Category: Archive

From the Hudson’s catwalks, O’Kane paints his American masterpiece

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By C.J. Sullivan

When Patrick O’Kane flew out of Ireland in 1983, his pockets were all but empty, his head full of dreams. He was 23, cocky but naive, with a courage born of hard times and disappointments.

He landed in New York and wandered the streets of Manhattan with his one suitcase and white guitar, 50 one-pound notes and some travelers checks. He didn’t know a soul, but he’d been a world traveler and was a survivor of the Troubles. He figured he’d get by. Still, he never thought that one day he’d be sitting on top New York — literally.

Five years after coming to the states, five years of music gigs and off-the-books carpentry, O’Kane got his break. A man never averse to risk, he landed what to his mind is the best job in the world. He paints the George Washington Bridge.

Day after day, it’s up and down the barrels holding on to a cable, a bit of rope the only thing between him and the roadway. It’s start at one end of the bridge and, when he and his crew are finished, it’s go back and do it all over again. It’s a job that’s never finished.

O’Kane is a solidly built bantam of a man with a quick wit. "Ah, but it’s a great job," he said. "Being outdoors and it keeps you in shape. You’re paid to be thrilled. Nothing like climbing up a bridge to get you going."

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Two years ago, the GWB steeplejacks were asked to do what for men in that line of work is the job of a lifetime: paint the antenna of the World Trade Center. O’Kane and two others volunteered.

"The thing had never been painted," O’Kane said. "We gave it three coats. The top of the antenna is 362 feet above the top of the building, so we were like 2,000 feet up over the streets of New York, held on by ropes and knots."

So how was it sitting up on the roof of New York City?

"It was like conquering the world," he said. "Unbelievable, that first step out on the ropes was something. You can’t buy a rush like that. But you had to be careful. There were a few nights I was out on the chair when the wind was blowing something awful. I’ve swung around so much I’ve seen Manhattan upside down from 2,000 feet.

"You take nothing for granted when you’re that high up. You’re very aware as a steeplejack. There is no room for error. I checked every knot I tied three times. I preferred to tie my own knots, that way I’d have only myself to blame if something went wrong."

O’Kane said the first time he strapped himself into the boatswain’s chair and hung out on the antenna he lit a cigarette and said to himself, "You made it, Pat. It just doesn’t get better than this." He was up so high, he said, he could wave at the airplane pilots coming out of Newark airport.

The World Trade Center job took three months and then O’Kane was back painting the bridge. He didn’t get bored.

"Going up the barrels of the bridge is a rush," he said. "You keep climbing and getting higher and you can feel the traffic roaring under you and the bridge moving as you’re holding onto the cables. When the bridge moves with you it’s a thing of beauty."

Perhaps ironically, the only fear O’Kane feels, he said, is when he comes down.

"What I don’t like and the most dangerous part of painting the bridge is being on the roadway," he said. "Drivers see the safety cones we put out where we’re working and they go even faster. I’d rather be up in the air away from them. I feel more danger from the passing cars than I do of falling."

O’Kane likens his trip to America to hitting the Lotto. He’s been married for 12 years. He calls his wife, Janet, a Long Island girl, "my right hand." They just had a baby girl, Alexa Rory. "The first American O’Kane," he said.

In addition to his bridge painting, O’Kane has some only slightly more mundane avocations. He owns a shop, Ellen Patrick’s, on Greenport, L.I., that specializes in Irish and European goods, and a company called Occasion’s Imports. "If you’ve bought a handknit Irish sweater in Manhattan, there’s a 90 percent chance that it’s one of mine," he said.

And then there’s his rock band, Gael Force. They have a CD out and they’re opening for the Wolfe Tones in Pennsylvania next month.

Hardscrabble upbringing

His is an American success story, to be sure. But the future for O’Kane wasn’t always so rosy.

One of seven children raised in Derry, he was a teenager during the most violent years of the Troubles. He had a good family life, he said, but the times were hard — on the wallet and the soul.

"There wasn’t much work for my father, so he had to go to England to work as a carpenter at the power plants," O’Kane said. "My mother had to stay behind and raise us. We didn’t have much growing up. Money was scarce."

Like so many Derry natives, O’Kane’s most indelible memory of the Northern Ireland conflict is Bloody Sunday, in which 13 civil rights demonstrators were killed when they were fired upon by British soldiers in January 1972. The eye of the storm passed over O’Kane’s house on Rosville Street.

"It was very eerie how my father had a premonition that something bad was going to happen that day," O’Kane recalled. "He wanted us to stay inside. I remember him telling my mother, ‘Mind the children today. Keep them inside.’ "

When the firing stopped, the O’Kane boys sneaked out of the house.

"Sheets of CS gas hung out on Roseville Street," O’Kane said. "It was like a ghost town. Silence. They read the list of the dead at some of the stores and people broke down crying. Even if they didn’t know the one’s who got shot they cried."

O’Kane’s biggest fear of growing up in Derry was that his father would be taken away by British soldiers. It happened to other fathers on his block.

"Had that happened, I would have joined up with the IRA," he said. "Thank God my father was a youth leader at Shantallow Youth Center and kept us all on the straight and narrow."

O’Kane went on to become a joiner, a carpenter, the fifth generation of O’Kanes to pick up a hammer. He finished his apprenticeship and within a week he was on a boat to Germany, where he found steady work until being badly hurt in a car accident.

He returned to Derry to recover.

"The second I was off the crutches, I was gone again," O’Kane said. "There was no work and I knew I didn’t want to raise a family there the way it was. . . . Plus the damp, cold weather in Ireland was killing my injuries."

O’Kane recalled how as a kid he would lay on his back and watch the jets fly past. He imagined them going to America. Now it was his turn. He arrived at JFK on Jan 1, 1983.

"I looked around and said, ‘Wow,’ " he said of his arrival. "Everything was so big and glorious. I guess a lot of Irish think America is full of gold, Levi jeans, and Cadillacs. But when I got off that plane, I was impressed. It was so immense."

O’Kane had come to a city where he knew no one. He walked around for days going into bars and asking for work. Like so many immigrants before and after, the trail led him from Manhattan to the Bronx and back again. He sang some songs, drank a few pints, had some laughs, but hadn’t gotten a single solid offer.

One day, O’Kane found himself in Penn Station and he saw a sign on the LIRR for Babylon, L.I.

"I got on the train because that name sounded so great — Babylon, like that Jimmy Cliff song ‘By the Rivers of Babylon,’ " he said.

It was a fateful decision.

O’Kane wound up in the town next to Babylon, Lindenhurst, and he met an old German bartender. His fluency in German paid off and he spent the day with the German strumming his guitar and singing. He found a home out on the island and traveled around the bars singing for food, drink, and maybe a few quid.

Since O’Kane was in the country illegally, his employment options were limited. Still, he was able to get an off-the-books carpenters job. And then fortune shown again. His guitar playing brought him to Chris Byrne, now of Black 47. With Martin Price, they formed Gael Force.

"The first years here were great, but they weren’t easy," O’Kane said. "I had a hard time becoming legal. And I lived for weeks at a time on just eggs. The homesickness was rough. It was fierce around the holidays. I missed Ireland for years. It got so bad that at one point I had to sell my white guitar."

O’Kane eventually married Janet, thus earning legal status, and joined the Port Authority.

"I love my life here now," he said. "The last five years have been great. I embrace America. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I can’t believe it all happened. It’s grand."

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