The 21st Annual Wall
Street 50 Gala Celebration
By Irish America Staff
“We always try to evoke the spirit of the ancestors on occasions like this, and what better way to remember their journey and how they came to love An Talamh Nua – The New Land – than to have an immigrant sing a song written by another immigrant?”
Thus began the 21st annual Wall Street 50 Gala Dinner, with co-founder Patricia Harty introducing Irish tenor Ciaran Sheehan to sing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
This special evening, which paid tribute to the country’s top Irish Americans working in the financial industry, was held at the New York Yacht Club.
A private social club on 44th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, the club is steeped in history, and boasts beautiful models of the most famous America’s Cup defenders, which served as a sharp contrast to the often less-than-seaworthy, overcrowded, and disease-ridden sailing ships that transported earlier generations of Irish to America.
But this was an occasion to celebrate, and there was plenty to celebrate. The honorees, representing many of the most prestigious financial companies in the world, illustrate how far the Irish have come since those early days when they arrived hungry on the shores of the New World.
Eileen Murray, the evening’s keynote speaker, is herself the embodiment of an American success story. She grew up one of nine children in Dyckman Housing Projects and worked her way up, from her first low-paying job at Peat Marwick in the 1980s, to co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world.
An engaging speaker, Murray regaled the audience with tales of her childhood – of her extraordinary mother, who grew up in Galway and came to the U.S. on her own at 13, and her father, who was an active military man who fought in WWII and Korea, and had three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star.
“Most of what I learned, I learned between the ages of 10 and 12 from my parents,” she said, adding, “of course, it took me 35-40 years to figure that out.
“My parents taught me Irish curiosity, creativity, determination, common sense, and most important, hospitality, creativity, and generosity… I have to admit, it was sprinkled with a little bit of Irish guilt as well.”
She recalled how she loved growing up in the housing project: “it was a true melting pot of rich and beautiful diversity.” On her floor alone – the ninth floor, where the 11 Murrays lived in a three-bedroom apartment – her nearest neighbors were Cuban and Albanian, and her neighbors down the hall were survivors of the Holocaust.
“Everyone’s door was open; no one’s door was locked,” she said. And when her mother’s uncle Pete came over and played his accordion, they all gathered in the Murray’s apartment, spilling over into the hall. “I can still remember the laughter and the music in my head.
She talked with sadness of how drugs and the Vietnam War – two of her brothers enlisted and survived but other kids she knew came home in body bags – changed the neighborhood. It was the murder of a neighbor that finally persuaded the family to leave, moving to Riverdale, where Murray attended Manhattan College.
Murray’s speech, delivered with humor and straight-from-the-heart sincerity, resonated with the audience, who spanned the generations from 5th to Irish-born.
It was an evening to share Irish stories and remember those who had paved the way for the success enjoyed by these honorees today.
Dan Kennedy, vice president and general manager at Corvil, wore his grandfather’s tie pin. He said it was in tribute to both of his grandparents, who left school at 14, forgoing dreams of an education to support their families. Knowing of their sacrifice “deeply shaped how I work and live,” he said.
Meredith Ryan-Reid, a senior vice president in MetLife’s Group Benefits Division talked proudly of her family, who landed in Boston many generations back and made their living as boxers, police officers, domestics, and factory workers.
David Reilly, the chief information officer for global banking and markets at Bank of America said, “There is no feeling sorry for yourself in our culture, unless of course you are singing about it.”
And there was singing.
Ciaran Sheehan, who spent 1000 nights as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, sang the show’s anthem, “Music of the Night,” and closed with “Galway Bay,” an Irish folk ballad, to honor the Galway roots of Murray’s mother, Bridget.
Another high point of the evening was singer Mary O’Dowd, who had the audience singing along to “When New York was Irish,” her hit song from the late 1970s.
“New York is still Irish,” Mary concluded. And on this night in the New York Yacht Club, it was.
To read the entirety of Eileen Murray’s featured interview in the September / October 2018 issue, click here. ♦