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The Kildare Association is alive and well in New York under the chairmanship of Naas-born Christy Burke. On a recent visit home he spoke to Trish Whelan of his life and times in the Big Apple.

The exciting sprawl of New York may have been his home for more than 40 years, but Christy Burke who was born in The Barracks in St Patrick’s Terrace in Naas has never forgotten his home town. Back recently for the confirmation of his godchild, Richard Thomas O’Sullivan of Jigginstown he recalled many of the memories that linked him across the Atlantic over all that time.

“When I left first I flew from Shannon and it took around 14 hours to get to New York,” he remembers. “We stopped in Gander for our dinner, and had breakfast in Boston. In those days we flew lower, too, and the captain would point out ships below coming and going from Europe to America. When we eventually flew in over Manhatten Island it was dark and all we saw were the lights of the streets and in the tall buildings.”

Christy paid £80 for his one-way ticket which was a lot of money at the time. “I’d started saving from when I went to work. It was more of an adventure than sadness leaving as I was off to see things I’d never seen before.”

On arrival he’d been met at the airport by his uncle who helped him get through his first year living in Estoria. However by this time he was studying accountancy in a Brooklyn college and decided to move there to keep travelling costs down. He’d then gone to work for the equivalent of the ESB in New York, Consolidated Edison – with over a million customers – where he worked for 40 years until retiring in September.

At my exit party the chairman said people coming in today will probably work for eight different companies during their careers, unlike the way it was when I started there. The thinking was different in those days as the more you worked at a job, and the more efficient you became, the more valuable you were to the company. Today everybody wants new ideas, every other day, and hence the turnover.”

Movies shown in the Coliseum Cinema in Naas had given him a perception on what life would be like in New York. But he says you never really know until you arrive yourself and see the difference; particularly in the movement of people … a lot faster with faster traffic. “In fact the cars would be parked so tight you really couldn‘t cross the street from the middle of the block, and would have to go down to the end of the line of cars. I never could figure out how they were able to get the cars in and out of such small spaces.”

Christy had only witnessed such traffic once a year at Punchestown when all the traffic going to the races would go through Naas. “In New York, it goes day and night, like the subways, particularly the overheads, where I lived. They run 24 hours a day and you’d hear them swinging by. There were noisy but it was amazing how quickly you got used to it and, after a month, I didn’t pay it no mind. You’d shake a little because they were only two blocks away.”

Back in the 50s and 60s, New York was primarly an Irish town with a tremendous number of Irish people. They had their own dancehalls and newspaper, the Irish Echo, which gave you all the news – where all the bands were playing. The Royal Showband would come out every so often playing venues like the City Centre which was the biggest hall with a capacity for close to 3,000 people.

“You more or less had your own particular areas for socialising. And then you had the movies. In those days there was a movie house nearly every few blocks. Today they’ve consolidated and you’d have to go looking one. In Floral Park, the town where I live now in Long Island, there were two movie houses when we moved there first; now we don’t have any. But Floral Park has other attractions for Christy, who loves a flutter at the races with the George Belmont Race Track down the road.

Floral Park is so called because every street in the town is named after either a shrub or a tree. “Like Naas, it’s close proximity to the city, just a 30-minute trip away, makes it an attractive place to live.”

In America Christy married another emigrant, Kathy Jennings from Mayo. The couple had met in an Irish centre which was not unusual for emigrants at the time. In fact they celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary, on both sides of the Atlantic, during his stay in Naas.

They are the happy parents of four adult children, Colleen (24) who works as a sales assistant for a communications company controlling TV stations; Michael studying Philosophy at St John’s University; James studying Diplomacy at Seaton Hall University in New Jersey.

In the late 50s and early 60s it was a major effort for emigrants to take a trip home to Ireland, and involved scrimping and saving. Christy paid out $467 in 1960 for his first round trip home to Naas – the most he’s ever paid since then.

“It’s a tribute to both economies that people can decide to go home and buy their ticket the next day. When I first had visitors from home, they’s stay for a month and do the all the tours. Now they think nothing of flying over just for the St Patrick’s weekend.”

America was good for Christy. He says he wouldn’t have had such motivation to succeed had he stayed in Naas. “Today it’s mindboggling for people like myself who left so long ago, to pick up an Irish newspaper and see 1200 people wanted for jobs in Ireland and it has a good effect on the younger crowd in America. Several have returned.

When Christy Burke first attended meetings of the Kildare Association in New York in the 60s, he recalled how meetings were well attended. However the emigration problems of the 60s took their toll on the Kildare Association. “It all put a zilch on emigration on the American side and it was difficult for people to come over so we lost all those years because we had no replacements,” he recalled during his recent trip home.

A football club which had provided support to new emigrants from County Kildare – formed by Kildare footballer Sean Brennan – later folded for want of new blood. Sean, who went out in the fifties was married to a Kilcullen woman whose first name Christy can’t recall. However her surname was Lalloway and her father had worked with Christy’s own father with the Board of Works in The Curragh. Her brother, Pat, had gone to school in Naas with Christy.

“In the 80s we were able to revamp the club with younger members. But the bulk of the ‘new’ Irish, don’t have much interest in it. They don’t need the same support system that we needed when people were helped get jobs. In those days the Irish politicians had a big say in a lot of things. We had a lot of Irish judges, and still have them, and some very good lawyers. In fact two years ago when my brother Dick and I were going to Mayo, we had to stop the car because they were bringing the ashes of Paul O’Dwyer back to Mayo. He was a lawyer and president of the city council. His brother had been a past mayor of New York.

“That’s the way life was then with jobs going. Today now I suppose when a lot of the younger folks came over in more recent years, they were more or less illegal and would stay away from the association. If the emigrants don’t get in touch with us, we’ve no way of knowing who they are,” he says.

Anybody interested in the Kildare Association can contact Christy Burke in New York at tel 5163525858.

Approximately 3,000 people fly out from Ireland for the St Patrick’s Day Parade. Among them are a delegation from Kildare including the chairman of Kildare County Council. Christy Burke recalled how it had all started with a visit by Kildare Cllr Michael McWey following the setting up of Kildare Failte. “Michael said he’d look into having someone over for the parade, because each county is represented at the march.” It costs $110 to march in the Parade and the money goes to defray parade expenses.

This year Christy and his family played host to KCC chairman PJ Sheridan, and Council official Terry O Niadh. Both were accompanied by their wives and a family member. All were met at the airport by members of the Kildare Assoc committee, including Christy who lives close by. “We generally collect them, bring them back for dinner in my house before taking them into the city,” he said.

At the United Irish Counties, which is an organisation consisting of members from each county, such was the demand that we had over 700 people, with more refused, for a dinner dance at $65 a plate.

Kildare people to settle in New York include Jim Higgins, son of the late Mollie and Jack (the late great Kildare footballer) and his wife Leonie (nee Prendergast); Jim’s brother Ger and his wife Anne Marie called to see Christy on a recent visit); others include Liam Carroll and Kitty Henderson (an aunt of Carole and Bill McCormack) who, at 85, is probably the oldest member of the Kildare Club. She is also a past president of the Ladies Auxillaries. Her late husband Danny (from Kildare town) was a president of the Kildare Association on a few occasions.

Donal St Leger from Kilcullen (better known as The Saint) has also been living there for some years.

While home in Naas Christy accepted an invitation from trainer Dermot Weld to visit his stables. Christy and his brother Dick had been friendly with Dermot’s great uncle in New York and Dermot is a past member of the Kildare Association.

Christy recalls how Dermot had sponsored one of the most expensive pages in a souvenir journal for the Kildare Assoc’s 100th Anniversary celebrations and the excitement and pride of Kildare people when he won the Belmont Stakes with Go and Go.

He also took pride in an exhibition by the Lullymore Historical Group in November 1998, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Rebellion, which he said had been a great success in New York.

While home Christy stayed with his sister Collette and her husband Mick, and children Michelle and Adrian Cash in the family home in Our Lady’s Place. The Burkes had moved there from their home in The Barracks on St Patrick’s Terrace when the estate was built back in 1950. Other family members are Dick, (Hollywood Park); Mary Coleman (Kilcullen), Sr Mary Lazarian of the Order of St Louis in Monaghan.

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