Irish Toast a Summer Paradise Lost in the Rockaways
On Sunday, a little more than 200 people gathered in the Knights of Columbus hall on Beach 90th Street in the Rockaways to dance, have a drink and travel back in time to Irish Town, a cluster of bars and bungalows that served as a summer refuge for Irish New Yorkers until it was razed 50 years ago to make way for high-rise apartments.
To hear the recollections, one would think Irish Town was a piece of heaven in Queens that had dropped out of the sky and nestled along the boardwalk from Beach 116th Street to Rockaways Playland. (Not to be confused with the Irishtown in Woodside, Queens.)
Hordes of working-class Irish — immigrants and their children — streamed out of buses and trains and found an escape from the hot tenements of pre-air-conditioned New York. They spent weekends in bungalows and rooming houses and passed the hot days on the beach.
“Irish Town, U.S.A., was a bit of heaven on earth,” said John Baxter, who helped organize the reunion. “A bunch of us said, ‘Why do we only see each other at wakes and weddings? Let’s have a reunion.’ ”
Mr. Baxter, who came over from County Clare in 1954 when he was 17, played many of the songs he used to perform in the Irish Town bars. Couples, many of them in their 80s and many who met and married in Irish Town, danced some careful jigs and reels and Lindy Hops.
At one table, the McGee sisters — Mary, Ann and Veronica — looked at faded pictures of their old gang. The sisters lived in the Bronx but spent summers in a cold-water bungalow on Beach 99th Street that they rented for $50 a summer.
“We all met our husbands in Irish Town,” said Mary, 70, who was 13 when she met a 16-year-old Greek boy named Harry Aretakis, whose family traveled from the Inwood section of Manhattan to a rooming house on Beach 103rd Street each summer. They were married six years later.
“You swam all day and danced all night,” she said. “When we girls were too young to drink, we’d stand outside the bars and they’d let us in just to dance, not to go to the bar, and we had to leave when the music stopped.”
Mr. Aretakis, 73, added: “There were no guns or knives. If you couldn’t fight, you didn’t come. And the bartenders were all huge. Not one was under 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, and if there was any problem, they’d be over the bar in a heartbeat.”
Like many visitors to Irish Town, George Lang, 67, lived in a railroad apartment on the West Side of Manhattan — his family paid $38 a month — and worked on the waterfront. Mr. Lang, whose father was a tugboat captain, became a longshoreman.
“My relatives were sea people from County Wicklow, and in New York they gravitated to the piers, the waterfront,” he said. “All my friends met their wives down in Irish Town. Back then, all the families seemed to know each other. The mothers would tell each other, ‘If my kid needs a smack, you give it to him.’ You don’t have that today.”
Beers were a nickel, he said, and since the bars, like the Dublin House, Flynn & McLoughlin’s, Gildeas, Leitrim Castle, the Shamrock, O’Gara’s and O’Donnell’s, stocked the same-size glasses, customers could roam from one bar to another to buy discounted refills.
At another table at the Knights of Columbus on Sunday, Patrick McGrath, 80, told of how he grew up, one of 12 children, on a farm in the County Mayo town of Cong, where the movie “The Quiet Man” was filmed. He came to New York as a teenager, and he met his wife, Margaret, in Irish Town.
“If you got arrested for fighting, we had a police captain who was very religious,” Mr. McGrath explained. “He’d take you to Mass the next morning and then let you go without a ticket.”
The Rockaways, which was known as the Irish Riviera, “was a paradise for the Irish,” he said, “but the subway ruined that.”
Sister Peggy Tully and her identical twin, Mary Kelly, both 64, emphasized that Irish Town was not all about drinking. “It was good, clean fun,” she said. “I would see people on the boardwalk saying the rosary.”
Ray Sullivan, whose father, Tom, owned Sullivan’s bar, said, “Irish Town died after a lot of people got more money and were able to vacation farther away.”