societies. In 1827, he opened a free registry office for the benefit of Irish domestic servants. This service also included directions for naturalization.
MacNeven's best known contribution to science is his 'Exposition of the Atomic Theory' (New York, 1820), which was reprinted in the French 'Annales de Chimie.' In 1821, he published with emendations an edition of Brande's 'Chemistry' (New York, 1829). His literary works — 'Rambles through Switzerland' (Dublin, 1803); 'Pieces of Irish History' (New York, 1807) and his numerous political tracts — made him known.
Perhaps we’d have read more about this if the Rikers had endowed a chair in Yale or Columbia’s history department. Russell Shorto’s excellent work on the Dutch contribution to New York City, liberty and diversity, The Island at the Center of the World, was long overdue.
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