St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ellis Island, Castle Garden, and Tammany Hall are on everyone’s list of top Irish places in New York, but this old New Yorker has some other spots that need to be added to the list.
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.
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.
211 Pearl Street – Manhattan
The façade of 211 Pearl is all that’s left of the buildings owned by the Mulligan family of merchants and bankers.
The Mulligans took in Alexander Hamilton and he lived here while attending Kings College (Columbia). Hercules Mulligan made uniforms for British officers during their occupation of New York City during the Revolutionary War but secretly worked for Hamilton.
The Mulligan spy network -- consisting of Hercules, brother Hugh, Haym Solomon, and the Mulligan’s African American servant Cato -- kept Hamilton and Washington informed on the British plans. Allegedly, Cato delivered an urgent message to Hamilton that kept Washington from being captured by the British.
St. Peters – 16 Barclay Street, Manhattan
This is the oldest Catholic church in New York City. Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was received into the Catholic Church here.
“The Crucifixion painting above St. Peter’s main altar … by Mexican artist Jose Vallejo was a gift from the archbishop of Mexico City in 1789.” The Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a former Haitian slave who raised funds to build Old St. Patrick’s, worshiped here. West Point Professor Dennis Hart Mahan was baptized here in 1802.
Though it’s claimed that Mahan was born in New York City, it is very possible he was actually born in Ireland like other Irish of that era including Union army General Phil Sheridan. These may have been the original “Anchor Babies” with baptism in the U.S. staking a claim to citizenship.
“Father William O'Brien, the first pastor, meanwhile earned the gratitude not only of his parishioners but of all the citizens of New York for his tireless devotion to the victims of the yellow fever epidemics that swept New York in 1795 and 1798.”
While there was determined resistance by some to building a Catholic church in New York, the city’s Catholics and St. Peter’s are greatly indebted to the Episcopal Parish of Trinity Church, which provided St. Peter’s with financial and spiritual support during its founding years.
The Old Quaker Meeting House – Northern Boulevard, Flushing, New York
James Michener called the Healy children America’s most remarkable family after the Adamses.
They couldn’t be educated in Georgia, since they were the children of a slave and an Irish immigrant who farmed on the Georgia frontier. The children were sent north to live with relatives and attend the Quaker school in Flushing. They moved on to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, where James Healy became the school’s first valedictorian and later America’s first Roman Catholic bishop of African descent. Brother Patrick became president of Georgetown and turned it into a renowned university. Michael was the real-life hero of Michener’s Alaska, defender of Native Americans, and captain of the Revenue Cutter Bear, an inspiration for Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. The Coast Guard icebreaker and research ship Healy is named for him.
Why Michener had more to say about this than the endowed history departments at Princeton and Columbia is anybody’s guess… but not really.
The Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank – 51 Chambers Street, Manhattan
This bank was formed in 1850 by the Irish Emigrant Society. It is still in business today although the name, location, and ownership have changed.
Fordham University – The Bronx, Lincoln Center, and other campuses
Fordham was founded in 1851 by New York’s Roman Catholic Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes (some say Irish immigrant Hughes was nicknamed “Dagger” John because of his sharp tongue and formidable activism on behalf of Catholic America, but it’s really because he printed a little cross next to his name when he signed letters, really).
Fordham quietly had a profound influence on New York City and United States history. Its alumni, including Ed Flynn and Felix Muldoon, helped elect Franklin Roosevelt and Senator Robert Wagner, sponsor of Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act.
In many respects, Roosevelt’s New Deal was a reflection of Pope Leo’s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum. Fordham can also be proud of its alumnus and Harlem congressman Joseph Gavagan who lent his offices and political support to the NAACP’s Walter White during White’s long campaign to end the lynching of African Americans in America. Fordham is symbolic of a large network of colleges built by the Irish, German, Italians, and French during the 19th century to serve Catholic immigrants.
More would be written about this if these Catholics schools had endowed history departments dedicated to self-promotion like the Ivy League’s... but most Jesuits and a lot of people like my lace curtain Irish grandmother, God bless her soul, wouldn’t be caught dead at a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
More than one Irish lad from Carnegie Hill got sent to Fordham or Holy Cross because cousin Furlong was served meat on Friday at Princeton – this would barely raise an eyebrow during Lent today, but it was a grave insult at the time.
The Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Gardens – adjacent to Fordham University
Fordham University sold New York City the land for the Bronx Zoo for $1,000 with the stipulation that the land be used for a city zoo. Parts of the New York Botanical Gardens were also once owned by Fordham.
St. Vincent’s Hospital – Greenwich Village, Manhattan
It is a tragedy that St. Vincent’s has closed. It was founded during the tenure of Archbishop Hughes and served New York City for over 160 years.
More than this, it is a symbol of the great accomplishments of the Sisters of Charity and other devout Catholic women, their immense contribution to American health care, and the networks of hospitals they built across America.
69th Regiment Armory – 68 Lexington Avenue
“They’ll see the Fighting Irish
are the Fighting Irish Yet.” -- Joyce Kilmer, New York Times, Trees and Other Poems, 69th New York, KIA France, WWI
The soldiers of the 69th Regiment are the original “Fighting Irish,” as most old New Yorkers knew.
It’s the founding regiment of New York City’s Civil War Irish Brigade and lost more killed in combat than any other Union army infantry regiment.
Irish Brigade chaplains took the “Fighting Irish” nickname to Notre Dame. In World War I, it was led by “Wild” Bill Donovan won a Medal of Honor in France, and later headed the OSS during WWII.
Poet Joyce Kilmer and beloved Chaplain Francis Duffy also served in the regiment. The regiment’s armory provided a social gathering place for young people in old New York. A relative of mine “joined the regiment because they had nice dances and then I ended up getting gassed in France.”
The regiment hosted the first televised roller derby matches and the famous 1913 Armory Show – the International Exhibition of Modern Art – that featured the work of Picasso, Cezanne, van Gogh, and many other famous artists. Roller derby, modern art, and the Irish.
St. James Church – 32 James Street, Manhattan
The second oldest Catholic church in New York City. Al Smith was an altar boy here. My great-grandfather worshipped here, too, until he prospered and moved uptown to St. Ignatius Loyola.
Church of St. Ignatius Loyola – Park Avenue and 84 Street
The Irish had arrived in Manhattan’s fashionable Upper East Side, the Silk Stocking District.
The church has been administered by the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, since 1866.
The existing church was dedicated in 1898. Its Baroque interior features Pavonazzo marble, Venetian glass mosaics, and a baptistry designed by Tiffany Company. Its organ is “a landmark liturgical and concert instrument in New York City.”
Astor Place Branch of the New York Public Library – Lafayette Street, New York
This is now the New York Public Theatre.
It’s just around the corner from McSorley’s Old Ale House. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the son of West Point professor Dennis Hart Mahan, researched the Naval War College lectures here that became his famous work The Influence of Sea Power on History.
Mahan was a confidant of Theodore Roosevelt and is regarded as “the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century.” He is father of the modern United States Navy, Europe’s lifeline to liberty and our shield against fascism during World War II.
Mahan Hall at the United States Naval Academy is named for him.
Nursery and Child’s Hospital – Manhattan
Eamon de Valera, Irish nationalist and President of the Republic, was born here in 1882 to an Irish mother and a Spanish father. They lived at 61 East 41st Street.
The hospital once stood at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street before merging with New York Hospital, which has also done well by the Irish. It’s interesting to note that de Valera was brought into the world at an institution founded and run by a benevolent English woman, Mary Ann Delafield Dubois.
Duffy Square – North end of Times Square, Manhattan
This New York landmark honors Father Francis Duffy, World War I chaplain of New York’s 69th Regiment. Some may think there’s symbolism in placing Father’s Duffy statue at the front door of what was once the headquarters of the New York Times newspaper. However, Father Duffy loved Broadway, its actors and was pastor of nearby Holy Cross Church in Hell’s Kitchen.
Calvary Cemetery – Woodside, Queens
This is hallowed ground, not a favorite place. In the winter when we buried the dead, it was as bleak and cold as the opening scenes of Doctor Zhivago. 3,000,000 New Yorkers are buried here.
Before the city’s magnificent water supply system was built, the cholera-ridden water could kill you. Children were hit the hardest. The trustees of Old St. Patrick’s bought land in Queens starting in 1846 to bury the many who died.
The Soldiers Monument at the center of the cemetery with figures sculpted by Daniel Draddy is replicated at New York’s Green-Wood cemetery. Many prominent Catholics are buried here including Senator Robert Wagner, sponsor of Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act.
Wagner was born an ordinary German, married Irish, and was buried Catholic. His son, the last Irish Mayor of New York City (to date) and an advocate of fair housing, is buried here, too.
And, as a bonus ... Gettysburg - Pennslyvania
The great monument to the bloodiest battle fought on American soil owes its first preservation efforts to New York’s famous rascal-hero-philanderer Dan Sickles. Sickles was descended from an old Dutch family, but he was very much a part of New York’s Irish community. In 1852 in a ceremony conducted by Archbishop Hughes, Sickles married the alleged “natural” daughter of Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, a good friend of Dr. William MacNeven.
In 1859, after Sickles shot and killed his wife’s lover, the son of Francis Scott Key, his attorney, the exiled Irish rebel Thomas Meagher, saved Sickles with the first successful temporary insanity defense in American history.
When the Civil War broke out, Meagher took command of New York City’s Irish Brigade, and Sickle’s organized its German-Irish counterpart, the Excelsior Brigade. Both were heavily engaged and bloodied at Gettysburg. Sickle’s lost his leg during the fighting and dedicated much of the rest of his life to promoting his own reputation and preserving the battlefield.
But what Gettysburg meant to old New York might be summed up in the deeds of a much less flamboyant player, James E. Mallon, who served in the city’s Mozart Hall regiment and on March 17, 1863, was made colonel of the Tammany Hall regiment, which led the Union counterattack on the deciding day of the Gettysburg Battle. Brigadier General Mallon was killed in action at Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863. The inimitable Dan Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor, and died in 1914; the old rascal’s funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, attended by a large crowd and military procession.
*Originally published in October 2011. Last updated in July 2023.
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