They helped build the seashore and stamped it with their personality
ATLANTIC CITY — When the Big Day arrives this weekend, some 40 celebrants will assault 15 pounds of corned beef, 10 pounds of ham, and 15 pounds of potatoes at the Absecon home of Charles Coyle.
“Some are Irish [only] for the day,” says the maker of the feast, who is the real deal, but embellishes the occasion by changing his moniker to Charles Patrick O’Coyle. The better to serve up “O’Coyle’s Creamy Potato Soup.”
In for a day, in for a lifetime. Such gustatory and cultural exuberance pays reverence, of course, to Ireland’s patron saint, that zealous missionary and apocryphal snake charmer of the 5th century (AD), Patrick himself. But well beyond the annual parades and parties, the Irish impact on the seashore persists.
Its roots took hold a dozen centuries after Saint Patrick, when Irish Quakers sailed into the Delaware River and established a village near present-day Collingswood, N.J., in the early 1680s. Among their ranks was London tallow maker Mark Newbie, who rejected England’s religious persecution and joined the Irish Quaker colony ticketed for North America. Newbie, a collector of coins, minted a political career on his new shores and devised the region’s first currency. The lineage, then, from Newbie to “Shoobies” is clear and, indeed, the casinos owe the Brit-turned-Irishman a debt of gratitude.
A century later, both religion and venue changed, as Irish Catholics arrived in the Pinelands to work the forbidding iron foundries, and entertain the existence of a Jersey Devil.
When the bog forges finally bogged down, the Irish of the Pines helped build the Camden and Atlantic Railroad in 1854 under the direction of countryman Patrick O’Reilly (also indicated as Reilly).
The race to Atlantic City, incorporated that same year, was on, as sweltering Philadelphians escaped to Dr. Jonathan Pitney’s seaside resort and canny investors purchased real estate hand-over-fist. (Pitney was not Atlantic County’s first physician — that distinction belongs to Irishman Richard Collins, of Galloway Township.) Sensing the significance of his work, engineer O’Reilly became one of the land barons; two decades later, he deeded property at Tennessee and Atlantic avenues to the city for its new City Hall.
Born in Kingston — not the islands, but the west coast of Ireland — Daniel Morris, O’Reilly’s railroad surveyor and the city’s first, also joined the land rush, reportedly acquiring large tracts of beachfront and other parcels.
When he wasn’t snapping up properties, Civil War veteran Morris laid out the city streets and founded the local military unit that bore his name (and built an armory to suit); Morris Guardsmen subsequently served in the Spanish-American War, with more to come. Another O’Reilly associate, business partner Thomas Bedloe, completed a boardinghouse in time to accommodate the inaugural train-trippers.
“Irish people ran [most of] the boardinghouses,” says local attorney Al McGee of later hostelries.
“Names like McGettigan, McGuire . . . the Erin Café on Arkansas Avenue. There were about 10 bars and boardinghouses [close to the train station].”
In the early days, visitors who had secured lodging and victuals needed a way station between beach and boardinghouse. Thomas Brady, born in Ireland, and son Joseph were among bathhouse proprietors who filled that need. The soul required its own elixirs, and the enterprising (and adaptable) Bedloe yielded his dining room for the island’s first Catholic Mass after recruiting a Philadelphia priest to officiate. Bedloe’s homey gatherings gave rise to the pioneer parish of St. Nicholas, and its first chapel at a familiar intersection — Tennessee and Atlantic — on land owned by the Big Two: Morris and O’Reilly. In 1905, the church moved beachward to Pacific Avenue, where Philadelphia contractor John McShain Sr. built the iconic, elegant St. Nicholas of Tolentine that’s still there.
In 1937, Atlantic City’s Chelsea Hotel hosted the 60th national convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a politically active Irish-American fraternal society. A likeminded organization based in Atlantic City underwent a personality change not long after its inception in 1935.
“There were very few Irish figures in public life [at that time],” says Ventnor attorney Frank Ferry, a past president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Southern New Jersey.
Spearheaded by now legendary powerbroker State Senator Frank “Hap” Farley, the Friendly Sons sought to nurture Irish politicos, but “it didn’t turn out that way,” says Ferry. Instead, it was all about a “celebration of Irish heritage.” Ferry’s parents hosted the Friendlies’ maiden meeting at their Graham Hotel, States and Pacific avenues. Farley served as toastmaster for the annual conclave, which grew to banquet proportions as the expanding membership reached beyond Irish Catholics. The atmosphere, however, stayed vibrantly Irish.
“Hap would wear his green fedora and a green vest, and have a very big shillelagh [walking stick],” recalls Ferry, who eventually became Farley’s law partner. The organization remains active and awards two college scholarships each year.
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