Though Bainbridge Avenue seems far away now, it was once the dead center of Irish America.
Not that it got much love from Manhattan’s Irish elite. I might never have discovered the place myself if Phil Delaney hadn’t stumbled upon Turner & Kirwan of Wexford ripping up East Durham and booked us for Durty Nelly’s.
Yeah, I know, Nelly’s was on Kingsbridge Road – hardly crawling distance from Braindamage (as Bainbridge was often called) - but the two areas are forever linked for me, living as I was in the wilds of the East Village.
My life would have been much poorer if I hadn’t ventured north frequently. It wasn’t that you couldn’t have fun in Manhattan’s Irish bars, Fleming’s on 86th St. was a riot, Eamonn Doran’s rarely closed, and The Pig & Whistle gave me my first New York gig; but there was a raw majesty to the Bainbridge/Kingsbridge joints that will never be replicated.
Part of their appeal was that there was no concession to America. It was as if Cultimagh, Cahirciveen and Carrickmacross had been uprooted and beamed down upon The Bronx. Within a couple of pints I’d have shed my Alphabet City veneer, be jiving to the showbands, and wondering how many goals Tony Doran had netted against near-invincible Kilkenny.
Although some of the pubs could be on the rough side and a bartender might have occasional need of a camán or baseball bat, yet there was a rare magic astir in those sheet-rocked saloons.
I experienced much warmth and acceptance too from the many excellent musicians who played the scene. I can still see the smiling faces of Dermie Mac, Gerry Finlay, Tommy Mulvihill, Paddy Higgins, John Morrison, Gabriel Donohoe, Joe Nellany and a host of others. The laughs we had as we tried to outdo each other with the “the most disastrous gig I ever played” stories.
The owners and managers were a breed apart also. Phil Delaney was a smiling rogue from central casting, Sean Lynch used to hire us just to annoy his more conservative customers, and John Flynn - with a well-timed gig and bonus - paid many of my overdue rent bills.
I also met one of the best friends a man could have in Brian Mór, aka Bernie O’Boyle. He was the doorman (among other duties) at the fabled Bunratty. If you read my novel Rockin’ The Bronx he’s easily recognizable as the implacable Benny, keeper of the faith on Kingsbridge. A wonderful artist, Brian lived by a set of hard-won principles; but oh what a twinkle he had in his eye.
It was in the Bunratty that I first heard real traditional music – unhinged and unfettered - as played by Johnny Cronin, Andy McGann, Accordion Joe Burke, and Banjo Joe Burke. I’ve never heard the beatings of it since. Of course eight hours of straight drinking could, and did work wonders. The Bronx in those days, as you might imagine, was not a place for the sober or fastidious.
It did throw all types together, however, in that many young Irish from the Republic were introduced to their counterparts from British occupied Ireland. That rarely happened at home. Few of my Wexford contemporaries had ever been to Belfast or Derry, and why would they? It was a different country and in many ways we in the south had turned our backs on our people in the north.
For the first time many of us got to experience the effect of state-backed religious and political discrimination on our Irish brothers and sisters, and it changed our lives.
I had no idea when I returned in the early 90’s with Black 47 that the minutes were counting down for Bainbridge. Nelly’s, The Archway, and The Bunratty were already shuttered. There would be no more old time waltzes or Kerry slides heard on Kingsbridge.
But Bainbridge seemed solid – after all it was as much of a way of life as a geographical area by then. But immigration was tightening, the nascent Celtic Tiger beckoning, and one night the lights went dark on the avenue.
That’s New York for you – a city of change – but the warmth and memories of Braindamage and Kingsbridge will never fade.