Irishtown History

Rockaway Ol`times

Please join me in taking a trip back in time to read about the History of Rockaway’s Irishtown, USA. At the end of the American Revolution, Bayles, Carpenter, Smith, Wiggins, Wilson, Bettes, Evert, Higbie, Henderson, Innis and Mills were all examples of Irish names found in local militia organized in Hempstead town, of which the Rockaways were part of and known as Near Rockaway (Oceanside) and Far Rockaway. The names Near and Far came from their proximity to Hempstead. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the point of the Rockaway Peninsula was then located just west of old Beach 88th Street. The long sandbar that formed west of this old point became the Seaside section of the Rockaway peninsula, around the time the Constitution of the United States was ratified. It was a wild and wooly stretch of sand dunes covered with cedar trees.

During the War of 1812, a blockhouse was built at the point of our peninsula (approx. Beach 137th Street), and manned round-the-clock by the Military of NYC. Some of the (Irish) men’s last names who served at Fort Decatur are Finnegan, Craig, Gale, McGuire, McGowan, Smith and Sweeny.

In the mid-19th century, during the great Irish immigration to the USA, some immigrants settled in Far Rockaway. Early maps and writings from that time list names from “The Sons of Erin,” in Far Rockaway. They are: Caffrey, Mulry, McCarty, McCarthy, Moran, Finnucan, Norton, Kelly the sheriff, Kelly the mason, Harper, Conway, Bell, McManus, Horton, Wynn, Reilly, Healy, McKelvy, Horan, Mulhearn, Shilling, Craig, Mimnaugh, Skelly, McTigue, Jones, Murray, Hughes, Hickey, Fitzpatrick, Prendergast, Gunning, Allen, Clark, Clake, Cleary, Curtis, Darcy, Deragh, Donohue, Flynn, Grifan and McCabe. They all contributed to developing the area by the late 1850s. The residential area became known as The Irish Saratoga!

The Seaside section began to grow as a summer resort after the Civil War. Many hotels and bathhouses were built with watering holes. Restaurants were also constructed for the tourists seeking relief at the seashore from the hot inner city. Apparently, things were not as cool in Seaside as thought. In 1876, Mr. Acton E. Kelly published the first newspaper in Rockaway in an effort to establish law and order. We also learned that Ellen Kelly ran a den of iniquity in Seaside, where persons of questionable character “hung-out.” It is not known if the Kelly’s mentioned were related in any way. At times, places like these were wrecked and closed down by respected locals. Law and order was not established until many years later when a solid Police Force was established.

By 1881, there were 48 bars in Seaside. MOST were operated by Irish owners.

A local map dated in 1886 revealed the following Irish surnames in the Seaside area: O’Brien, Ennis, Norton, Waters, Smith, Harrison, Magerus, Welch, Walsh, Emmet, Boyle, McDevitt, Phalen, Murray, Valentine, Curley, McLain, Morrison, Reynolds, Farrell, Sheeran, Fannagen, Hepburn, Coghlan, Griffing, Ryan, Muir, Donnelly, Freil, Horan and Brosnan.

Tragedy struck during the cold season in 1892 when the entire Seaside section from Beach 102nd Street to Beach 106th Street (ocean to bay) burned to the ground. Before the ashes cooled, proprietors began to rebuild new and larger establishments. New land developers purchased land and built new hotels and amusements. The rest of the peninsula also experienced a building-boom.

At the turn of the century, Seaside (old Irishtown), uncovered the surnames: Healys, Barnes, Mulhearn, Tiernan, Curley, McIntosh, Murray, Waters, Morrison, Shilling, McKeon, Finan, McVey, Kavanagh, Flynn, McCaffrey, Harper, Garrison, Candee, Allen, Gilmore and Darde.

In 1909, the Irish Catholic population of Seaside was growing. The strong desire to build their own house of worship was eminent. Today it is known as St. Camillus Roman Catholic Church. This parish was once known as the wealthiest on the peninsula. St. Camillus was originally a mission of St. Rose of Lima, as were the other churches in the Rockaways.

In 1910, Tent City in Seaside slowly gave way to the construction of wooden bungalows by Mr. John Egan. Some of these structures still stand today amid Dayton Towers West and around Beach 101st Street. The old Fitzgerald’s building was once the only pavilion in Tent City. It served as a restaurant, bar, bowling alley, dance hall, meeting place, etc. for renters at Tent City. Egan was followed by many other land developers in the bungalow-building business from about Beach 40th Street to 109th Street.

In 1918, many Irish young men from Rockaway were drafted into the military to fight World War I. Colonel J. J. Byrne of Far Rockaway, commanded our 24th Company Field Artillery.

The war had ended and peacetime brought on the ‘Roaring 20’s’. Cross bay Boulevard was built and visitors now had a short trip to enjoy the many ‘spots’ that were illegal during Prohibition, when the Volstead Act of 1919 was repealed (1933).  You can read the LONG list of bars in The Rockaway Times' celebrated issue that was dedicated to all 680+ bars/pubs that existed in Rockaway since the 1850’s. Here’s a link:

Here’s some interesting Irish News and Facts:

1920 – The Friends of Irish Freedom formed in Far Rockaway.

1921 – The American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, famed in Rockaway Beach, met in Pachinger’s Hall on Beach 85th Street. 

James Meehan of Far Rockaway befriended a young gentleman in need, and in return became one of the principle stockholders of the Singer Sewing Machine Company in America.

Patrick Connors was the head of the U.S. Longshoremen’s Union. He lived in Seaside. Thomas Flynn lived in the same area and was president of Local 12, Industrial Union Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America.

The Harbor Light Restaurant, was first Mrs. Dolan’s Inn, then Pete’s Place, and after that was The Newport Inn.

J.A. Bradley, a veteran of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, lived in Seaside.

After WWII, Seaside was nicknamed “Rockaway Irishtown USA.” Irishtown was flourishing on a rebirth. The war was over, loved ones were returning home, and everyone was out to have a good time. More bars, restaurants, hotels and concessions along the beach were built. 

It was said that the construction of Dayton Towers West was what finally destroyed the greater part of Irishtown. The main reason for the downfall of Seaside (Rockaway Irishtown USA) was that many concessionaires in the area refused to contribute part of their huge profits towards the area's promotion of Seaside through radio, newspapers, firework displays and special events. This became a trickle-down effect for others to drop out of the areas promotions.

Then came the Glorious 1950’s. Playland was the main attraction for the amusement-minded crowd. Irishtown’s ‘thrills’ began to dwindle down to a scant few near the Irish Circle on Beach 102nd Street.

It’s fair to say that many Irish settlers took a huge part in building much of the Rockaways. We give thanks and much gratitude for the investments and sacrifices they made. “Go raibh maith agat.”