Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Manhattan Churches

Last week I attended my first ever wedding in New York,  the City aptly called the “Great Apple” by Jazz Musicians of another era.  If the city setting for the wedding was unique in so far as I was concerned, it was a uniqueness further magnified when the wedding party gathered under the open sky at the highest point in Fort Tyron Park in upper Manhattan.  The Park occupies a portion of the site of the revolutionary battlefield of Washington Heights and features a varied landscape which takes full advantage of a spectacular setting overlooking the Hudson river.  Nearby is the world famous Cloisters now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was built in the years immediately before the Second World War in the style of a French Romanesque Abbey. 

Gathered atop the tree festooned knoll as the bride and bridegroom took their wedding vows was a happy mixture of Irish and American folk, many of them musicians who has travelled to New York for the occasion. Athy man, Tommy English was marrying his partner Karla and traditional Irish music was the link which brought so many together to celebrate with bodhran player Tommy. 

The evening before, many had joined in an entertaining music session in Paddy Reilly’s on 29th Street and Second Avenue where American and Irish exponents of traditional Irish music came together in a happy fusion of talents. Fiddle players Tony deMarco, Dana Lynn, Lisa Gudkil, and Marie Kelly showed quite an enormous aptitude for the Irish style of playing.  The fact that one was Chinese and the others American presented no difficulty as they joined Irish born musicians Killian Vallalley, Tony Daveran, Harry Wilder and Seamus McEneaney, to name but a few, in a session of reels and jigs of dazzling variation.  DeMarco who like Tommy English is a regular player at Thursday night sessions in Reilly’s is regarded as one of the most competent exponents of the Sligo style of fiddle playing which was popularised by the legendary Michael Coleman.  Another man who graced the session with his musical and vocal talents was Athy man Dave Donoghue whom I had only previously heard on his recently issued CD.  It was a most enjoyable session and even as the traffic careered down Second Avenue just a few yards away, it was easy to feel transported back to the Irish countryside and to a time when traditional music was an important part of Irish life.

While I was in New York, I took the opportunity of visiting a few places, some of which, but not all, have connections with this country. One such place was the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th Street near to Broadway.  The Church founded in 1868 is part of the Episcopialian Church and as such a member of the world wide Anglican Communion of Churches.  You can imagine my surprise when viewing this fine church which in layman’s terms is a “protestant church” to find that it mirrored in every way what you would expect to find in the average Catholic Parish Church.  Stations of the Cross adorned the walls of the side aisles on either side of confession boxes.  This must have been the “highest” of high churches I have ever seen and given the closeness of its date of foundation to the Oxford movement in England, it prompted questions for which, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get answers.

A visit to another church, this time near the bottom of Manhattan also left me with many unanswered questions.  I was anxious to visit John Street Methodist Church founded in 1766 by Irish emigrants under the leadership of Philip Embury and his first cousin Barbara Heck.  Both were “Irish Palatines”, so called as descendants of refugees from religious prosecution in Germany who came to Ireland in 1709.  The Palatines were converted to Methodism by John Wesley in the 1750’s and when Philip Embury emigrated to America in 1760, he helped to establish the first Methodist Society on the American continent.  In this Embury was following up the work of George Whitefield, an eloquent preacher who has made several earlier visits to America.  Unfortunately, I was not able to gain admission to the church which is the third church on the site but the well proportioned Georgian building with a brownstone facade provided a welcome change to the surrounding sky scrapers.

Just a few streets away, I came across the oldest surviving church in Manhattan,  indeed, it is the oldest public building in continuous use on the island of Manhattan.  St. Paul’s Church was opened in 1766 and is similar in style but smaller than St.-Martin-in the- Fields on Trafalgar Square in London.  The graveyard surrounding the church was used by all denominations and many of the gravestones marked the last resting place of Irish emigrants.  They were obviously persons of means or influence, for no gravestones mark the now unidentified graves of the thousands of poor Irish emigrants who died in New York in the 19th Century.  My eye was caught by the gravestones of an Irish couple who died within months of each other.  John Cumings described as a “native of Ireland” died on the 3rd August 1814 aged 39 years and his gravestone reads
“Weep not for me my children dear
            I am not dead but sleeping here
            My debt is paid on this your fee
            prepare for death and follow me”

The adjoining gravestone marks the grave of his wife who died the same year as her husband on the 30th December aged 29 years. Possibly the same muse was moved to mark her passing with the following lines
“Afflictions for long I have bore
Physicians were in vain
Till God was pleased to give me ease
And free me from my pain”

Another gravestone marked the passing of the children of Catherine Moore,  Ann who died the 26th July 1786 aged 15 days and Mary who died the 1st June 1787 aged 2 years, nine months and eleven days.  Several more graves of those described as “A native of Ireland” were observed while to the front of the church facing Fulton Street were two significant memorials on either side of the Church portico. The  thirty foot high obelisk on the left hand side of the doorway commemorates Thomas Addis Emmet, brother of Robert Emmet who following the 1798 Rebellion was obliged to leave for America where he died on the 14th November 1827.  The erection of the monument in 1832 was financed by subscriptions collected throughout the United States and on the front of the obelisk facing the street is a medallion likeness of Emmet in bas-relief.  One of the principal organisers of the tribute to Emmet was Dr. William MacNevin, a County Galway born United Irishman who was inducted into that organisation by Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a one time member of Parliament for Athy.  Like Thomas Addis Emmit, McNevin left for America and he is commemorated by the second large memorial which frames the portico of St. Paul’s Church.  I noticed that the front of the Emmet memorial was badly marked as a result of what I concluded was gunfire of some considerable age.  I wondered was the reason for this but presumably it was linked with some now long forgotten anti Irish sentiment.

New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine is quite an extraordinary and unusual building which remains as yet unfinished even though work on it first commenced over 106 years ago.  It is a huge building, second only to St. Peter’s in Rome and large enough for the Statute of Liberty to fit comfortably under its central dome.  As the seat of the Bishop of the  Episcopal Diocese of New York, the Cathedral is something of a religious institution in a country where everything is reputably bigger and better than anywhere else in the world.  If you ever get an opportunity to visit New York, travel up to 112th Street and see what must me one of the most extraordinary Church sites you will ever see.

And where may you ask was the Athy connection.  I found it in the person of the Assistant Librarian of the American Irish Historical Society on 5th Avenue whom I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing.  The lady in question comes not from Athy but from nearby Ballylinan.Her story is for another day.  In the meantime, there is nothing left for me but to extend good wishes to Athy man Tom English and to his new wife Karla.

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