Tony Casey is talking about his grandfather, who raised him in Ireland. Perpetually grumpy from 14-hour shifts in the barbershop, he had few tender words for his kin in that little house in Listowel.
Eventually it was time for Casey, then 23, to depart for New York. “Grandpa was lying in his bed with his legs rotting away from cancer, fingering his rosary beads. All he said was, ‘Mind yourself, boy.’ But his eyes were full of tears.”
Casey tells stories like this one as part of Anam Cara (Gaelic for “soul friend”), a performance by Irish immigrants living in Yonkers and the north Bronx.
Since the late 1980s, an immigration boomlet has brought many young Irish to the neighborhood.
McLean Avenue, which meanders from the Bronx border through Yonkers, is lined with Irish gift shops, pubs, and small, shamrock-adorned businesses that offer newcomers the comforts of a “little Irish village,” says Linda McCormack of the Aisling Irish Center. Men come for construction jobs, young women to babysit and wait tables. Siobhan Dennehy of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodlawn estimates the neighborhood is three-quarters Irish. They stay for the craic, the uniquely Irish fun that storytelling, singing and joking add to a warm pint.
Their brogue-laced stories got to Holly Villaire, a theater director and drama instructor at Mercy College. After overhearing young neighbors swapping arrival tales, she invited some to perform with her stage company, Hamm and Clov.
They were shy. She planted herself at their kitchen tables with a tape recorder and helped work through stage fright. And she recruited Dermot Henry, a well-known singer and pub entertainer, to up the blarney quotient.
The result was Anam Cara, a pastiche of memories and song overlaid on a traditional Irish instrumental backdrop. The telling and singing of stories, says Henry, are pillars of Irish culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
Casey’s story is bittersweet. He eventually found a construction job, but then injured his back. Out of work, he turned to telling stories, particularly about the revolving door between Ireland and the Bronx.
Future storytellers, however, may tell of returning home for good. Since 9/11, “there’s no work in the building trades,” says Casey, adding that plenty of people are heading back to Ireland.
Still, he notes, a new generation is ready to replace the returnees since the Irish economy, suffering from the collapse of the 1990’s tech boom, isn’t doing great, either.
Whatever the situation, Irish people will keep on swapping tales in New York, Henry says. The craic will not dry up soon. “For us, storytelling is genetic.”