By Harry Keaney
More than an interior doorway links Mary Anne’s Irish Gift Shop & Art Gallery with the Riverdale Steak House, that well-known hostelry nestling along Riverdale Avenue in the northwest corner of the Bronx. It was in the steak house, about eight years ago, that the very idea for the gift shop crystallized. Steak house owner Terry Connaughton was having lunch, and a chat about work, with his then 21-year-old daughter. At the time, she was employed by a fabric company in Manhattan’s garment district.
"I wanted to do something for myself," she said. "I knew I wanted to do something where I could work with my hands and maybe sell it. I said, ‘Maybe I could do something like an Irish import store next to the steak house.’ "
In retrospect, it seems Connaughton had the ideal preparation to pursue an entrepreneurial career involving Irish arts, crafts, fabrics and paintings. In the steak house, operated by her father and mother, Anne Tuite, a native of Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Mary Anne witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations of setting out on one’s own. Growing up, she spent 13 summers in Ireland, including a year of schooling in her father’s native Roscommon. After attending Our Lady of Victory High School in Dobbs Ferry, she obtained two associate degrees — in illustration and in buying and merchandising — from the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.
"I thought then I would like to be a buyer," she said.
Today, Connaughton uses all her attributes and expertise, including her studies for a degree in fabrics science, in running "Mary Anne’s," now much enlarged since its inception, and brimming with an array of Irish gifts and souvenirs.
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"I do a lot of personalizing, I would love to do a lot more of my own work," she said.
In her art gallery downstairs, many of the works on sale are by the Irish-American artist Edmund Sullivan. "I like to present the paintings in a certain way," Connaughton said. "They need their own space, they need to have a light on them."
Connaughton’s appreciation of art, and her eagerness to bring the best of it to U.S. clients, led to her opening "A Celtic Secret" in Southampton, Long Island, last March. "I want to take the creme de la creme of Irish arts and crafts, and bring it together, and I wanted to go somewhere quaint to do it. I also hope to start importing antiques from Ireland. There is something really quaint about Southampton. First, we thought Southampton would be a seasonal thing, but it’s becoming more and more year round, and we’re building up a clientele."
In the Connaughton household, sport has been as much a preoccupation as business. And in Mary Anne’s life, in particular, it has played a major part. Take, for example, her visit with some friends to Orlando, Fla., in 1994, for Ireland’s World Cup game against Mexico. Afterward, in Scruffy Murphy’s, she met Mark Traynor, a Glaswegian working in construction management in the Middle East. A few days later, Traynor and a gang of friends landed outside the Riverdale Steak House. Today, Traynor and Connaughton are the husband and wife team behind Mary Anne’s Irish Gift Shop & Art Gallery, as well as A Celtic Secret.
"Some people ask me what’s a Scots man doin’ working in an Irish store," Traynor said. "But I ask them have they read the sign, it says ‘Celtic.’ "