My first ancestors arrived in New York when Margaret and Michael Manning fled the Great Famine. Margaret Manning, their daughter and my paternal grandmother, was born in 1863, in the village of Fordham—at that time part of Westchester County—and baptized in the university church. (It was then called St. John’s College.) My grandfather Patrick Quinn, a union organizer, was born in Tipperary in 1859. His family emigrated to New York in 1870. He married Margaret Manning, a seamstress, in St. Brigid’s church, on the Lower East Side, in 1899. They moved to the Bronx in 1914, where they bought a small house in the West Farms neighborhood which, despite its name, was absent all things agricultural.
Contra the notion of Irish obsession with ancestry, my family showed little interest in the past. My mother had an active disinterest, routinely tossing out documents and obfuscating or bowdlerizing the fate of relatives who fell victim to impoverishment or their own misbehaviors (or both). The primary focus of my parents and grandparents wasn’t on the Irish past but the American future, and their children’s role in it.
My father recalled that as a boy on the Lower East Side he shared a room with his older brother in which they rarely stayed. My grandparents hosted relative after relative as they arrived from Ireland, until none were left to bring over. If my grandfather heard anyone sentimentalizing about the old country his instant riposte was, “If you miss it so much, why don’t you go back?” Romantic Ireland didn’t ring very convincingly in crowded tenement rooms.
Catherine Riordan of Blarney, County Cork, landed at Castle Garden in 1888. (It would be four years before Ellis Island opened and processed its first immigrant, Annie Moore, also of County Cork.) Though Catherine claimed to be eighteen, it’s more likely she was fifteen or sixteen and lied about her age so she could join her older sister as a domestic and begin sending remittances home to finance her siblings’ journeys. She stayed at maid’s work until she met James Murphy, a native-Irish speaker from near Macroom, who worked as a mechanic at Yorkville’s Rupert Brewery. My mother, Viola Murphy, the last of their six children, was born on the top floor of a four-story walkup on 149th Street, in the Bronx.
Coming of age in the 1920s, my parents belonged to the first truly modern generation. Electricity rolled back night and blazed the Great White Way. New appliances alleviated the burden of ancient drudgeries. Movies and radio revolutionized entertainment. Cars and airplanes shrank old barriers of distance. Credit and the installment plan made commonplace what were once luxuries. People’s expectations rose exponentially. The population of the Bronx tripled to 1.2 million in 1930 from 400,000 in 1910. Progress and prosperity were presumed, with America in the vanguard, and Jazz Age New York ahead of all.
While none of my grandparents went beyond primary school, my parents graduated from college. My father received a B.S. in civil engineering from Manhattan College (despite its name, it’s in the Bronx) and worked on the construction of the IND subway while attending Fordham Law School at night. My mother was a classics major at Mt. Saint Vincent, in Riverdale. They met in 1928 at a parish St. Patrick’s Day dance in the Bronx. They loved nightclubs, the theater—musicals, the Marx Brothers, Shakespeare—and reveled in the speakeasy hubbub in which my mother’s bartender brother was much admired for his skill as a mixologist.
The presumption that they had escaped their ancestors’ world—a chronicle of unhappy endings that culminated in starvation and migration—was rocked by the Crash of ’29 and the Great Depression. My mother lost her small savings as a teacher when the Edgewater Savings Bank folded. Her immigrant father lost his life savings, the accumulation of forty years working in a brewery. Pensionless, he worked until he died. My two aunts, one a teacher, the other a secretary, stayed unwed and at home to support my grandmother.
Though he had an engineering and law degree, my father struggled to find a full-time job. He volunteered with the local Democratic Club. Edward J. Flynn, the formidable Fordham-educated leader (aka “The Boss”) of the Bronx Democratic organization and a confidante of Governor Franklin Roosevelt, took a liking to him. Flynn sent my father to the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as part of a contingent that worked behind the scenes to keep the New York delegation in line for FDR. My father campaigned hard for FDR, speaking around the city from the back of a flatbed truck. In 1936, he was elected to the State Assembly. A week after the election, eight years after they met, my parents were married.
My father spent the rest of his life in Bronx politics, serving in the assembly until 1944, then a term in the U.S. Congress (he was one of the two congressmen from New York who rode FDR’s funeral train to Hyde Park), and the rest of his career as a judge of the Municipal Court, chief judge of the City Court, and a justice of the State Supreme Court. He was at home in the Bronx, in the parish in which he grew up.
His obituary in the New York Times states that his “associates described him as a witty and brilliant man who loved to sing Irish songs and tell Irish stories.” My father and mother were both fine singers and dancers. The songs were mainly from Broadway shows or The Great American Songbook, the dances foxtrots and waltzes, not reels and jigs. The “Irish songs” weren’t folk tunes but Irish-American favorites like “Harrigan,” “Galway Bay,” and their all-time favorite, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” (lyrics by Jewish songwriter E. Y. Harberg). The stories my father excelled at telling—stories salted with theatrical mastery of dialects—rarely involved Ireland (when they did, they were ghost stories) and rose instead from his life amid the mishegas of Bronx politics.
I took for granted that the Irish-American world my family existed in for over a century would remain as it was. The election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 felt like a capstone. Shortly before the election, Kennedy spoke at the Concourse Plaza. My father, running in his last election for the state Supreme Court, also spoke. Afterwards, Kennedy traveled up the Grand Course on the back of a convertible, a quaintly distant, pre-Dallas image. My friends and I stood in front of the Loew’s Paradise, a movie palace that has since then been stripped and defaced, and helped swell the panethnic delirium that arose when Kennedy mounted a platform in front of the long-vanished Sachs Furniture and Krum’s Candy stores.
Permanence of any kind is the grandest of illusions. What was different about the Bronx was the velocity with which the illusion crumbled. The origins of the Bronx as one of the city’s five boroughs (the only one on the U.S. mainland) were obscure even to Bronxites. I heard passing mention among my elders of “annexation” and “consolidation,” but the hardedge, unremitting brick-on-brick streetscapes disguised its overnight transformation from pastoral to metropolitan and made it seem pretty much the same since the Dutch forcibly evicted the peaceable, innocent Lenapes.
The centrifugal swirl that memory insists descended suddenly, like a fast-moving storm, had been building for some time. The pharaonic schemes of Robert Moses carried traffic around and across the Bronx to Long Island and New Jersey. The fund-starved, once-efficient public-transit system creaked and sputtered. FHA mortgages spurred the upwardly mobile, suburban aspirations of would-be homeowners and at the same time maintained and abetted the enduring injustice of residential apartheid that condemned minorities to a decaying, substandard housing stock.
Economic change drove social change, and reinforced it. Vatican II altered our unalterable church. Priests and nuns molted back into civilians. Parishioners moved away. Once-thriving parishes became enfeebled. Rock ’n’ roll and the sexual revolution made the generation gap seem more like a chasm. Crime, and fear of it, escalated. The Concourse Plaza became a welfare hotel. The celluloid Bronx of Marty and A Catered Affair, the home of good-hearted working-class stiffs, descended into Fort Apache, The Bronx, a crime-ridden wasteland ruled by drug addicts and crooked cops. Formerly a synonym for low-rent blah, the borough was now “the burning Bronx,” a global synecdoche for urban ruin.
The future fled the Bronx. Friends moved away or never returned from college. Soon enough I followed, serving as a VISTA volunteer in Kansas City. Beckoned by the beautiful and new—everything the Bronx wasn’t—I felt the lure of California. It was then, for the first time, I thought about what I was leaving behind: the saga of the Atlantic passover from poverty and subservience to steerage and immigrant tenements; those who made it, those who didn’t, those whose names I knew, those I didn’t. I turned my footsteps home and returned to New York.
I attended Bronx Catholic institutions from kindergarten to the last stages of a PhD. Though they were all founded or largely staffed by Irish and Irish Americans, my first encounter with Irish history was in a college course on Victorian Britain. The past was a blur. It was as if we emerged from the shadows and fully entered history when we came to the Bronx.
My threadbare connection to Michael Manning, my great-grandfather, was my father’s memory of him as a blind old man, quiet and gentle, who never talked about what led him to emigrate other than to say that he would never think about going back “until they hanged the last landlord.” Except that he was born in pre-famine Ireland and emigrated before the Civil War, all I knew of him was a line in the census—“occupation: laborer”—and the place of his death on January 10, 1910: 296 East 7th Street, a long-ago demolished tenement. I later learned the name Manning was an errant transcription of Mangan that, for whatever reason, stuck. The rest was silence.