New York Times: Sonuvagun, if It Isn’t Dominion

[REUNION]; Sonuvagun, if It Isn’t Dominion
By JIM DWYER (NYT) 3664 words
Published: November 11, 2001

“For much of the 20th century, a Manhattan neighborhood called Inwood reigned as the unofficial capital of the Irish diaspora, and in its later years, an elderly Jewish man and a young Irish kid from the Good Shepherd school had their own daily ritual.

After school let out, Damian Meehan and a small legion of kids would come ganging down 207th Street, past the ramshackle fruit store where Sam Gategno and his brother Sando presided, often perched on the sidewalk thrones of milk crates.

Sam always yelled when he spotted Damian, mangling his name at high decibels.

”Sonuvagun, if it isn’t Dominion! How about a back rub?” he would call, and Damian Meehan, grinning, would oblige. When Damian caught the itchy spot, Sam would throw his head back and purr with contentment. ”Attaboy, Dominion!” he’d say.

The spectacle had its day, as did Inwood as an Irish center, as do all neighborhoods eventually, no matter who occupies them. The kids drifted to the suburbs. A new diaspora, from the Dominican Republic, settled on the east side of Broadway. The Irish building superintendents were succeeded by Dominicans, planting the roots of a Spanish-speaking grapevine to fill empty apartments. The 63 or so bars dwindled to a dozen, replaced by small restaurants and lechoneras. The last two shops that sold newspapers from Ireland grew dusty, quiet and dark until they shuttered. In the late 1980’s, Good Shepherd’s Gaelic football team had to share the pitch in Inwood Hill Park with the thriving Latino soccer and baseball leagues. Although some Irish families kept their big rent-controlled apartments west of Broadway, few young people lived in them. In 1990, the year Damian Meehan turned 21, the parish Gaelic football team played its last game, no longer able to field a full squad. Inwood had become a Celtic ghost ship.

Yet the Irish of Inwood did not vanish. The old neighborhood found second life on the Internet, at huge, sporadic reunions and in the jobs its alumni landed, often with help from street friends.

So on a morning in September 1993, after a few bartending gigs, Damian Meehan was ready to settle down. He had a steady girlfriend. For job help, he turned to an Inwood friend, Marty Boyle, who was married to Damian’s older sister Kitty and worked at the Commodities Exchange in the World Trade Center.

Later that month Damian got his first taste of the everyday bedlam at the exchange. As grown men screamed at each other, a familiar voice cut through the din. It was Vinnie Greenan, another Inwood guy.

”Sonuvagun!” Greenan boomed. ”If it isn’t Dominion!”

Not long after the attack, the Irish foreign minister, Brian Cowen, arrived in New York for meetings at the United Nations and to pay respects on behalf of his country at the burial grounds that had been the World Trade Center. Afterward, he rode an elevator at Police Headquarters with an officer who was every bit as shaken as the minister. To help in the search and identification, the policeman remarked, investigators had asked family members to list some personal effects. One distinctive piece of jewelry turned up again and again on those reports: the Claddagh ring, an Irish token of love and friendship, cast in the shape of two hands joined around a heart.

Just among the missing of the police and fire departments, the officer told the Irish minister, ”15 to 20 of the people we lost were wearing Claddagh rings.”

That would be one measure of the number of Irish-Americans killed by terrorists on Sept. 11. Another would be the lists of the lost: the Kevins and Maureens and Timothys and Patricks. Among the surnames of the dead or missing are 12 Lynches, 10 Murphys, 9 Kellys, 5 Egans, 4 McCarthys, multiples of Kennedy, Sullivan, O’Brien, Gallagher. And so on. By an unscientific review of 2,874 names on a census of the missing, it appears that one in five has traces of an Irish background.

Among them is a family that tells of the 10-year-old boy in the house, in the terrible days after. For a full week, he insisted that his mother not lock the door at night. Dad might come home while they were asleep, he might have lost his keys down there. They might not hear him.

Surely the yearning to go to sleep and to wake up whole again rises from the heart, and not from any particular homeland. The fraternity of those lost was enriched by people from just about everywhere; the empire of the stricken crosses borders and classes. Still, it comes as no surprise that many of the lost firefighters, police officers and tradespeople were of Irish-American background. Yet the losses among Irish-Americans have another dimension: they include hundreds of immigrant children and grandchildren whose march through American society had, in the last few decades, taken them to the financial services industry and material prosperity unthinkable to an earlier generation.

A few months before the towers collapsed, Irish America magazine honored the ”Wall Street 50” — an annual selection of successful Irish men and women. ”The Irish are not necessarily known for their financial acumen,” said one of the honorees, Christopher Condron, the C.E.O. of Axa Financial. ”We might be far more comfortable if we were honoring the top 50 poets or the top 50 tenors.”

For Condron, the gifts of bardic Ireland translated perfectly to trading in the financial markets. ”They’re quick and can think on their feet,” Condron said. ”Here you have young kids who have come up from nowhere, and have done it because of their ambition and drive.”

That party was held in July, at Windows on the World. Six weeks later, three of the guests would be dead: Joseph Berry, Chris Duffy and Joseph Lenihan, all of them executives at Keefe Bruyette & Woods.

”In the towers, you had two strands of Irish-Americans — the firefighters on the way up and the Wall Street people,” said David Hunt, a restaurant owner and native of Inwood. ”They met in the stairways.”

They came from a dozen or more New York neighborhoods and suburban towns. In Upper Manhattan, the parish of Good Shepherd — now billed on its weekly bulletin as La Iglesia Catolica de Good Shepherd — knew more than two dozen who were missing. Although many of these sons and daughters had left the city’s streets years ago, the deaths of Sept. 11 tolled in some deep, tribal place. Many would come home, one last time.

”I moved in here as a boy of 6 in 1936,” said the Rev. Kevin Devine, a Paulist priest who ministers at Good Shepherd. ”It is possible V.J. Day or V.E. Day had the same impact, or close to it, of Sept. 11th. But probably not.”

In 1961, when Michael Meehan finished a stint with the U.S. Army, he and his wife, Margaret, and 1-year-old Shaun settled in the Inwood section of Manhattan. They immigrated a few years earlier from County Donegal. Mike went to work as an insurance adjuster, and Peg, a registered nurse like many young Irish women, cared for private patients. The schedule allowed her to be home when more children began to arrive. Which they did: after Shaun, the Meehans produced eight children — six boys and two girls — in nine years. At times, the neighborhood and their apartment felt like an Irish village or farmhouse.

”When you’d go to Mass on Sunday, you’d meet as many from home as if you were back in Donegal,” Mike Meehan said.

”We always had a pullout couch for visitors,” Peg said.

”I couldn’t tell you how many we had over the years,” Mike said. ”It wasn’t any big deal, they weren’t a burden, just to help get them going. It was just taking care of family.”

”The bed never got cold,” Peg said.

The kids played in the streets and in a park so gloriously situated that not even chronic government neglect could dim its luster. Inwood Hill Park runs up to the northern end of Manhattan island; on its western boundary, the last stand of virgin forest on the island rises a few hundred feet above the Hudson. At the northern tip of the park, a creek that the Dutch called Spuyten Duyvil, the Spitting Devil, has been widened into a boat canal, joining the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. Nowhere in the city is the island aspect of Manhattan more palpable; nowhere is the natural world of palisade, river and forest aligned so exquisitely.

For growing children, scenery came in a distant second behind places to romp: the park had ball fields and tennis courts and, most important, a football field for the Gaelic version of the game. Michael Meehan helped run the parish club, and Gaelic football — tougher than soccer and faster than American football — occupied a notch just under religion in their household. All the Meehan boys grew up playing for Good Shepherd, which fielded teams in every age bracket from 8 years on. Peg Meehan never missed a game her boys played.

The plaques from those contests line the walls of the Meehan apartment, a fifth-story walkup. The family spread through four bedrooms and had daily negotiations over landing rights for the solitary bathroom. When both parents were at work, the kids played running bases in the long hallway. On weekends, they would be allowed to fall asleep watching television. Mike Meehan would take them to bed. When they stirred, he coaxed them back to sleep by reeling off a play-by-play of an imaginary game of Gaelic. The only players were the Meehan boys: Shaun Meehan has the ball. He passes to Michael Meehan; Michael Meehan moves it downfield, he passes to Eugene; he takes it and sends it across the field to Kevin. It’s downfield, now, to Chris Meehan, he passes it to Paul Meehan, and he sends it to Damian Meehan. He kicks — it’s over the bar!

In Mike’s lullaby, Damian, the youngest boy, always delivered the scoring kick.

As closely fitted as their lives and home were, the New York of the early 1970’s was showing signs of a chronically sinister and chaotic face. When another man from Inwood brought word that 100 bungalows were available in the Catskill mountains, Mike Meehan signed on to market them. In short order, a getaway colony of Irish-Americans — including, of course, the Meehans — was established. They called their retreat Four Green Fields. As the family grew, the sons and daughters scattered, although the apartment on 207th Street remained the homestead.

For many immigrants, the act of leaving home is like splitting the atom, releasing vast streams of energy that carry the next generation along. The Meehan children all went to Catholic elementary and high schools. They all got some college, although a few could not resist the money in full-time construction work. Shaun, the eldest, went to France on an exchange program and fell in love with the country and a Frenchwoman. He became a teacher. Most of the others stayed closer to home, in the suburbs near New York City. Kitty Meehan became a nurse practitioner. The last of the family at home, Janine, went into public health as an administrator. She and Damian, a year older than she, arrived at the end of the run of Meehan children and teamed up, in self-defense; they were as near to twins as people born one year apart can be.

Peg Meehan still has an index card that her son Michael filled out in third grade, listing his dream of becoming a police captain. He now serves as a detective in Midtown. A city job was the benchmark of opportunity. ”You always took civil service tests growing up,” Kevin Meehan said. ”Fire department is definitely a great job. I always wanted to do it. I took the test in 1987, was called in 1994.”

Eugene Meehan also passed the fire test. Damian gave it a try.

”He scored a 90 on the physical,” Eugene said, a respectable number, but not one that would get him in. The brothers teased him about it.

”Kevin, what was his excuse for losing points on the ladder pull — the gloves were too big or too small?” Eugene asked.

”Too small,” Kevin replied.

Chris and Paul Meehan, setting up a construction business, veered away from civil service. So did Damian. In the early 1980’s, one young man from Inwood found a job down on the Commodities Exchange. From that pioneer, Marty Boyle heard there was good money to be made.

”I was brought down to the exchange by guys from Inwood,” Marty recalled.

”No college graduates involved,” Eugene said.

”Not one day,” Marty said.

”Marty went right out of grammar school,” Kevin said.

”The education was Inwood,” Eugene said.

”The education was the street,” Marty said. ”Which is exactly what you need — you’re constantly yelling and screaming with people every day.”

There was more to it than brute force. As a young man, Marty and his friends bluffed their way into parties thrown by Ivy League schools playing at Columbia University’s Baker Field, in northern Inwood. They would stick on nametags — Hi, my name is Biff, Class of ’78” — and help themselves to drinks and food.

At one point, he guessed, 40 Inwood people held jobs in and around the Commodities Exchange. Of course, very few of them actually lived in Inwood anymore. Soon, Marty would bring his brother-in-law Damian downtown.

While Damian was attending Lehman College in the Bronx, he met a friend of Janine’s, Joann McCarthy, another child of immigrants. They were a hit. In June 1998, they married. He was 29. He moved off the trading floor and into the back offices of Carr Futures, on the 92nd floor of the trade center. The Meehan brother who, as Janine said, ”would never have become a police officer — he was just too easygoing,” did not have the appetite for daily combat in the exchange but was happy dealing with clients socially. At Carr, he worked with friends from Inwood and Gaelic football. Among them were Joe Holland and Brendan Dolan. When he and Joann were looking for a house with a backyard, close to the city, the presence of Holland and Dolan in Glen Rock, N.J., helped seal their choice. ”I bought the cheapest house on the most expensive block,” Damian told his father. The Meehan brothers descended with hammers and drills to rescue the kid brother who could barely drive a nail.

Damian Peter Meehan was born Jan. 23, 2000. Joann had been working a few days a week as a dental hygienist, but when she became pregnant again earlier this year, decided to stay home. She and Damian made trips to his family’s vacation colony at Four Green Fields, reveling in the din of nephews and nieces.

In early September, they had a weekend to themselves. Peg and Mike Meehan drove out to Glen Rock to watch the baby while Joann and Damian headed to Spring Lake at the Jersey Shore. They returned late on Monday afternoon and asked the Meehan grandparents to join them for dinner at a restaurant. But the old folks were ready to head back to the place on 207th Street, so they took a rain check.

The next morning, Joann watched Damian flying out the door and thought he would probably miss his train.

A few minutes before 9, Eugene, at a firehouse in the Bronx, got a call from Damian. There had been an explosion and smoke was pouring into the 92nd floor.

Go out to the front door, Eugene advised, and see if there’s heat and smoke.

While Damian went to check, Eugene could hear the clamor in the office. Then Damian spoke. There was smoke outside too.

Get to the stairs, Eugene said, and you’ll know where the smoke is coming from. Go the other way.

”He said, ‘We’ve gotta go.’ Or he said, ‘We’re going.’ I’ve been racking my brains to remember,” Eugene said. ”I know he said, ‘We.’ ” That would be the last word from him.

Across the region, the Meehans gathered, some with Joann and her parents, some with their own parents. Others went to ground zero. Eugene and Kevin Meehan had firefighting duties. Michael Meehan, assigned by the Police Department to notify the families of the dead, found himself taking word to old friends. On the evening of Sept. 14, Good Shepherd held a vigil for the missing, attended by a few hundred people. As they marched to the firehouse on Vermilyea Avenue, other groups, holding their own candlelight services, fell in. From a crowd of 200 or 300, a river of light formed, stretching four full blocks, certainly 3,000 or more people. They stopped at the firehouse and sang ”God Bless America.” They chanted ”U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” and ”Los Bomberos! Los Bomberos! La Policia! La Policia!”

The days crept along, and as ”missing” evolved into a synonym for dead, the church memorials began, crowding the days with ritual and embrace. Two trees were planted in the park. Mike spoke at the ceremony, remembering that Damian had grown up ”playing on these fields.”

From Inwood, people had gone to work at the trade center as firefighters and cops, traders and cooks. At the corner of 207th Street and Seaman Avenue, a memorial was set up for Brian Monaghan, 21, who had just started a construction job in the towers. His missing poster said he had a big tattoo of a shamrock on his arm; in the cabinet that held the memorials to him there was a strong flavor of the animistic religion of the Caribbean friends he had grown up with. There were poems, of course, and pictures, but also precious things connected to him: hats; a bottle opener; an unopened bottle of Heineken.

Soon the memorial on Seaman Avenue expanded for the mementos of other families.

Over the last weekend in September, workers cleared a crushed staircase from Tower 1. On Oct. 1, the bodies of 16 firefighters and nine civilians were found. Among them was Damian Meehan. He was 32 years old.

”From the day he was born,” said his father, ”Damian was a joy.”

His wake drew crowds that waited three and four hours, lining up along Broadway. Suddenly, Glen Rock felt empty to Joann: Damian was gone. Their friends from work, Brendan Dolan and Joe Holland, were also lost.

For his funeral, Damian Meehan would go home again to Good Shepherd.

The church was filled an hour before Father Devine walked to the church entryway and the service began. The coffin with the remains of Damian Meehan was escorted into the church by the Meehan parents, their sons and daughters and their spouses and many of the 25 grandchildren.

Shaun Meehan read the prayers of the faithful, asking relief for those suffering, praying that justice and not vengeance would guide the hands of America.

In one way or another, the names of those dear and lost to Inwood pealed through the church. Johnny Burke. John Burnside. Kathy Casey. Jonathan Connors. Robert Crawford. Tommy Dowd. Norberto Hernandez. Joseph Holland. Joe Kellet. Joseph Leavy. Francisco Liriano. Valerie Logan. Joe Marchbanks. Jimmy McAlary. William McGovern. Donald McIntyre. Brian Monaghan. Bobby O’Shea. Michael O’Shea. Jimmy Pappageorge. Bruce Reynolds. David Ruddle. Jeffrey Shaw. Gregory Trost. Joanna Vidal.

”This is where our memories are,” Shaun Meehan would say. ”This is where our hearts really are.”

At every Catholic Mass, the faithful affirm their belief that life follows death, as it did in the resurrection of Christ. They believe that bread and wine are transformed into the substance of the divine, and that when the priest says the blessing and passes the cup, all can eat and drink from the goodness of God. Six priests were sent to stations around the church to distribute communion to the crowds that spilled back into the vestibules and onto the steps outside.

A singer, Maura Fogerty, had flown home from Nashville to sing Irish ballads in her old parish.

Near the end of the Mass, Michael Meehan, a white-haired man of 65, made his way to the altar. ”Our Damian would be very disappointed,” he said,if his dad didn’t say a few words.”

He spoke of pain, but mostly of gratitude for Damian’s life, and for the lives around him, the old friends, the parish, the people who had found his body, ”a miracle,” Mike said. When the brothers and sisters spoke, more than one remembered Damian hearing the same greeting — Sonuvagun, if it ain’t Dominion!” — on 207th Street and again, years later, on the floor of the Commodities Exchange.

They lingered in ritual and remembrance for two hours. Then, as the brothers took the sides of the coffin, a recording of ”Imagine” played. Outside, the raucous streets somehow fell under the same spell that held the church in perfect stillness. The buses on Broadway halted. The livery cabs hushed their horns. Birds swooped from sunshine to shadow. The world seemed poised at some holy moment as the people of the parish, those who had gone and returned, those who had stayed and lived, poured from their church. The faces were older than they had been, but for a moment, it could have been a day in 1961, when Mike and Peg Meehan first climbed the stairs to their apartment down the block and began their American lives.”

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