There are many Irish 'spots' in New York City that intrigue me, but perhaps none more so than St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. The edifice, today a parish church, is at turns historic, memorable, symbolic, poignant, spiritual, and evocative -- in a word, haunting.
St. Patrick's Old Cathedral didn't start out that way, clearly. "Old," that is. It only gained that distinction when the new St. Patrick's Cathedral arose three miles north, supplanting the prior archiepiscopal seat.
The contrast between the two churches couldn't be greater, at least in my mind, nor could the difference between the relative handful of Irish that worshipped in old St. Patrick's in 1809 and the teeming masses that came to populate the later, far more grandiose version.
For comparison, those of Irish ancestry in the United States may have numbered several hundred thousand in 1809 when St. Patrick's was dedicated. In the period between 1820 and 1860 came 2 million more Irish. Between these two milestones transpired a huge amount of Irish history, most consequentially, The Great Irish Famine, The Know-Nothing Movement, and finally America's Civil War.
I frankly prefer the original edifice, which has the grace of being what feels to me more human-scale, more intimate, more feeling, more modest, affording a sense of both shelter and striving to those it nurtured, with no attempt to proclaim 'arrival' or grandiosity, better suiting my Irish sensibilities.
The 69th New York State Militia, nearly every soldier Irish and game, marched off to the Civil War from the original St. Patrick's. Visit the 'old' church today, and you can still hear the footsteps, the drums, the call to a greater destiny.