POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 18, 2013
NEW YORK » For generations the residents of Breezy Point, Queens, have clung to their emerald roots. The gated community they called the Irish Riviera — or to those who prefer the language of the old world, "cois farraige," Gaelic for "beside the sea" — has remained one of the most proudly Irish communities in America.
So when Hurricane Sandy tore through the coastal enclave, sparking one of the most destructive residential fires in the city's history and leaving behind hundreds of charred or flooded houses, all that love for the homeland was suddenly reciprocated, roaring back from across the Atlantic.
Breezy Point has become something of a cause celebre in Ireland, its plight an urgent topic in newspaper headlines and radio dispatches more than three months since the storm. Gaelic rock stars threw fundraisers, Irish companies sent money and other donations, the country's consulate bused thousands of volunteers through Breezy Point's gates for "Irish Days of Action" and pop stars made pilgrimages, including the Irish Tenors, who serenaded locals over a Christmas lunch and bid them "the luck of the Irish."
"It has become a huge Irish-American issue," said Aine Sheridan, 53, the executive producer of the Adrian Flannelly show on the Irish Radio Network USA, which has covered the recovery of Breezy Point and the city's Irish nonstop since October. "It's another county of Ireland."
New York has always been dotted with a changing mix of ethnic enclaves. And while it is common for the diaspora to come to the aid of the motherland during hard times, the events playing out in Breezy Point remind that on rare occasions the roles are switched: The homeland will come to the aid of its diaspora.
But complicating the current embrace from abroad is the gated community's extreme insularity. Breezy Point is the whitest neighborhood in the city, a demographic makeup that critics say illustrates the enclave's entrenched xenophobia, a dark flip side, perhaps, to all that ethnic pride. The consul general of Ireland, Noel Kilkenny, said he and others had made special efforts to avoid the impression of "the Irish looking after their own."
The government has pledged a total of $320,000 in aid to places across the region that were hit by the storm, which included other neighborhoods known for their large concentration of people of Irish heritage, like Belle Harbor, just down the peninsula.
"The Irish connection is so strong, it's totally appropriate," said Brian Hayes, a minister of state in Ireland's government, while touring burnt-out sections of Breezy Point in early February. "This isn't a hard sell at home."
Hayes was accompanied that day by a convoy of only-in-Ireland sports stars — strapping present and former players in the country's beloved Gaelic Games, which include native sports like hurling, a high-speed precursor to field hockey. With them came a giant championship chalice called the Sam Maguire — which many locals recognized on sight. The 18 athletes spent several days sawing joists in the damaged Catholic Club and sleeping on cots in the Rockaway Point Volunteer Fire Department's firehouse.
In a ceremony heralded by bagpipers of the Breezy Point Catholic Club Pipes and Drums in spats and tufted beanies and covered by a gaggle of Irish reporters, the area's athletic center, the St. Thomas More Parish Center, which had been destroyed by the storm, was officially reopened. The basketball court, paid for in part by a $50,000 gift from the Irish government, is emblazoned with a giant shamrock.
"It makes you feel very wanted," said Tim Devlin, 50, a contractor and former Gaelic Games athlete who lives in Breezy Point and organized the players' trip. "We don't feel so alone after the storm."
The population of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland combined is just over 6 million. In America over 34 million people boast Irish ancestry. And while the nucleus of American Irishness is a tossup between Boston and New York, the towns of the Rockaway Peninsula have long been seen as jewels in the crown of the Irish abroad. Some Irish remember hearing old songs crooning of "Old Rockaway."
Over 63 percent of the 4,381 people in Breezy Point and nearby Roxbury are of Irish descent, including a large number of police officers and firefighters who live in bungalows and one-bedroom homes. That connection became well known in Ireland after Sept. 11, 2001, when the community lost dozens of residents in the attack.
"After 9/11, we became very aware of where the Irish were living," said Anthony Kearns, a member of the Irish Tenors who sang at the Christmas luncheon. "After Hurricane Sandy it became highlighted even more."
Its ethnic and racial makeup have also been a source of controversy. It was once called an "apartheid village" by the Rev. Al Sharpton during a protest. Steve Greenberg, the former chairman of the Breezy Point cooperative's board, said that to his knowledge, a black family had never been a shareholder in the private community. Even in the days after the storm, volunteer firefighters in the community repeatedly told a visitor as she left to beware of the residents of Far Rockaway, the predominantly black neighborhood at the other end of the peninsula. Concerns over the community's insularity have been privately broached by the Irish coming to the aid of Breezy Point.
Participants were conscious of this issue at storm-relief planning meetings at the Consulate General of Ireland in Midtown Manhattan in November, said Owen Rodgers, the secretary of the Emerald Guild Society, an organization of Irish and Irish-American building managers. He said he felt it was important that any help go beyond just Breezy Point and into the wider community hit by the storm. Organizations like the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, which was one recipient of the Irish government's donation, have aided relief efforts in a variety of places.
Rodgers compared it to his own history growing up in Northern Ireland, which weathered a bitter era of sectarian strife.
"I was vocal in saying we have to help everybody in the community," he said. "I understand the issues of discrimination, because I myself was discriminated against."
Kilkenny, the consul general, said the government also chose groups that aided diverse communities to receive most of its donation, and the 1,500 volunteers for the "Irish Days of Action" following the storm were purposefully fanned out to areas like Far Rockaway.
"New York has been good to the Irish," said Kilkenny, explaining the move. "The Irish are giving back to New York."
Even as the Irish have responded in droves to a crisis they view in many ways as their own, so, too, have people with no connection at all. Thousands from New York and beyond have showed up to help the gated community, which usually has its private security force keep out strangers.
Somewhere in that outpouring of support, said the Rev. Michael Gribbon, associate pastor at the Blessed Trinity Parish in Breezy Point, was a lesson.
"People from every race have helped out," he said. "The diversity has been a blessing."