I recently saw a post on Facebook about the former neighborhood of Laurel Hill, Queens, NY. The post described how progress for the City destroyed a community. I wanted to jot down some of my memories to speak (for those who no longer can) about a time, a place and a people.
The house I grew up in (50-77 45th Street just off Laurel Hill Blvd.) is no longer there. It was destroyed along with hundreds of other homes to finish the Connecting Highway (where the LIE and BQE cross in Queens). The neighborhood, Laurel Hill, is gone now too. From 1966 to 1968, 325 families were forced out. The remaining residents were absorbed into Sunnyside and Maspeth.
Our house was just up the block from the footbridge that spanned the Connecting Highway over to “Sandy Field” and the Old Calvary Cemetery. It was so close to the Newtown Creek that I heard the tug boat horns in my bed at night. It was down the block from Saint Theresa’s School & Church and a five block walk from the 46th St (Bliss Street) train station on the 7 line. With names like Flynn, Gallagher, Duffy, Moran, Crowley, Fitzmaurice, and ours, Gleeson; the neighbors were a collection of immigrants from “the other side”.
My dad was a Tipperary man. He was one of six ; five boys and one girl (twin girls died just after birth) born in Lossett, Hollyford, Thurles, Tipperary. They lived eight in a one room house with a central fireplace/stove for cooking and heat. A ladder put through the ceiling provided access to the upstairs room where the five boys slept. They pulled the ladder up after themselves and proceeded to rough-house much to the consternation of my grandmother, Sarah Ryan Gleeson, who was powerless to do anything about it.
Milk produced by their single cow was put in a dairy container and left by the side of the road at the top of the hill leading up from their house. The driver from the “Creamery” passed by daily on horse drawn lorry “wagon”. He would take the pitcher of fresh drawn milk and leave butter and processed milk as “trade”. Rainwater was collected in a barrel from a downspout off the shale roof for cleaning and washing. If you took a walk down the hill in back of the house, through the tree line you emerged in a meadow on the side of a small mountain. If the local bull of the field was not too tense you could run the field and clear the fence on the other side. Just beyond was a cold running stream with submerged milk crates tied to the trees. This constituted the only refrigeration for milk and fresh cooking and drinking water. There being no electricity, the family would entertain themselves by gathering around the fire and either singing and playing Irish songs or reading from the Bible. I dare say that more musicians came from that house than preachers.
My grandfather, Patrick John Gleeson, worked hard to provide for his large family. Six months a year (when the ground was soft) he would farm the local fields; put in the hay, dig potatoes, cut peat bog, and do odd handyman work. In winter, when the ground was too hard, he would leave his family in Sarah’s care and take the ferry over to England where he was a laborer on the roads. Black topping his way across Great Britain with pick, spade, and shovel made him a very strong man. An English friend of mine, Allen Taylor, who grew up in the English countryside remembers the Irish road workers of the time and said “You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with them”. My father, Rodger, being the oldest, was expected to lead his younger brothers in chores. They would be “farmed out” to local landowners to do field and farm work. They might be expected to miss school to help deliver a cow or bring in a neighbor’s hay. The hard, mountainous, and rocky Tipperary soil made for hard backs and strong arms and legs. The boys were expert at catching and killing badgers with traps. Their strong bodies carried over to the football pitch where some of Ireland’s finest hurlers were born. Hurling, or Irish field hockey, was a local sport. The Gleeson boys became some of Tipperary’s best hurlers. The Blue and Gold of Tipp. My father and his brothers Michael and Martin did well enough to earn athletic visa’s to the “States” to play in the “All-Ireland Finals” at Gaelic Park in the Bronx. My dad arrived by the S.S. United States steamship (with a trunk) to a sponsoring uncle in Teaneck, New Jersey. He played goalie for the Tipperary team and promptly joined the U.S. Army to gain citizenship. After serving during the Korean Conflict in Fort Dix, NJ and Germany, my dad settled in the Bronx.
My mother, Gloria Anne McGuinness was born in the Bronx but raised in Scraghe, Tyrone, Northern Ireland and schooled at Enniskillen Convent for Girls. She was raised by Hugh and Alice Gormley, successful sheep herders and landowners in Tyrone, not far from Drumskinny (where Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Donegal share borders). This was a very political area. Hugh was called upon as an “expert” on all sorts of farm animals. He was respected by the English and the Irish alike. Alice served as a lovely stepmother to my mom who had a pet lamb, pony, and plenty of cats and dogs. Although my mom’s mother, Bridget McGuinness (nee McGoldrick of Donegal and Monaghan of Fermanagh and Leitrim) worked in the U.S. as a head nurse; she sent money for my mom’s upkeep. My mom was teased for being an “American” at the convent. She received a “classical” English-European-Continental education with trips to France and England. She learned French, Latin, music, history, art, arithmetic, as well as how to “set” tables, fold napkins, cook, sew, and run a “proper” household. As compared to my father, she was a very refined and dignified young woman. At eighteen, she moved back to the United States to live with her mom (for the first time in 18 years). They lived in the Bronx.
My mom worked in the subscribers service of Blue Cross (the complaint desk) and my dad had stints as a bus driver, landscaper, carpenter before landing a job at First National City Bank (now Citibank) as an office supplies clerk. Dad went to Brooklyn College to study fiduciary taxes, statistics, and accounting to work his way up at the bank. They met at an Irish dance in the city and were married not long after in 1958. After a brief apartment rental stint in Harlem on Riverside Drive they bought their first home in Laurel Hill, Queens. It was an old house that had oil cloth on the floors; a front sun room; four-family attached; basement; built after the war for working middle-class families. It was wood framed with cinder block foundations and walls of lathing and plaster sculpted to moldings in every room. There are plenty still standing. One by one, my father sponsored his brothers into this country. The house in Laurel Hill became the center for many musical and cultural activities. My father played a mean accordion, as did his brother Mike. Uncle Martin played the guitar. The first renditions I ever heard of Bob Dylan, the Stones, and the Monkees were played down in the basement. Neighbors and relatives played spoons, drums, and sang with authenticity about “My Old Irish Home, Far Across the Sea”. The women sang ballads with voices as pure and sincere as the day they were first composed. The musicianship was outstanding. I was encouraged to play accordion at 5, and organ at 9, but I settled on the guitar and have been playing over 40 years (with some success). The jigs and reels could get quite dangerous as “wee young one’s” had to get up off the floor or risk being run over by couples competing in the “Stack of Barley” and the “Four Hand Reel”. The booze would flow and neighbors would share the latest news from “home”. A lot of talk centered on “The Troubles”.
Irish plumbers, electricians, and carpenters would exchange labor to get each others houses set up. The Irish Echo was on the table, the Irish Programme was on the radio, and tea was on the kettle. You were lucky to get a good job in a “Big Company”, or bank, or with the City. My father rented a garage in New Jersey where he kept push lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, rakes, shovels, and pruning shears. On weekends would take the bus over the bridge (George Washington) and work ‘sun up to sun down’ landscaping. I have tremendous empathy for immigrants who work equally hard today and share the same pride in their foods, ethnicity, and culture. At one time, and not so long ago, we Irish were the world’s landscapers.
A picture of John F. Kennedy (some on velvet) and the Pope hung on the wall in every house I ever entered. Holy water fonts were on the walls as well. You could bless yourself as you travelled from room to room. I remember sitting in the kitchen (at 4 years old) while my mother ironed. Suddenly she ran outside to the street. Following her to the street, I saw every housewife the length of the entire block crying and consoling each other. The date was November 22nd, 1963.
The Gleeson one room house in Tipperary. Out front Sarah Ryan Gleeson and Michael Gleeson (GAA Tipperary Hurler)
(L to R) My brother Martin Gerard , my toothless self, my sister Colleen Marie, and my father Rodger Joseph on the 48th Street overpass above the old LIE in Laurel Hill, Queens 1965
Pictured in 1986 are my uncle, godfather, and GAA Tipperary hurling all-star forward Michael Gleeson; Uncle Patrick “Packy” Gleeson; and my father, Rodger Gleeson enjoying a playful moment back in Gaelic Park, Bronx where they began their journey in “The States”.