An IRA Bar on 233rd

Written by C.J. Sullivan on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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
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

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
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.

  • Benjamin Larson

    The British government killed Irish people indiscriminately in their desire to suppress Irish nationalism. Yet, by virtue of being an elected “government”, they have avoided the mantle of “terrorists”, while the IRA, in attempting to defend the Irish state, is condemned for tactics no more despicable.

    Ask Al Qaeda operatives what they want, and the answer is almost sure to be vague and imprecise. they want freedom for “Palestine”, without demonstrating any concern for actual Palestinians. They want to “bring down America” without any precise explanation about how a modern world is to be run under their principles.

    Yet ask an IRA man what he wants, and he can tell you in very plain English, “a united, independent Ireland.”

    The difference between the IRA and “terrorist” organizations, is that the IRA has a specific, achievable goal that can be legitimized. The “terrorism” of the IRA could be alleviated by the creation of a united Ireland.

    Hoping I can find an IRA bar to go show support for.

  • Dropofclearwqter

    I think the writer is showing bias here. All that Ireland ever wanted is their country, in full, out from under British rule. The fight started a long time ago. What about mentioning the Irish lad on the way home after the movies and getting stopped by foreign armed forces on his own land? To be ridiculed, called a ‘fenian Irish bastard’, kicked in the arse, and thus humiliated in front of a girl he wants to impress, dismissed and ordered to go home. How often this happened in ‘sixties, seventies, & eighties’ Belfast. What about the denial of employment? Walls built to separate?

    C.J. Sullivan can write whatever, but C.J. didn’t live it. There was a reason for the rebellion. How else, C.J., would you resist a more powerful foe? The only way is subterfuge. The oppressed will always rise against the oppressor. Even the Jews went undercover in the forties.

    The Catalpa is a bar. Plain and simple. You are looking for espionage and conspiracies where there is none. The owner is a wonderful, kind, generous man.

    The Irish are not necessarily loud, unless there is a crowd around to hear them sing. If you step into a bar in the homeland, at least back in the day, the people are hushed. They don’t want everyone to know their business. You were obviously there to eavesdrop, you stated it yourself. Were they wrong to hush around you?

    Irish so called ‘terrorsism’ was not to kill anyone indiscriminately, otherwise there would’ve been a lot more casualties. Not unlike the R.U.C., and the English Army, who worked in collusion to intimidate, murder, and shame women, men, children, old and young alike.

    Both sides are trying to make peace. There will always be stirrers, but Ireland deserves some kind of peace now. The people have lived in fear, mistrust, and resentment for way too long. True for both sides, except the employed, favored ‘Royalists’ have garnered a better, safer existence over the years. They had the law on their side, and could exact revenge and humiliation with impunity.

    Can you imagine living in a country where the law does not protect you? Where they, indeed, the problem? Where is there to turn but your own means. No chance for peace when you are denied ‘rights’. Resentment has to lead you somewhere.

    Ireland belongs to the Irish people, not a supplanted people, who came and stole everything they could and then suppressed you.

    C.J., what would you do in the circumstances? What did your ancestors do, over the centuries of oppression, what brought them to America?

    Jobs? Oppression? An Gorta Mor? Whatever the case, the English forced them here. Ireland did not thrive, because of oppression and starvation, a deliberate genocide under english power.

    Thank God Ireland is finding another way. I pray that it continues, and my country can become an example for peace. I pray that all of Ireland returns to what they fought to retain: Their Holy Catholic religion, and their own land all four provinces united under Irish rule.

  • Lou Ferpo

    What a load of judgmental dribble this article is. The ramblings of an overly suspicious, insecure, and mistrustful individual, who has completely lost touch with reality. The Catalpa is no more an IRA bar than Moe’s Tavern on The Simpsons. If the writer wanted a real answer to his query why did he not ask the two men with thick Irish brogues, who were playing pool, and furiously smoking cigarettes. The writer should be ashamed for disparaging a people, and a neighborhood bar.