Terry Connaughton is a beloved fixture in New York’s Irish American community, and next weekend his Riverdale Steakhouse celebrates its 40th anniversary. Debbie McGoldrick talks to the Roscommon native about his life, family, business and, of course, the GAA.
It's safe to say that the overwhelming majority of eighty-somethings are content to take life easy, happy to enjoy their golden years free of commitment, especially to a job or a business.
And then there’s the one and only Terry Connaughton, a New York treasure by way of Athleague, Co. Roscommon who wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he didn’t still own and operate the beloved Riverdale Steakhouse in the Bronx, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary under the stewardship of the Connaughton family the weekend of October 11-13.
Connaughton is 86 years young. He’s in the Steakhouse, “oh, four or five times a day,” he told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
“But that’s easy for me. My house is only 100 yards down the street. I love it. I don’t want to have time to twiddle my thumbs.”
Connaughton is a generous boss, though – just ask his wife of 54 years, Anne, a native of Co. Meath who he met in the stands of Gaelic Park in 1963. It’s impolite to ask a lady her age, but it’s safe to assume that Anne is somewhere around her husband’s chronological neighborhood.
Anne only works six and a half days a week at the Steakhouse, Terry reports. “And every Sunday morning she’s there early, baking the Irish soda bread,” he reveals. “Nobody works harder than Anne. A great worker with a capital W, a great woman, a great mother.”
New York’s vibrant Irish community back in the 1950s-1960s was built on the shoulders of immigrants like Terry Connaughton. Many of them came to America due to similar economic woes which were particularly acute in his case.
One of five children – four boys and a girl – born and bred in Athleague, Terry was 10 years old when his father, a hackney car driver, died. The surviving kids weren’t old enough to operate the vehicle, so the family found it very tough to make ends meet.
Four Connaughtons – all boys – immigrated to America. The lone daughter stayed behind with her mother.
Terry made the trans-Atlantic journey in 1952 when he was 19. He didn’t have much of a choice. Opportunity was zilch in Roscommon.
“Times were very tough and we were very poor,” he remembers. “My mother did the best that she could. Of course, she was lonely when we left. I sent money back regularly to her, and when I could afford it I did that weekly. We all made it a point to take care of her once we got to America.”
The draft was in full swing when Connaughton made his way to New York City. He decided to register right away, and sure enough, he was drafted. The Korean War was going on at the time, and he was sent to Germany in 1953.
He did his service, and as an added benefit, given the proximity to Germany, he was able to return home to Roscommon on two occasions in 1954 – a trip many Irish in America would have relished at the time.
After his service was complete, Connaughton returned to New York and took the sage advice of the Irish who paved the city’s streets before him.
“The older guys told me that it would be a good idea for me to join the NYPD, or the FDNY, or the New York Telephone Company or Con Edison,” he remembers.
“There were a lot of Irish in those jobs at the time, and they came with benefits and a pension. Looking back, it was pretty good advice.”
Indeed it was. Connaughton became an NYPD beat cop in Times Square for 12 years. The tourist mecca is gleaming now, but back in the day, it was anything but. Petty crime was rampant, which seems almost quaint given today’s realities of gun and drug-related violence.
“I loved my time in Times Square,” Connaughton remembers. “There were a lot of Irish cops around. They were good times. I lived in Inwood, in upper Manhattan. We used to go to City Center for the Irish dances.”
In 1975, Connaughton was moved from Times Square to a new beat that was troublesome at the time – the proliferation of gypsy cabs. For this assignment, he got to walk the streets of the city in plain clothes.
“There used to be cars with lights in their windows. They were illegal. So I got assigned to that NYPD unit. We had to hail a car, get into it, say where you wanted to go and the driver gives you a price,” Connaughton said.
“And after that, we gave him a ticket for picking up illegally. It wasn’t a nice thing to do really, but that was the law and what we were getting paid to do.”
After 20 years on the NYPD force, Connaughton retired. He felt it was time for a change, and he had a few irons in the fire.
Mike Carty is another legendary Irishman who made his way to Manhattan not long after Connaughton. A native of Aughavas, Co. Leitrim, he’s best known as the proprietor of Rosie O’Grady’s on Seventh Avenue and 52nd Street which to this day is a requisite stop for anyone looking for a classic Irish pub in the city.
Connaughton went to work for Carty after he finished in the NYPD and took an instant liking to the hospitality trade.
Living in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood at the time, Connaughton also operated a small local bar called the Innisfree. “I used to say that it was free to get in, but it costs you to get out,” he laughs.
The accountants he employed to keep the Innisfree books had a tip on a potentially bigger opportunity. The Co. Carlow-born brothers who ran a pretty decent pub-restaurant on Riverdale Avenue in the Bronx were looking to sell in 1979. Perhaps Connaughton would be interested in taking it over?
“I checked it out and liked what I saw. And that’s how we started. And we didn’t change the name from the Riverdale Steakhouse. It was successful as it was,” he recalls.
Terry, Anne and their brood of five made their way slightly north from Inwood to Riverdale to operate the business. The kids – three boys, two girls – grew up washing dishes, busing tables and having lots of their daily meals at the Steakhouse.
In 1986, a fire in the kitchen necessitated a three-month closure. It also presented the opportunity to expand the Steakhouse into the next-door building.
Connaughton rents the property from the same family, “very nice people,” he says. “It wouldn’t be as easy to operate a business like ours in Manhattan, or for as long.”
Times have definitely changed during the 40 years Connaughton has been a restaurateur. Irish bars and restaurants were omnipresent in the eighties and nineties, supported by a wave of immigrants from home. Those days are more or less over.
“There was a big place right across the street from us, owned by guys from Mayo. It’s gone now. There’s not too much around us anymore,” Connaughton says.
The Steakhouse draws customers of all nationalities looking for a friendly, casual place with good food. It’s in a very residential area so many customers are local.
How did the Connaughtons keep their business going when many similar ones fell by the wayside?
“We just worked at it and tried to always give our customers what they want. My family was and is very involved and that helped too. I don’t have any magic secrets, just hard work and always doing your best,” Terry says.
The good times and memorable moments have been plenty. The Steakhouse has hosted all kinds of dignitaries from Ireland, including Taoiseach Brian Cowen, the late actress Maureen O’Hara -- who made her way to the Steakhouse the night of March 17, 1999, after leading the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Day parade as grand marshal – the actor Robert Mitchum and Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York.
The 2014 film God’s Pocket, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was partially filmed at the Steakhouse. Connaughton even scored a role as an extra because he got on so well with the director, John Slattery. And the Showtime series City on a Hill, starring Kevin Bacon, also used the restaurant for a location.
“I like Kevin Bacon. He’s a real nice guy,” Connaughton says.
No story on Terry Connaughton would be complete without including his beloved GAA. Simply put, the New York GAA wouldn’t be the same without him, and the Ladies GAA wouldn’t exist at all.
After emigrating he played hurling and even competed for the New York all-star team, picking up where he left off in Roscommon where he was one of the county’s star hurlers.
Connaughton has held every position possible on the New York Board, and for years the Steakhouse has hosted the weekly GAA meetings. Under his leadership, the New York Board affiliated itself with GAA headquarters at Croke Park, a major development that allowed New York to compete in the Connacht Senior Football Championship which takes place on the first Sunday of May each year at Gaelic Park.
In 1991, Connaughton took it upon himself to start the Ladies GAA, noting that other cities like Boston and Philadelphia already had leagues.
“It was crazy that New York didn’t so I just thought we’d have to get going here,” he says.
The Ladies GAA took off like a rocket and is thriving to this day. Connaughton’s two daughters Eileen and Mary-Anne were players, and what he finds particularly pleasing is how young Irish Americans have embraced Gaelic games. That’s been all the more important given that immigration from Ireland has drastically slowed.
“It’s great to see the kids loving it and doing so well. I was just up at Gaelic Park for a Junior B semifinal and there were so many Irish American players. That’s been very important for the GAA,” he says.
If he’s not at the Steakhouse, chances are that Connaughton can be found at Gaelic Park watching a game. And his regular trips to Ireland usually have a GAA component – he was back in September for the All-Ireland football final.
“Well, the GAA is a very big part of my life and has given me so much. I’m not going to change now!” he laughs.
Terry and Anne’s kids – in addition to Eileen and Mary-Ann, they have Terry, Eamon and Donal – have given them 14 grandchildren. Many of them are local; indeed, Mary-Anne owns her own Irish gift shop right next door to the Steakhouse which has been going strong for 29 years.
After next weekend’s 40th anniversary celebrations at the Steakhouse, Connaughton will surely be gearing up for the next milestone, the big 50. He laughs at the question.
“Sure, why not!” he says.