*Reprinted from Syracuse.com, Mar. 18, 2012
I grew up on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse with the memory of sitting on our front stoop with Pa Ryan and his dog listening to the park lion’s roar. Pa was our landlord on Whittier Avenue. Years later, on a visit to the Ryan gravesite in St. Agnes Cemetery, I discovered that Pa had died six years before I was born.
The idea of knowing Pa was impressed upon me as a toddler from daily visits to Ma Ryan sitting in her rocking chair by the front window, a photograph of Pa and Boots on the table beside her. The day I visited St. Agnes’ to say a prayer for the Ryans, I had been a professional photographer for nearly 10 years.
From the first day of school I walked down the hill to St. Patrick’s. Away from the exotic sights and sounds of the park, my classmates and I trudged a path — Whittier to Burnet Park Drive to the Green Light at Tompkins to Lowell — four times a day for the next 13 years.
At age 19, with my parents’ blessing, I set out to see the world. On my first visit to Upperchurch in Ireland’s County Tipperary, ancestral home of the Ryans and Burkes (my grandmother’s family), I felt as if I was standing in Burnet Park looking across the valley to Bellevue Heights or in the hills of Pompey, where my grandmother, Katie Burke, had immigrated to care for her brother’s children after his wife had died.
The view from Michael Burke’s farmhouse on Burke Road must have made Katie feel at home as well. A flying visit to any village in Tipperary and one would understand why the Irish settled here.
During and after the potato blight and resulting famine of the 1840s, more than 5,000 Irish arrived in Onondaga County, where many sought out familiar faces from home. Hundreds from Thurles settled in Geddes. Irish from Upperchurch, a mountain village near Thurles, settled in Pompey.
“It is true, of course,” writes Lawrence McCaffrey in “The Irish Diaspora in America” (1976), “that Irish immigrants were probably the least sophisticated Europeans entering the United States in the first half of the 19th century. But they did have a culture and a history — a painful record as victims of conquest, colonialism, serfdom, tyranny, prejudice, poverty and famine. They came as refugees from disaster, people running away from misery and death rather than rushing toward freedom and opportunity.
“However, their experience with Anglo-Saxon Protestant prejudice in Ireland did positively influence their adjustments to life in America. When confronted with Anglo-American Protestant prejudice, Irish immigrants (recognized the game) and developed a solidarity which was expressed in Irish-American nationalism and political power.”
And while most immigrants arrived “hats in hand,” the Syracuse Irish would soon build St. Patrick’s Church with its delicate shamrock window high above the main altar, and later, celebrate their Irishness by creating the legend of a signal light in a place they named Tipperary Hill.
Wherever the Irish settled they built churches. Owning property was a symbol of individual freedom and dignity to peasant immigrants. A church building symbolized a kind of material success.
To acquire the land to build St. Patrick’s, the Syracuse diocese was aided by a rebellious priest, Joseph Guerdet, once expelled from his native France for protesting against Louis-Philippe, and an eminent Irish-born surgeon, Gregory Doyle, raised in Binghamton.
Father Guerdet was pastor of St. John the Evangelist parish, which included worshipers from Geddes when he commissioned Dr. Doyle to find and purchase a site for the new church. When word spread about Guerdet’s plans, many leading non-Catholics vigorously opposed the project, offering to buy the land from the church.
Doyle had locked up the equivalent today of lakefront property. The Erie Canal was less than 100 yards away; St. Patrick’s would be built in an industrial hub on the banks of the busiest highway in America! Ironically, many of the men behind the attempt to move St. Patrick’s ensured its future by opening the soda ash plant in Solvay in 1884.
In Ireland, each county had its own character, and generally one or more expressive nicknames. There were the Far-Downs in the North, the Yellow Bellies in Wexford. The Roaring Tips from Nenagh were also (known as) the Stone-Throwers of Tipperary. These expressions were not necessarily offensive but … handy to administer when county feeling ran high.
In Onondaga County, the Irish met the Upstreeters and Swampers of Liverpool, the Salt Pointers of Syracuse, the Garry Owens of Geddes, or the Canallers and Masons of Lodi. They worked together for their rights. When they had to fight, they knew the art. Prejudice against their race and the general conditions under which all pioneers in this county lived, made physical combat the court of justice.
Peter Caldwell, an early pioneer of Salina, was a small man, well-read and cranky, and played his part in the battles of the day, according to a story told in “The Pioneer Irish of Onondaga.” Like all the Irish, he met prejudice and hostility. In the fights along the canal he used his fists and his wife followed with her apron full of stones.
The legend of the Green Light began on Tipperary Hill in 1925. Young men protesting England’s history in Ireland, and the perceived insult of the signal’s red lens glowing over the green, reportedly hurled stones at the light until city alderman John “Huckle” Ryan intervened and persuaded the council to allow the lenses to be reversed. The light remained so until the state of New York ordered the city to conform the lenses to the law.
Soon after the state’s mandate, the story goes, stones again began to fly. And though contemporary newspaper and police reports of hooligans pelting the light are curiously nonexistent, there are ample precedents for Tipp Hill’s stone-thrower lore and only reasonable doubt against it.
The case against … The naysayers contend that by 1900 the Irish had survived the bias and prejudice of their immigrant experience and wouldn’t have rocked the boat. Tipperary Hill was the center of great activity. Its crown, including Burnet Park and land for the city’s first planned community (Coleridge, Whittier, Bryant and Tennyson), had been annexed from Geddes in 1886. Families, including World War I veterans, were moving into the neighborhood. Burnet Park drew thousands to its zoo, golf course, swimming pool and acres of landscaped gardens. It was a very busy place.
If anyone had vandalized the light, how did the police and the newspapers miss out on all the fun? News reports read like mini novels. On July 7, 1914, for example, coverage of St. Patrick’s annual picnic in Burnet Park read, “The center of attraction for the children was the new enclosures which will soon house the first animals of the Syracuse zoo.
“These animals have not arrived as yet but Brother Dorsey, the ever-ready man of the minute, saw that the enclosures were not empty. He rounded up a number of dogs, three lambs and his own white horse, which soon became pets of the entire crowd.”
Wouldn’t someone have had a grand time reporting on the Irish battling city hall? They argue that Ryan most likely ignored the state’s mandate. Huckle Ryan was an elected official; the genuine article. His word was law.
In those days, troubled residents of Tipp Hill knew very well that a word to the right person in the right place (say, the long bar at the Yates Hotel), and one might likely expect to find that the disposition of, say, a murder charge, had been reduced to an improper left-hand turn.
In 1957, on a Saturday morning, promises made on a Thursday, followed by a jurist’s clouded memory on Friday, led to a Post-Standard headline that read, “Justice Takes A Holiday: City court judge releases seven defendants in a row.”
As recent as the 1970s, a judge and jury were reduced to tears after an Irish defendant was reportedly given the option of pleading out on a traffic charge or offering all present his rendition of the mournful Irish ballad “Skibbereen.”
Oh, Father dear, I oft times hear you talk of Erin’s Isle,
Her lofty scene, her valleys green, her mountains rude and wild
They say it is a pretty place where in a prince might dwell,
Oh, why did you abandon it, the reason to me tell?
The case was dismissed. Who would dare take on Huckle Ryan for flipping a traffic light?
My bet is that old men curled over a pint, regaling young men with talk of boyhood days in Ireland when “shillelagh law” was all the rage, likely inspired the lore of the light. “The father walking the seven miles from Upperchurch to Thurles to cheer on the Ryans from Doon and the Bawnies from Borrisoleigh. The women carrying stones in bags to support our side … ”
On the other hand …, the Irish loved to fight, and the odd stone hurled in the heat of battle was only to be expected.
According to “Views on Irish Peasantry,” by Daniel J. Casey and Robert E. Rhodes (1977), “the name (Stone Throwers) came about because of a strange social phenomenon thriving in Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century .. known as ‘Faction Fighting’ or ‘Shillelagh Fighting.’ These were planned events where men in two lines met face to face and fought for usually no other reason other than the sheer love of fighting between groups whose members had in common drink and loose bonds of kinship or friendship.
“Fighters … were bound in duty to ‘never back off if fight was offered.’ They fought with large sticks, some hardened and loaded with lead and manufactured usually from the ready-available blackthorn tree or from ash suckers.
“On the 20th March 1826, in the main square of Thurles women standing on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle … began firing large rocks at the opposing faction. The stones it seems had been secreted away in their shopping baskets, in readiness for this event. .. The stones fired by these women missed intended targets and broke many of the windows of the local shopkeepers. The police who intervened were ‘desperately attacked’ and shots were fired killing three men. This serious riot was only quelled by the intervention of the 15th Royal Foot Regiment, then garrisoned in Thurles, who were prevailed upon to support the local authorities.”
In the final analysis, it’s possible that the stone throwers on Tipp Hill may have been women. Consider that County Tipperary women, ancestors of the Syracuse Irish, earned the appellation “stone thrower” after inciting a riot in the market town of Thurles nearly 100 years ago.
Imagine the well-read and cranky Peter Caldwell fighting his way along the canal as his good wife followed with her apron full of stones. As for the lack of official records, what brand of Irishman would rat out his own mother or his sisters?
Each March 17, I visit St. Patrick’s to say a prayer for those souls waylaid in Purgatory for claiming through the years to have thrown stones at the light. And I visit “the corner” — the intersection beneath the Green Light where generations of St. Pat’s kids hung out under the watchful eye of Dinny Gilmartin. His store is long gone, but the building remains, and it’s possible by standing with one’s back against the wall that once framed a huge picture window, to gain the angle from which Dinny looked out at the light and at the world.
From there, I watch a few turns of the light, as the green lens glows above the red, and am reminded once again how precious memories are; how sacred life is; how wonderful it is to have been born and raised on Tipperary Hill.