Category: Archive

A shop for the East Side Irish

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

Not all the Irish are going home.

While many Irish immigrants in the U.S. are now returning to the Emerald Isle, many of those who remain have not only become U.S. citizens, they are also blending into mainstream America in a manner their ancestors would not have imagined.

All of which explains why County Down native Liam McCormack is opening a new, larger Irish import store in no less a location than Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side.

"I have noticed a lot of Irish people moving from original Irish areas like the Bronx and Queens into mainstream areas like Manhattan," McCormack said. "I have also noticed a change in the immigrants. They are college graduates, working in mainstream jobs and living here on the Upper East Side.

"I worked as a bartender. I saw what was going on and I felt I wanted to get into business for myself," said McCormack, who has himself lived in the Upper East Side for many years.

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And so, about a year ago, he opened Claddagh Irish Food & Gifts, a 160-square-foot Irish import store just off Second Avenue.

"I rented a small premises here on 89th Street with the hope that if things did well I would move to a bigger place," he said.

By all appearances, things have gone well; McCormack will next month open a newly renovated 400-square-foot outlet just a block away, on East 88th Street. There, in addition to obtaining an array of Irish imports, patrons may also enjoy Bewleys coffee, pots of Irish tea and scones.

The 89th Street premises will then become a coffee and espresso bar.

"I supply everything a person would get at home," McCormack said, listing items such as Galtee foods, biscuits, chocolates, teas, Celtic jewelry, handmade wedding rings, Belleek China, Galway Crystal and Irish dancing shoes.

The upwardly mobile immigrants now settling in the Upper East Side are certainly not the first Irish to inhabit the area. According to McCormack, many Irish once lived in the area to be close to the Ruppert Brewery, on Third Avenue, where they worked.

"There is still a solid base of their descendants living here," said McCormack, who claims he is the only Irish-born person operating an Irish import store in Manhattan.

"There are also a lot of doormen, supers, nannies, nurses aides, bartenders and waitresses. Hardly a week goes by that we do not have people drop in to inquire about an apartment."

But it’s not only the Irish and Irish Americans who visit Claddagh Irish Food & Gifts.

"A lot of people come in inquiring about Celtic jewelry who have no Irish heritage at all," McCormack said. "When I arrived to open the store one morning before last Christmas, there was a Dominican from Washington Heights standing outside with copy of the Irish Echo in his hand. ‘Do you sell this?’ he asked, pointing to my advert and the claddagh in the shop’s logo. He had heard the story about the claddagh, and love, friendship and loyalty."

McCormack, 36, from Warrenpoint, came to the U.S. in 1987. He had worked as a tool and die maker for six years in a Portadown factory, not far from the infamous Garvaghy Road. As he and four other Catholics traveled their 30-mile journey to work, they regularly endured British Army harassment as well as intimidation in their workplace, he said. Soon after he arrived in the U.S., the UVF shot dead three of McCormack’s workmates as they were leaving the factory, having just finished their 11 p.m. shifts.

McCormack still works as a bartender, on Sunday nights in Rocky Sullivan’s on Lexington Avenue, between 28th and 29th Streets. "As well as running the store, it helps me keep in touch with what’s going on the Irish community," he said.

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