The author goes down memory lane at Weldon House.
By Pat Fenton
For 33 years, my father Andrew Fenton worked for Con Ed down on Hudson Avenue in the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn. Most of those years were spent working the coal furnaces, shoveling coal into their open doors as the shadows in the room took on a flickering orange glow, and the fire roared up. This was in the 1940s and ‘50s.
I once saw a picture of him standing in front of an open furnace. He’s wearing a pea cap with a union button proudly pinned on the side of it, and a pair of sweet-orr work pants. They’re the kind you used to buy in the Army-Navy stores.
He’s 41 years old in 1940, an Irish immigrant from County Galway when they list him on the Brooklyn census. His occupation is listed as “Porter, Electric Company.” And you know he must be glad when one day, years later, they move him from cleaning the men’s rooms of Con-Ed to working the furnace room as a “fireman,” shoveling coal on the four to midnight. He rarely took a day off, and I never heard him complain.
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These thoughts came to mind recently, stirred up by some memories of a summer road trip up to East Durham, New York, with my wife Patricia and some pictures we took while we were there.
Like a lot of first generation Irish, I was looking for the doorway that would take me further into my father’s past, take me further into his Ireland.
I see him in memory now, a tall, handsome man wearing a straw hat as he walks down 9th Avenue past the rectory of Holy Name Church in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn in the very early hours of morning. The streets are empty. He’s carrying an old suitcase as he heads for the subway station over on Windsor Place, and a train that will take him up to the Port Authority bus terminal. He’s boarding a Greyhound bus. His destination is East Durham, New York.
He stares out the window at the city as the bus leaves the ramp. It’s 1961 and there are no I pads, or cell phones to distract him, only the window view of the city, and the New York Daily News and the sports column of Jimmy Powers. And as I imagine that day, I would give anything to be sitting next to him and taking that trip all over again.
He’s headed for the Weldon House, an Irish resort that had been in East Durham since about 1923. For years I have held onto a picture of him sitting alone on the lawn of the Weldon House. And on his face is this peaceful sort of a half-smile. He’s away from the furnaces of Hudson Avenue in Brooklyn now.
And before he goes back there will be many nights spent in places like the Shamrock House, down the road, as they dance to the music of the ceili. On some nights a lone accordion player will take the stage and couples will get up and slow dance together, holding each other tight as lonely memories of a younger time in Ireland comes back to them.
I wanted to walk across the dance floor where that all happened, a place my father celebrated life in. A few months ago I took a room in the Shamrock House on Route 145.
It’s owned by Emma and Larry Molloy who recently bought it, and are doing a good job in bringing it back to something we don’t have much of anymore in America, a simple, no frills, clean room in a country resort where you can get away for a while with your family and friends.
Day by day, season by season, they are trying to bring back a piece of Irish history to East Durham. Larry is from Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, and his wife Emma is from County Cavan. I came into town on a Monday, a day the bar and restaurant of the Shamrock is closed. Later that night, after telling them about how my dad used to come up here all the time, Larry asked me and my wife to take a walk over to the bar with him.
He unlocked the door and we walked into the pitch dark saloon. Soon some lights came on, and I took a seat at the long bar that ran the length of the room. He poured some drinks for us, but the $20 I put on the bar would never be touched.
I walked back to the dance hall with him, pint of Guinness in hand. He flipped a switch and the hall lit up. I stood there for a while just staring out at the high stage, the old wooden beams that have been here forever, the faint shine on the wood of the dance floor which had been rebuilt in 1946.
Larry told me that it still all comes alive again on weekends and holidays. The fiddlers still come, and the Irish dancers, along with some of the same families whose fathers and mothers were coming here for decades. They still come back each year.
Before I left East Durham, I drove a little further down Route 145, and I made a stop at the old Weldon House where my father used to stay. Once it could lodge over 140 guests in its rooms. It’s closed now. Some years ago it was dedicated as a historic building. I tried the front door, and it opened, but there was no one inside.
As I stood in the shadows of the empty front parlor next to an old piano, I called out, but no one answered me. Before I left, I took a folding chair out of the trunk of my car, and I sat up on the front lawn of the Weldon House at the same spot where my father once sat. I sat there for a while as it started to rain.
Pat Fenton’s play “Stoopdreamer” recently concluded a successful 21-performance run at the Cell Theatre in New York, as part of Origin’s 2015 1st Irish Festival.