By Jack Holland
It was approaching 11 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 15, and on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange commodities trader John Fitzgerald, 41, was watching the price of natural gas go over the $8 mark and shaking his head in amazement. The cost of the fuel had effectively doubled in six weeks and its rise showed no signs of halting. On the tiers around the natural gas trading pit, more than 200 traders where frantically signaling and shouting as behind them on the board the last registered price was inexorably replaced by a higher one.
Around the gesticulating traders, a flurry of white paper fell like confetti as bids were flung into the apron on the floor of the pit, where they are collected and registered by the clerks. When the price hit $8.14, the market decided to shut down for 15 minutes. And then John Fitzgerald — who has been a trader here for 15 years and earned himself the nickname Fitzburgh among his fellow traders, many of whom are Jewish — began talking about what was really on his mind with just 10 days to go before Christmas: toys, of course.
Not toys for his own family (he has two children), but for kids in Northern Ireland. For almost a decade, he has been rounding up traders at NYMEX, persuading them to contribute to the Irish Children’s Christmas Fund.
Every November, before Thanksgiving, he stands at the exit of the trading floor, around lunchtime, a green pledge sheet in hand, and waits.
"I have a list with how much they gave last year," Fitzgerald said. "Nine out of 10 guys here contribute."
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This year they gave close to $30,000. The contributions, which are tax deductible, are passed on to Vicki O’Connell. Along with her late husband, John, she helped organize the fund for the toy drive beginning in the 1980s, when it was done under auspices of the Irish American Unity Conference. One of Fitzgerald’s fellow traders, Jim Narin, read about their work in the Bergen Record newspaper. Both men decided they could help out. It soon became part of their pre-Christmas ritual.
With the money collected, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, O’Connell and members of the toy fund, drive to Wall Mart in Piscataway, N.J. The staff provides donuts and coffee, and a 10 percent discount on the toys. Then the shopping begins. The purchased toys are packed in boxes and driven straight to Kennedy Airport, where Aer Lingus ships them for free to Ireland. The toys are handed over to the St. Vincent De Paul Society in the North, which distributes them among needy children.
"John and his pals on the floor have doubled the money we’ve been able to collect," O’Connell said.
"It is always a great joy to see the parents sigh with relief when they see the toys which you have generously sent," wrote one worker with the St. Vincent De Paul Society in Crossmaglen, South Armagh.
Some of the main contributors are introduced as they scurry around the paper-littered floor — Kevin McDonnell, Denis Maloney, Dominick Viola, Adam Hirsch, Jimmy Reicher, Joe Lehey, Alfredo Dinten, the brothers James and Brian Smith, Steve Karvellas, Mark Fisher, Tommy McGuinness, and Marty Quinn, to name a few. Each wears a badge with a name tag. One mountain of a man has "BORU" written on his.
He is introduced as another contributor.
"This is Brian," said Fitzgerald, whose own name tag is "FITZ."
"My real name is Brian Sheehy," Boru explained, grinning, "but when I’m down in the trading pit I feel more like Brian Boru at the battle of Clontarf. I could do with his 60-pound sword sometimes."
The traders are an eclectic New York mix — people of Jewish, German, Italian, African, Latino, Greek and Irish descent. Their backgrounds are as diverse. Some were cab drivers, teachers, accountants or lawyers before becoming commodity traders; Brian Boru was a rugby player. According to Fitzgerald, it doesn’t matter, come November and the time to contribute.
From the 10th floor, where the NYMEX restaurant is located, there is a splendid view out over New York Harbor to Ellis Island. Fitzgerald recounts how his grandparents James Curry and Molly McDonaugh arrived there from Mayo in 1916.
"You can’t loose sight of where you came from," he said, before going down to rejoin the never-ending battle in the natural gas pit.
Donations to the Irish Children’s Christmas Fund can be sent to NYMEX, Attention of Broker Fitz, 1 North End Ave., Box 184, NY, NY 10282.