Did You Know | The origin of Irish shamrocks around the Bronx –
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Test your knowledge of Bronx history with our new installment “Did You Know,” featuring interesting and otherwise unknown tidbits that expand on the lore of what is often referred to as the forgotten borough.
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, the asphalt at the intersection of 231st Street and Kingsbridge Avenue takes the shape of a Kelly green shamrock painted in latex that is approximately 10 feet by 10 feet. It is painted every year, on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day around midnight.
The tradition has been running since about 1976, according to Denis O’Flynn, whose father supplied the paint for the shamrock until his passing in 2011. He did so through his company, “O’Flynn Painting and Decorating,” which he ran out of his home on Corlear Avenue.
Started by a group of local teenagers, the shamrock goes down without any neighborhood permission and little police intervention. The painters themselves section off the area with some caution tape and garbage cans and guide the traffic. And while St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish tradition, anyone who wanted to participate, did.
“We didn’t care who you were, if you were cool, you were cool,” said O’Flynn, 56, of the hodgepodge of cultures that have painted throughout the years. “There’s no colors for my brothers — we had Albanian kids, Dominicans kids, kids from Venezuela.”
The Kingsbridge neighborhood, and New York City in general, has a long history of Irish migration. The Irish founded the political system of NYC with Tammany Hall, and they have long been a part of the NYPD and the FDNY dating back nearly 200 years. According to the Library of Congress, it is estimated that between 1820 and 1860, a third of the immigrants in America were Irish, and by 1860, they accounted for half.
The Irish invented the dive bar as it is known in NYC today, and while many have closed along the years, the neighborhood is still home to several such as the Punchbowl and Keenan’s.
Now long-gone, Stack’s Tavern once stood where a homeless shelter now lives at 5731 Broadway. The bar was owned by John Brendan Stack, who passed away earlier this year and is honored on the banner that accompanies the Kingsbridge shamrock which bears the names of those in the community who have passed on.
Naming the deceased was started in 1995 when O’Flynn lost his brother in a motorcycle accident. But as the years went by, the loss of people in the neighborhood grew, and space on the ground became limited. To better accommodate the increase of the deceased, the group started a digitally printed banner, which today is hanging on the fence of the Church of the Mediator on the southwest corner of the painted intersection.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be able to do that because you realize that somehow you’re going to have a personal connection to many of these people,” said the person who is responsible for printing the banner each year — he asked to remain anonymous, although he told us he was born and raised in the Kingsbridge community and has participated in the painting of the shamrock since day one.
“I’m grateful for what it’s given me through all my life: a sense of community,” he said.
For the first time, the Kingsbridge crew was asked this year to also paint a mural in Woodlawn Heights by St. Barnabas Church. Woodlawn is a densely Irish neighborhood with a strip of Irish bars up and down Katonah Avenue. There is also a shamrock painted on East Tremont Avenue in Throggs Neck to honor their St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was celebrated on Sunday, March 12 marking the 25th anniversary of the East Bronx parade.
When speaking to the several participants of this decades-long tradition in Kingsbridge, the sentiment was unanimous — it’s not about being Irish, it’s about neighborhood pride.
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