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A 17th Street St. Patrick’s Day

Pat Fenton sits on the stoop of 483 17th Street, his childhood home in Brooklyn.

Pat Fenton takes us back to an earlier time of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on 17th Street in Prospect Park, Brooklyn when the Irish bars overflowed with families, friends, food, and music. It is a time Pat remembers fondly as he not only celebrated St. Patrick’s Day but also his birthday.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and birthday Pat!


When the long, cold winter ended, and the hint of spring came in with another Saint Patrick’s Day, to live in the cold-water flats on 17th Street was a gift. It was always about music and memory. The music defined who we were, and listening to it again, growing older, stirred up memories that brought me back to the neighborhood, brought me back to 17th Street and 9th Avenue in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn in the 50s and 60s.

Recently I played an old Ruthie Morrissey vinyl record that I picked up in a Salvation Army thrift store. It was probably once owned by someone who remembered her playing live throughout the Irish bars of Rockaway Beach for many years along with the Mickey Carton Band, places like Fitzgerald’s Hotel on Beach 108th Street.

A 1950’s Wurlitzer jukebox.

Here she was singing the “Irish Soldier Boy” again, singing “Home to Mayo,” singing “Wild Colonial Boy,” and “Green on the Green”: “and I’m off to join the IRA, and I’m off tomorrow morn…” She was singing the Irish music I grew up with on 17th Street at 483, top floor left. And I could see my dad again, Andy Fenton, hunched over the radio on a Saturday night, shot of rye whisky next to him, listening to an Irish station bringing him home again across the ocean to #20 on the Long Walk in Galway, Ireland where he was born, a place he would never see again.

And as I poured a beer and listened to her I could picture the old jukebox in Joe Ryan’s bar up on the corner of 17th Street and 9th Avenue. Jukeboxes in the 40s and 50s looked like jukeboxes, not some complicated programmed computer hanging on the wall that cost you a dollar a song.

You looked down at the faded yellowed labels of rows and rows of songs, never seeming to change as generations played them over and over again. You just dropped a quarter into the slot and you could play three songs.  For a quarter you could fill the room with memories.

Joe Ryan, who came over from Ireland many years before, was a quiet, conservative type Irishman whose eyes were filled with the wisdom of bar experience. When I first tended bar for him part-time, when I was in my twenties, he quietly sat me down and explained the quirks of certain customers to me and what I should try to avoid when serving them. And always wear an apron he told me.

Before he became the owner of the bar he named “The Shamrock,” it was called “Kerrigan’s” and somewhere in its history it became “Bill’s Corner.” Through each one of these name changes, over decades, it served generations of Irish Americans who came of age on 9th Avenue. Its official name was Prospect Park west, but we only knew it as 9th Avenue.  

I can see Ryan’s bar now on Saint Patrick’s Day, glasses of Rheingold tap beer all rowed up down its long, cigarette-scarred length, and next to the glasses were these small bottles of strong Guinness they had then, and Irishmen like my father from Galway mixed their bitter taste into the watery Rheingold beer to bring the memory of a long-ago taste back to them. During the 40s and 50s tap beer was served in seven-ounce glasses in neighborhood saloons. There were no pints of beer then.

On Saint Patrick’s Day all the bars of the neighborhood, places like  Ryan’s and Dan McNulty’s bar, which was directly across the street from it, would fill up, people would even stand out in front with containers of tap beer in hand, and the police from the 72nd Precinct would never bother them. It was a different world then. Irish music would play and in the side kitchens of the bars, large pots of corn beef would slowly simmer along with quarter sections of cabbage, all of it soon to be served like a feast on fresh loafs of rye bread from the local bakery.

McNulty’s Bar along the stretch of 17th Street and 9th Ave in Prospect Park, Brooklyn (c. 1950).

Neighborhood bars were family places at that time and People would bring along their kids who delighted in sliding under the tables, chasing after each other as they ran out the side entrance of the bar and back into the front entrance. Seventeenth Street and long stretches of 9th Avenue was filled with large Irish families, many with more than ten kids in them. Seventeenth Street alone, from 9th to 8th Avenue, was said to have more kids on it than any other block in Brooklyn.

The Murrays would be there, the Langs, and Billy and Rosy Kennedy, the Murphys, and the Laux family, and Jack Malone, and John Scully, and Bob Rice. And the Irish music would play on and on as we celebrated another Saint Patrick’s Day. Ruthie Morrissey would be singing Home to Mayo” ….“take me home to Mayo to dear old Mayo across the Irish Sea…” And there would be a haunting, lonely sound to her voice that I never forgot.  

Ruthie Morrissey singing “Home to Mayo” which she recorded in 1956

As the sound of laughter and song drifted through the room, over it all would be the wonderful voice of Jack McCarthy coming from the large black and white RCA television set that hung by chains on a thick board above the bar. And it would mix in with all the laughter and singing in the room. “And here they come, down the Queen of Avenues, New York’s Fighting 69th.” And he would follow that in his great voice by reciting an 1877 Irish poem by John Locke, “Dawn on the Irish Coast”, all of it coming in muffled through the noise of the crowd. All of it creating a beautiful Irish sound.  

D’anam chun De! but there it is—
The dawn on the hills of Ireland !
God’s angels lifting the night’s black veil
From the fair, sweet face of my sireland !
O, Ireland! isn’t grand you look—
Like a bride in her rich adornin !
With all the pent-up love of my heart
I bid you the top of the morning ! 

The morning would bring the beginning of another day of working the rivet machines in the metal factories of 18th Street for some, driving city busses for others, working as conductors down in the subways, selling tokens from a booth at the Windsor Terrace entrance, working the ticket booth over at the old Sanders Theatre on Bartel Pritchard Square. But this day, this Saint Patrick’s Day was ours. As Harry Chapin once wrote in the words of a song called “Remember When the Music Came from Wooden Boxes… we believed in things, and so we sang…”

It was always about music, and memory. We didn’t have much, but it was enough. It was enough.♦

Read Pat’s article The Last Irish Saloon about Farrell’s Bar in Brooklyn.

Read John Locke’s Dawn on the Irish Hills of Ireland


Pat Fenton

Pat Fenton grew up in Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn, and worked as a court officer. He has written for a number of publications, including his popular piece on Farrell’s Bar for Irish America. He also wrote a play, “Stoopdreamer,” about the historic Irish saloon.

25 Responses to “A 17th Street St. Patrick’s Day”

  1. James Smalkowski says:

    Fenton does it again. I’ve been reading his work for over forty years and he never fails to draw me in to the richness of the places and folks he writes about. He’s a natural born Brooklyn writer who chronicles historic New York like no other.

  2. Hi Patrick,

    Loved the story. I am very familiar with the neighborhood and have some family in-laws who grew up there. Also covered it for Park Slope News back in the day. Write some more stories.

    Best regards,
    Marian

    • Pat Fenton says:

      Much thanks for your kind words, Marian. God, I don’t know how many years ago it was when you were one of my first editors at the Park Slope News.. Great days.

  3. Mary Rice says:

    Hi Pat,
    That corner location is now Park Slope Performing Arts and it is owned by Bob Rice’s sister-in-law and nieces.

  4. Edward Patrick McGovern says:

    I loved reading this article. My mother is from County Mayo and my father from County Cavan. I grew up on 10th St between 8th and 9th avenues. I love listening to my collection of Irish music. Slainte, Eddie

  5. Brian Hamill says:

    Pat,
    Another brilliant piece that will, hopefully, be in a collection of your short stories. They capture the tastes, music and visuals of a bye-gone era when we didn’t need technology in our hands to enjoy life. Your pieces are important historical documents that your grandkids will enjoy and realize out of struggle and determination good things can materialize.
    Thanks, Pat.
    Best,
    Brian

  6. Margaret Leunig says:

    Love the article and the song by Ruthie Morrissey.
    I know the area well as I went to school on 6th St and 8th Ave.
    Your relative
    Margaret Leunig

  7. Carl Von Ohsen says:

    Pat,

    Wonderful piece, especially now in lockdown when we all have time to reflect on days gone by. Spent many a great summer night in Fitzgerald’s In Rockway ( the Irish Riviera LOL) . Like yourself music plays a big part of childhood memory. For me St Patrick’s Day was the County Balls a bit of New York finery and every shade of green! Every time Grandma would announce ‘the Corkmen have the biggest balls – we would laugh at her innocence. Carmel Quinn at Carnegie Hall, The Quiet Man on television, The Clancy Brothers rollicking Wild Rover and Roddy McCorley causing Grandpa to tap his feet, a combination of the glorious smell of Corned Beef and Cabbage cooking on the stove, Uncle Eddie toasting those not with us anymore with a wee dram and a language we didn’t know, the excitement of getting ready to go to the parade, meeting up with friends and relations, Judy Garland’s It’s A Great Day for The Irish blaring from the Juke Box, a taste of Guinness and ribs and cabbage making the rounds and the skirl of pipes and drums making their way up the Avenue, green carnations, plastic shamrocks, a tenors voice over the crowd ‘ It’s I’ll be Heeeeeeeeeer in sunshine or in Shadow ……, A mother’s love is a Blessing .and a look of bittersweet nostalgia in the old folks eyes as they remembered the old country. A Great Day for the Irish indeed!

  8. Janet De Marinis Gaffney says:

    Growing up in Park Slope was wonderful! Everyone knew everyone. We moved from 9th ave, above Shirley’s I believe, to 18th Street & 8th ave in 1969. I belonged to the Clover Cadets drum & bugle corp. My whole family did. The St. Patrick’s day (American Irsh day) parade was a big thing in the neighborhood… Still is! I remember marching through the front door of Farrells & oyt the back door in single file blasting our instruments. We’d be in McFadden Brothers Post after with my parents & then stop in McNultys & then to the Post down 17th Street… Maybe the Diamond Post? I forget the name. Going to Holy Name we would walk by McNultys 4 times a day because we always went Home for lunch. Great memories!!! Thank you for yours!

  9. JoAnne Slavin McCormick says:

    Hi Pat, what a wonderful piece! My Dad, John Slavin, was a bartender at McNulty’s and I was so pleased that you mentioned the bars being very family oriented with kids running around. My Dad brought me to the bar on my First Communion Day ‘62 so all his friends could see me in my pretty white dress and veil! I sat in the back with a coke and potato chips and “made out like a bandit” with all the $1.00 bills given to me! Well worth the half hour! Thank you for a walk down memory lane!

  10. Bernadette Davenport says:

    Great article. My parents were friends with the McNultys great family.

    • Pat Fenton says:

      Thanks Bernadette. The McNulty’s were a great family. I once had dinner at their house while doing an interview with Dan McNulty for a play I was writing. He had these stories about all the local people who came to his bar including a union official who worked for Mike Quill.

  11. Martha McNulty says:

    Thank you, Patrick, for sharing another memory about Windsor Terrace. My husband, Dan, loved the neighborhood and enjoyed your stories. His dad, Thomas, owned McNulty’s Bar. Perfect for St. Patrick’s Day and Happy Birthday!

    • Pat Fenton says:

      Thanks Martha. great family the McNulty’s. My dad from Galway went in there often and knew Tom.

  12. Virginia Taylor McPeak (Ginner) says:

    Great story. Brings back such happy memories growing up in the neighborhood.

  13. Giovanni Tafuri says:

    I’m not even Irish & this article touched me dearly.
    Being of Italian decent, I can surely relate.
    The neighborhoods were definitely something special back then.
    But what made them were the beautiful families.
    Thank you for sharing.

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