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The Nation

In New York, the Irish Pack It In

A post-9/11 crackdown on illegal immigration and a vibrant economy back home are changing the face of a longtime city enclave.

March 08, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Up and down the hills of Woodlawn these days are signs that things are changing. White paper fliers flutter around storefronts, listing furniture for sale. On a Friday night, the bars on Katonah Avenue have a hollow feeling.

The Irish are going home.

Here in a vest-pocket neighborhood at the northern edge of the Bronx, they have lived for generations in an improbable Irish village. Spices are flown in for Irish bacon, which is cured in the basement beneath the butcher shop. Grocers stock Original Andrews Liver Salts and Chives Bramble Jelly.

But in one of the unexpected effects of Sept. 11, Irish immigrants are leaving the United States in waves; they say the crackdown on illegal immigration, coupled with a booming Irish economy, has eliminated the advantages that drew them here.

Ten years from now, say activists pushing for immigration reform, there won't be Irish neighborhoods left in New York.

"Watch the various airlines heading for Ireland," said Adrian Flannelly, chairman of New York's Irish Radio Network, "and you can see the same type of grief and sorrow that there has been in the worst days of our history, where [immigrants] would leave everything behind them.

"The Irish in America are as old as America itself," he said. "In that sense, this is a disgrace."

Before dawn today, 17 buses were scheduled to leave Katonah Avenue for Washington, where Irish immigrants intend to press for passage of the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill. The legislation would allow all illegal immigrants to apply for legal status after paying their back taxes and working in the United States for six years.

The Irish government estimates that 25,000 of its citizens are living illegally in the United States, but immigration reform groups say the number is as high as 40,000.

The push to change U.S. immigration law came from Ireland, where politicians were hearing bitter complaints from voters whose relatives were living here illegally, said Niall O'Dowd, chairman and founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. The group received a grant from the Irish government to pursue its mission.

"There's nowhere in the world where Irish citizens are more marginalized than the United States," said O'Dowd, publisher of the weekly Irish Voice.

The Irish-born population in the United States has been dwindling for years, from 251,000 in 1970 to 169,827 in 1990, according to the census. It has fallen sharply over the last four years, most notably between 2003 and 2004, when it dropped from 148,416 to 127,682.

The shift is felt most acutely in neighborhoods like Woodlawn.

James Carroll woke up here 11 years ago, on his first morning in America. He threw open the window of an apartment on 231st Street and the first voices he heard were Irish. It dawned on him gradually that, after escaping the small-town society of the Irish countryside, he had found that life re-created in the Bronx.

The names on the storefronts speak volumes: Down the road from Rory Dolan's pub is Ned Devine's, Sean's Quality Deli ("All Things Good and Irish"), the Celtic Kitchen, Fagan's Ale House, P.J. Clarke's Saloon, Lark's Nest Bar, McGinn's Tavern, the Hibernian and Aqueduct North -- named after the huge public works project that in the 1890s first drew Irish laborers to the neighborhood.

It was not so long ago that new arrivals in the Bronx could tap into a vibrant cash economy. If a nanny was hit by a car or a cab driver fell ill, posters went up soliciting donations for medical expenses.

It was easy enough to get fake identification, said Mary, 38, a nurse who would not give her last name because she is in the country illegally. "You knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody" who could get a Social Security card for you, she said.

And in a city where much of the police force was Irish, or Irish American, one could assume tolerance for the undocumented, said Patrick McQuaid, 68, an immigrant who joined the New York Police Department.

"If a cop pulled you over and thought you were doing the right thing, he would give you a break," he said. "The Irish were always accepted here."

But after Sept. 11, social mobility began to drift out of reach. Driver's licenses expired and could not be renewed. Real Social Security numbers were needed to apply for jobs, open bank accounts, even to join a gym.

Illegal immigrants could no longer take the chance of flying to Ireland for family gatherings. For some, the sacrifice began to seem too great, said William O'Leary, 35, a carpet-layer.

"It's not Christmas or weddings," he said. "It's funerals."

The changes were subtle at first. Mary noticed that it was easier to park. O'Dowd remembers taking an apologetic call from a Woodlawn mortgage broker canceling his advertising contract, explaining that his clients "were not Irish anymore."

The Gaelic Athletic Assn., which organizes Irish football and hurling tournaments, decreased its number of teams by seven last year.

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