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Tipperary Hill Revisited: From St. Patrick’s Shamrock window to its iconic ‘Green Light’

We lived on Whittier Avenue, a few hundred yards from Burnet Park. I visited the zoo nearly every day. At five in the morning the park belonged to me; the fields and courts, the clubhouse, the pool, the swan pond, the wild and exotic animals, the gardens, the high grass and woods and freshwater springs along Grand Avenue and the magnificent views from Round Top and Buffalo Rock. All mine.

I would often detour away from the zoo across dew-covered diamonds to run the bases, dodging ghostly tags, imaging hapless outfielders chasing long fly balls as I raced for home plate. In the distance, I could hear the lions roar. The zoo building was a high cavernous sky lit expanse. The cages were very small; brick-walled, with metal sheets and steel bars that gathered the roaring sounds and propelled them outward, pelting me with high amplitude shockwaves that nearly took my breath away. And I remember feelings of claustrophobia for the animals.

One day, Dan, the zookeeper, showed me a shotgun he’d kept behind a basement door. “In case a cat gets out,” he said, as he replaced the gun. “I’d try to tranquilize it!” “What if you miss?” I said. “If I miss, my soul will be in the hands of God,” he answered, “and my body will be in the hands of George Dawson, the undertaker.”

I would shadow Dan dragging a ready bucket of raw meat for the lions and the other cats. Afterwards, with the scent of the zoo on me, I’d leave to run up the road behind the bear’s den in time to catch the sun lighting up the city below. By mid-morning, the park drew most of the neighborhood children where we spent the day until Mrs. O’Brien’s cowbell signaled timeout or the roars from the zoo set off another riotous cacophony. Later, the crowds would return to the park to watch a fast-pitch game or swim or walk.

By sunset, we were home again to settle on front stoops, captains all, lords of the twilight, young and old, listening, remembering, creating the lore that binds the legacy of Tipperary Hill. For many, the mention of Syracuse’s west-end brings to mind the “Green Light.” For those of us with history on this tiny patch, there is another light that shines brighter and deeper; one that reaches into one’s psyche.

It is the light that illuminates the shamrock window in St. Patrick’s church when the sun is high and the church is dark. In the solitude of that space the past reveals itself: the Children’s Mass, Latin missals, First Communion and Confirmation, the organists’ explosively cathartic renditions of Great and Glorious St. Patrick, Father Driscoll’s angst-laden sermons, and the funerals of my parents and friends.

The pot on Tipperary Hill was stirred a bit recently when Tom Hurley, a journalist from Cashel Co. Tipperary, showed up in Syracuse to see what the fuss on Tipperary Hill was all about. Hoping to enlighten listeners at home in Tipperary town, Hurley wanted to know how the Irish “got on when they got off the boat.”

I took the interview at Burnet Park to make Hurley feel at home. The view at Round Top reminds me of a valley in Ireland cut from Upperchurch to Slievenamon (the Mountain of the Women). Our conversation covered the Irish diaspora; the waves of immigration created by the American Revolution, the Erie Canal, the Great Hunger and the American Civil War.

Then the question of the “Upside-down Light” came up. I mentioned to Hurley that there is magic and poetry in the words “Green Light” and few Tipperary Hill Irish refer to this quintessential icon as the “upside down light.”

I also shared my doubts over the veracity of the Stone Throwers legend; legend defined here as a traditional story popularly regarded as historical by some, but unauthenticated by fact.

For years, I have searched without success through ancient records and newspapers for any mention of the light. Writer Dick Case, himself a legend, also admits to searching without success. I recently received a copy of Hurley’s interviews. Old neighbors Peter Coleman and Jeff Costello were contacted, included as well were Dennis Heaphy, Dan Ward, Bob Obrist, Sean Kirst and Janice McKenna.

Hurley recorded Sean Kirst offering an embellishment to the Stone Thrower story I’d never heard. When questioned about the light, Kirst said, “Ya, I think it happened. I saw something mentioned in my old paper about stone throwing.”

(Years ago, I had been fortunate to see Kirst in action as we scrambled to find the pilot who had taken me on the flight of a lifetime.)

Kirst may not have realized the magnitude of his research; the discovery of Tipp Hill’s version of the Holy Grail! I called him for confirmation. “I have it. It ran,’ he said, ‘Found a copy. Only reference I’ve ever found to stone throwers.”

Here it is:

Town Talk by Jim Colligan, Syracuse Herald. March 17, 1928: Commissioner Bradley received a delegation in his office at the City Hall representing John R. O’Reilly, Gil Martin, Isadore Wichman, Jim Kernan, Dr. Raymond Devine, Huckle Ryan and other members of the Tipperary Hill Protective Association.

“Directing traffic’s one thing,” the spokesman declared to Bradley, “But an insult’s another and a thing like that on a day like this is an insult.” Commissioner Bradley did not quite get the point. It was explained to him carefully. “It’s that light,” the spokesman said, “The one at Tompkins and Milton. If you don’t do something at once you won’t have a light there tonight.”

“What’s the matter with it?” Bradley asked. “The matter with it,” he was told. “Why what do you think’s the matter with it? Here it is St. Patrick’s Day and darned if that light isn’t flashing first green, which is all right, and then orange and then red. It’s got to stop.”

“Well,” said Bradley, “We put the green on top didn’t we? It’s the only light in the city with the green over the red isn’t it? Be reasonable.”

“What d’ye mean, be reasonable?” The spokesman’s voice could be heard over in Clinton Square and he was turning red himself. “Who do you think you’re trying to argue with, eh? Be reasonable, eh? Ain’t I being reasonable I asks you? Give me a chance to talk. Don’t interrupt me. I’m being reasonable. I’m trying to save your job for you.”

By this time the spokesman was getting so reasonable that a small crowd had gathered outside of Bradley’s office and the police would have been over but they were busy playing tag the bandit.

“I want to tell you this and get it straight and don’t get excited about it. That light isn’t going to stand there all day flashing its red and orange over Tipperary Hill. Not while there’s any stones on the hill it ain’t. Take a tip, mister. Turn on the green light on and leave it that way.”

This serendipitous discovery does not necessarily reprieve souls now languishing in Purgatory for claiming to have tossed something at the light. Reasonable doubt is still in play. However, an undeniable fact throughout history is that popular culture has a way of creating legends that have a way of becoming unquestionable truths.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Tom Hurley reported: “You know the way people laugh at people who claim Irish ancestry but don’t know any more about it besides that? A lot of people I met over there (Tipperary Hill) knew it! They weren’t bluffing, they had records, they had incredible knowledge. There is a sense of pride in the neighborhood!”

To listen to the interview: