Recently I was privy to a discussion about how a certain bar up in the Bronx is what's known as an "IRA bar." I hadn't heard of an IRA bar for years. It brought back memories of sitting in Bronx pubs and listening to sullen pro-IRA men give short speeches and then pass a huge tin can around for donations. You didn't hear too many coins falling into the tin. It was all the rustle of paper money. Growing up in the Bronx, Ireland seemed an ancient world to me. The place that was spoken about by your grandmother as she sipped her tea and remembered battles fought long ago. It was like hearing about dinosaurs.
Around 1970, an odd storefront opened on 194th St., around the corner from where I lived on Bainbridge Ave. The glass door was painted over and the windows had thick curtains in front of them. I never saw anyone go in or out of the place. It was a mystery operation. Then after about a month an Irish flag was hung in the window and a crude sign was put up letting the neighborhood know that this would be the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Aid Committee?Noraid.
The neighborhood accepted Noraid. If you weren't Irish you couldn't care less what this bunch was doing; all the Irish-Americans knew was that the store was run by Irishmen, and that was all right with them. That the organization sponsored a terrorist group was never discussed. The party line was that they were doing the work of angels and the money went to help the families of the men unjustly jailed by the Brits. It wasn't until much later that it came out that most of the money went for guns, bullets and bombs. But I think most Irish-Americans knew that from the start, they just didn't want to admit to it.
You hit the Noraid website today and you can read about how it's "a non-profit American organization that provides support for the Irish Republican movement through political action and education outreach, while providing financial assistance to the families of those imprisoned or killed for their beliefs." I called them up a few times, but it seems that no one picks up the phones. I chose not to leave a message at the beep.
Noraid has come a long way from that small Bronx storefront. Now they have Manhattan headquarters and rich Irish-American sponsors. They don't need to pass the cup anymore in some godforsaken outpost in the Bronx.
I was in a Bronx pub in 1979 when the news came on that Lord Mountbatten had been blown up and the IRA was the chief suspect. The bar broke out in a roar. The bartender announced that the next round was on him. I had no clue who this Lord Mountbatten guy was; I took the drink and never thought twice about the man's life or his death. All I saw in the tavern was one big band of happy Irish people raising pints and saying, "Slainte."
After the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland?and, more tellingly, the 2001 attack of the WTC?that memory is now stained. There's nothing noble in terrorism. And if the IRA ever makes a comeback with terrorist tactics, it's going to be a much tougher sell to Irish-Americans?especially New Yorkers, who'll remember that a large percentage of those killed at the WTC were of Irish descent.
I called up the man who told me about the IRA bar in the Bronx and I asked him if the IRA in Ireland was still viable, given that the last four years have been largely peaceful.
"Well, they're the ones who kept the peace?this time at least. They gave up their weapons and really stayed with it. So maybe it's finally over. But I wouldn't bet on it. There is a lingering resentment in Ireland. It's almost like people can't be happy unless they have someone to fight."
One recent afternoon I headed up to that supposed IRA bar, a small place called The Catalpa on E. 233rd St. I parked my car and walked around the neighborhood, passing frame houses that had seen better days, mothers pushing strollers, kids coming home from school.
The Catalpa is a small bandbox of a bar. Two men with thick Irish brogues furiously smoked cigarettes and played a game of pool. The bartender was nice enough and poured me a pint, but I was given wide berth at the bar. No Irish-Americans need apply. King's potato chips from Ireland behind the bar, a wooden harp on the wall.
Then I saw it: a Celtic cross dedicated to Volunteer Michael Gaughan, who died on a hunger strike June 3, 1974. Nearby was a Republic Resistance calendar for 2002; over the bathroom was a poster of Bobby Sands, who died in a 1981 hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison. He's legendary for having stated, "If they aren't able to destroy the desire for freedom they won't break you. They won't break me because the desire for freedom and the freedom of the Irish people is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we'll see the rising of the moon."
I sat and drank the pint as the business at the bar started to pick up. Men walked in from their construction jobs with dusty jeans and boots and big thirsts. They sat and laughed at the bar. I tried to listen in, but they spoke low and their accents were thick. I never felt so American. I saw a poster for a film about a ship called the Catalpa. An Irish-American man from San Diego named Mark Day produced the poster, which told the story of the Catalpa and asked for monetary support to make a documentary on it.
The Catalpa was a 200-ton whaling ship that set sail from America in 1875. This ship wasn't looking for any humpbacks. It had a secret agenda: it was heading to Australia, where in 1876 they sprang six Irish prisoners from Freemantle Gaol. As the Catalpa made its getaway with the newly freed prisoners, a British gunboat chased it and fired on the ship. The Brits stopped firing when the Catalpa raised an American flag.
On Aug. 19, 1876 the Catalpa docked in New York Harbor to be greeted by hordes of cheering Irish. It was a major propaganda victory for the Irish over the Brits. I looked around the bar and thought that if an IRA man came to America he would feel at home in The Catalpa. And if the IRA ever needs support again, here's where they will find it.
I finished my pint and left the bar hoping that day would never come.