By Peter McDermott
L is for Love, and the L train is, too.
For it was on that Brooklyn to Manhattan line that Miriam Nyhan and Eon Grey first struck up a conversation.
“I was going to JFK on the subway and en route I met my life partner. Still going strong almost 14 years on,” said Nyhan, a professor at Glucksman Ireland House NYU and host of “This Irish American Life”on Saturdays in New York on WNYE 91.5 FM (worldwide on www.nyuirish.net/radiohour).
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Many New Yorkers think the idea of strangers meeting on a train is terribly romantic, whether on the subway or Metro North (where Hitchcock’s villainous pair meet in the not at all romantic “Strangers on a Train”), or LIRR, or the PATH or further afield. But we know, of course, that the woman from Wicklow and the man from Jamaica (where the Nyhan/Grey wedding took place) belong to the lucky few. So with St. Valentine’s Day tomorrow, the Echo surveyed some other members of the Irish community about how they found the love of their life, and also asked occasional contributor Patricia Phelan to write about how she met her husband Tom.
Miriam Nyhan and Eon Grey got married in Jamaica.
Paul & Rosa Finnegan
In the course of doing a mundane if important administrative task Paul Finnegan found himself “instantly besotted” with a young woman, “although I learned later I did not have quite the same profound impact on her as she’d had on me.”
He recounted for us the beginning of the love story between a man born in Phoenix, Ariz., and raised in the West of Ireland, and a woman born in the Dominican Republic, and raised in Corona, Queens, New York City.
“Once upon a time, when I was working in the offices of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodside,” he said, “I had copies of a funding contract to sign, seven in total, and was in need of a notary to authenticate my signatures.”
The Emerald Isle’s receptionist Úna knew of one. “She advised me to cross Roosevelt Avenue and go along 61st Street until I came upon a small real estate office with a Notary Public sign in its window,” he recalled. “The office in question wasn’t just small, it was tiny, but it was graced by someone who has gone on to have a very large presence in my life ever since, my wife and best friend, Rosa.
“I walked away from there that day with seven notarized pages, wondering if there was anything else I needed notarized. Something told me to slip one page from the pile and keep it for myself, sending back only six copies of the signed contract to the funder,” said Paul, a Galway City native who these days is executive director of the New York Irish Center in Long Island City. “Well, no one there noticed, which tells you something about paperwork, and to this day Rosa and I have a legal document to prove the very moment we first laid eyes on each other.
“A short time later I again required a notary, and I couldn’t get back to that tiny real estate office on 61st Street in Woodside fast enough. And this time I plucked up the courage to ask Rosa out, and to my great and eternal fortune she gave me a shot. I am happy to report I am still in good standing with her, and I am finally now on the verge of passing my probation.
“I haven’t told this story for years so it’s really, really nice to relive it again and count my blessings,” said the father of two teenagers, “I’ve long since lost contact with Úna, but I wish her the very best for playing such a brief, unwitting, yet pivotal role in the story of my life.”
Paul and Rosa Finnegan.
Jim & Bridget Cagney
“I can still see myself dancing around the floor of the Rest,” Jim Cagney said, referring to the University College Cork restaurant, the venue for the Sunday night hop during term. “Cork people like to shorten words. For instance, Patrick Street is Pana,” he said.
Anyway, back to the hop. He remembered “The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee” was playing, and Johnny Cagney was on bass for Billy Browne and His Band of Renown.
Johnny, with whom he shared a bedroom during term, was his first cousin, being the son of his dad’s brother, Patrick Cagney, a dispensary doctor and medical registrar under whose roof he stayed during his UCC days through graduation in 1960. It was very convenient. His uncle’s house was No. 4 Red Cliff, Western Road, just across the road from college (future doctor, Ireland captain and Munster coach — when they beat the All Blacks in 1978 — Tom Kiernan lived next door in No. 3).
Although studying science was hard, Jim has fun thinking back on those years. It was so much better than the “drudgery of farming” back at Gibbings Grove in Milford, he recalled on Sunday just in from a trip with Bridget to Macy’s and Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church.
It was Jim’s best friend George, an electrical engineering student, who played the key role in this story. He brought his sister, Bridget, and Jim was instantaneously love-struck. “I can even remember what she was wearing,” he said. “A black dress with grey threads in it.”
Did she feel the same way? Did the science student believe there was chemistry involved? “I think so,” Jim said, though he conceded he did have what would be a big advantage for any undergraduate — a Ford Anglia. “She was won over immediately,” he added with a laugh.
The car was red, and Jim called it Genevieve, in honor of the 1953 romantic comedy on the big screen featuring two young couples and their antique automobiles.
In the medium term, they had crucial parental backing. Bridget’s mother — whom he described as a “wonderful person” and a “great provider” during the tough times that were the 1930s and the years of World War II –- said theirs was a match “ordained in heaven.” And as if by way of proof, she dramatically unfolded one evening her child’s long-form birth certificate and pointed to the box with the medical registrar’s name: “Dr. Patrick Cagney.”
Bridget and Jim Cagney.
Colm & Shane Mathews-Reilly
It was Dec. 16, 1996, in small-town Missouri.
Singer, dancer and actor Colm Reilly was traveling with the musical version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”
“Not a small town in Irish terms, maybe,” the New Yorker said. It was Columbia, which has more than 100,000 people, but the students from the University of Missouri had gone home for the Christmas break.
“It felt somewhat like a ghost town,” he recalled. After the performance, the cast of 40 or so and crew of about 30 went across the street to a bar and restaurant. There, Colm Reilly met co-owner Shane Mathews, who was also the DJ that night. It marked the beginning of their 23 years together so far.
They arranged to meet again in Chicago, the tour’s next stop, and there were flowers waiting for Colm when “A Christmas Carol” reached Anchorage. “There were no laptops or cell phones. It was calling cards and pay phones,” he remembered.
In 1998, they moved in together in New York.
They’re both now pursuing different careers: Shane is a recording engineer and video editor at the Julliard School at Lincoln Center, while Colm is a property manager.
“I’m still a singer,” Colm added, and one of the ways that he pursues his talent is the annual fundraiser for the New York Irish Center. On Dec. 6 last, he starred in “Home For Christmas” with Sean Harkness and the Life of Reilly Band. He’s also involved with the center’s LGBTQ program.
All of this continues the work of his late father, Paddy Reilly, a co-founder of the center.
The elder Reilly, who epitomized the term “self-made man,” become a hugely successful bar and restaurant owner and a community leader. His son said that he put “30 or 40 or more” people on a similar road to success.
Colm and his sister Kathleen very much enjoyed and appreciated the annual trips to their dad’s native County Cavan. In July 1988, Colm stayed at the Derragarra Inn, near Butlersbridge (which really is a small town). His mother Helen had died the previous October and Angela Clancy, owner of the Derragarra Inn with her husband John, had predeceased her a short time before. The families were leaning on each other for emotional support.
At the time, Shane was traveling on a high-school graduation tour of Irish castles. Comparing notes later on, the couple discovered that they were “literally in the same building,” the Derragarra Inn, at the same time. “It has changed, but it was then a recognizably tourist spot,” he said. “If you’ve been, you don’t forget you were there.”
“We joke around about it,” Colm said, “What could’ve been.”
And even though their first meeting was eight and a half years into the future and thousands of miles to the west, they refer to that time in the Derragarra Inn as “our serendipity moment.”
Shane Mathews-Reilly, left, and Colm Mathews-Reilly on their wedding day in New York in 2013.
Kathleen & Mike Doherty
Kathleen and Mike Doherty married in June 1984. “We made it to 2020,” she said with a laugh.
“We had two lives before we got us,” she said. He came over in 1963 from Armagh, and was taken by the military to serve in Vietnam; she from Shanbally, Cork, in 1964.
They knew some of the same people and can’t say for sure how long they’ve known each other. It was somewhere around 1979. “He invited me to a Halloween party in 1980 at the American Legion,” Kathleen said. It took three phone calls, though, before she said yes.
“He offered to pick me up, but I said no,” she remembered.
Mike got a dozen red roses for her, but a colleague in the bar he was working in took them. So he got another dozen.
“We had a great time,” Kathleen said. “It worked out.”
A Pallottine priest named Fr. Redmond told her: “Don’t let him get away.”
“So I took my cue from him,” Kathleen recalled.
And she still knows why she married him: “Mike has the greatest outlook on life.”
Kathleen said these days they are both in the Armagh and Cork Associations and “we enjoy spending happy times at the the Irish Center in Long Island City.”
She added: “We love our life together.”
Mike and Kathleen Doherty.
Bridie & the late Peter Mitchell
She lived in Brooklyn, he lived in the Bronx and they met in Queens, in April 1966. “They came up and asked you to dance and that was it,” Bridie Mitchell said. “It was the era of the dancehall.”
Bridie grew up in Aughnavas, Co. Leitrim, just a 10-minute drive from Peter’s home in Drumilly, Co. Leitrim, but they had to wait until that Saturday night at Paprin’s Tower View in Woodside to have a conversation.
The young couple married in July 1967 and had two daughters. Peter Mitchell died at age 57, having been sick for six years
“He was a great guy,” Bridie said.
Patrick J Mahoney & Síobhra Aiken
The story of Patrick J. Mahoney of Connecticut and Síobhra Aiken, two academic historians with family connections to the Irish revolutionary period, has gotten a few mentions in the Echo, the most recent being about their marriage on Aug. 3 last in her native County Louth.
“I suppose you could say that Síobhra and I met in the shadow of the Blaskets. She was in Springfield for a year teaching Irish through the Fulbright program, and I went up to listen to a talk which was on in the college, as I knew the speaker from when I’d studied in NUI Galway,” Patrick said, explaining how it all began. “Unbeknownst to me, he and Síobh had had dinner beforehand and he had told her that I was going to be there later on and she should get talking to me. As soon as I walked in, I spotted Síobh and thought ‘Beidh orm comhrá a dhéanamh leis an spéirbhean sin!’*
“But before I could muster up the courage to head on over, she came my way and asked ‘An tusa Pádraig Fhia?’** We hit it off straightaway and I don’t think we’ve stopped laughing, smiling or dancing since. Though, in fairness, up there with the great controversies of Irish history is whether or not she gave me the wrong number on that first night!”
The photos of Paul & Rosa Finnegan, Bridget & Jim Cagney and Bridie Mitchell were taken by Peter McDermott; the photo below of Tom & Patricia Phelan is by Allan Robertson.
I was in London visiting my English boyfriend, Simon, when I realized our long-distance romance was not going to last. I went for a walk in Kew Gardens to think things over, and as I stepped along a secluded path I spotted a nun coming toward me. My inner parochial-school girl instinctively called out, “Good afternoon, Sister.”
Sister Josephine, a native of Kerry, was more than pleased to have a chinwag in her lovely Irish lilt with a woman from New York. As she peppered me with questions, I found myself doing what people sometimes do when encountering a complete stranger: I began to tell her my troubles. I was exploring Kew by myself, I confessed, because my boyfriend and I were not getting along and I wanted to break up with him. Soon I found myself getting advice from a nun on how to say goodbye to Simon: “Do it nobly, without breaking his heart.”
As we parted, Sister Jo said she would be praying for me to find a husband, an idea I found a bit laughable. After all, how could an Irish nun living in a convent in London manage to send a marriageable man my way when I myself had had no luck luring a lad for the long term?
I flew home, and soon afterward Simon’s and my relationship was history. A month later, at a lecture series on Long Island, I met a man called Tom. I told him I was managing editor at a publishing house, and he responded that he was a writer and had just completed a novel titled “In the Season of the Daisies.” When I realized Tom had an Irish accent, I suddenly envisioned a nun from Kerry wearing out her knees in the U.K., praying for me to find a man.
And that is how my husband and I met.