By Peter McDermott
The death last month of a 22-year-old Irish woman working in Asia made headlines on both sides of the border, but the tragedy has also been the cause of heartbreak in a corner of Queens.
Donegal-born Derry resident Lisa Orsi contracted altitude sickness on a short trekking vacation with friends to a volcano in Indonesia. She never recovered after collapsing in her hotel room, and two weeks later was pronounced dead in a hospital in Singapore, where she’d been working as a physiotherapist. Her funeral took place in Derry on March 13 and the burial was in her maternal grandparents’ home village of Fanad, Co. Donegal.
She was recalled lovingly by a relative, Kathleen McNulty, long-time proprietor of the Irish Cottage, on 72nd Street, Forest Hills. The young Orsi and her friend Eve also from Donegal, worked in the Forest Hills bar-restaurant for the summer of 2013.
“They’d been friends since they were babies. They went everywhere together,” McNulty recalled. “And everybody here loved them. They are still talking about them.”
The young women, she added, enjoyed shopping in Austin Street in Forest Hills and in Manhattan, and socializing in Woodside.
Soon after her young cousin, who’d turned 21 in New York, went home to resume her studies in physiotherapy, McNulty bought her a plane ticket, treating her to a week’s holiday back in New York in the fall of 2013.
McNulty wasn’t surprised that the young woman was such good company and so beloved by Irish Cottage customers. On trips back to Donegal she’d seen her grow up as part of the extended McAteer family, which included her maternal grandparents Rosemary and John Orsi. “They were full of life,” she said. “Lisa was so like them. She was full of fun.”
“As you all know, Lisa has moved on, but not without leaving a massive footprint on all our lives,” said the family in a statement after her death. "Lisa loved life, she wanted to see what was round the next corner and, if there was someone standing round the corner, she would stop.”
Lisa Orsi, an enthusiastic Gaelic footballer, was the first ever Western organ donor in Singapore, the Belfast Telegraph reported. Nine of her organs were used in transplants.
Family members and friends, including a doctor, had flown out to Singapore to be at the gravely ill woman’s bedside. “Her father’s business had to close in Derry,” McNulty said of Dennis Orsi.
“I’d love to help the family,” she said, adding that she has hopes that Orsi’s friends, as well as Derry and Donegal people and women in the GAA, will organize a fundraiser in coming months.
McNulty was always close to her cousins the McAteers -- Fr. Francis, Alice and Rosemary.
“I always stayed with Alice,” she said of trips home over the decades. “I’m glad she didn’t live to see this. She’d be heartbroken.”
Rosemary, who was somewhat younger than her siblings, married another local, John Orsi (like many in Donegal, they had close links to Scotland, which is where their Italian antecedent joins the family tree).
She remembers further back those halcyon days of summer of the 1950s before she emigrated. The late Fr. Francis played the accordion and they partied until dawn. “He was a great singer,” she said.
“No drinking or anything like that,” she remembered. “Tea and scones.”
McNulty was to spend a career, however, in the hospitality trade in Queens, after she’d raised her family.
Danny McNulty established the bar-restaurant back in 1960. He took a wrong turn one night out for a few drinks and got into a business discussion with a stranger. He told Kathleen: “I think I bought a bar last night.”
His friends questioned the wisdom of an Irish saloon in what was, and largely remains, a Jewish neighborhood. But Danny McNulty ran it for the 26 years until his death and it has continued to thrive with Kathleen McNulty at the helm in the 29 years since.
Part of the appeal has been the friendly Irish staff, she believes.
Jay Wanczyk, a resident of New Jersey, agrees. He happened upon the place on a visit to Austin Street and saw that it wasn’t “fake Irish.”
Wanczyk said: “I liked it and everyone there. It’s an extended family. That’s the type place it is.”
Of Orsi, he said. “I knew her only briefly, but will always remember what a wonderful loving person she was. Full of energy, the essence of life itself. And I remember that great goodbye hug that warms me to this day whenever I think of it.”
He added: “Her friends and I were heartbroken at this tragic news. And as one said, ‘God bless her family.’”
Current bartender Lisa Loughery, from Derry, remembered her friend as “always smiling, very outgoing.”
She recalled that during the vacation paid for by McNulty, she took a trip upstate with Orsi. An Irish Cottage regular, Pete, was the driver and Loughery’s boxer mix Ranger was with them, too. During their adventure they found the Bridge Creek Café, a pet-friendly place in New Paltz, N.Y., with outside seating. Loughery smiled at a happy memory – Ranger sitting with them, a napkin secured in his collar
And then, shaking her head, she thought of the other Lisa, climbing up the highest mountain in the region. “She had so much energy,” she said.