Willliam Madden (Caherlistrane to Yonkers, New York, USA)
William Madden and wife Elizabeth
When William Madden left Galway for New York in 1951 he was escaping poverty and seeking to eke out a new life for himself in the land of opportunity. After a stint in the US Army he went on to run a bar in Long Island for over 50 years where he enjoyed meeting and serving New York’s diverse population. Now retired after a lifetime of long hours in the bar trade, he has time to undertake some more sedate pursuits including indulging his love of Irish music.
Name: Willliam Patrick Madden
Now living in: Yonkers, New York, USA
My father, Thomas Madden, from Ballinapark, Caherlistrane, County Galway married Catherine McCabe from Kiltyhugh, Ballinamore, County Leitrim in New York City in 1929. My two older brothers were born in New York. My parents decided to return to Ireland in 1934 where I was born on January 12, 1934 in my grandmother’s house in Leitrim. Immediately after my birth they moved to Caherlistrane in Galway where I spent the rest of my young life until I immigrated to the USA, in February of 1951.
Growing up in Caherlistrane
I am the third born of eight which included six boys and two girls. All my siblings were close in age and at that time immediately after WWII times were tough economically. We lived in what was then called a labourers cottage with a small garden out back just to grow some potatoes and vegetables, really it was a very wanting existence. But many people at that time were in the same boat. I personally despised the fact that we were so poor and made up my mind to escape poverty as quickly as I possibly could. My siblings and I had only the basic 3Rs, just getting the primary certification and then out to work.
On the subject of being poor I remember one particular Saturday morning just before Christmas circa 1947-8 when one of our more affluent neighbours was taking a horse crib of geese to the Tuam market to be sold. One goose managed to escape by our home and went into a field of furze bushes. The driver asked us to help him find the goose. My two brothers, being older and wiser, told me to pretend to look but to keep quiet and my mouth shut. We came back and told him we could not find it, however that same goose made for one of the more memorable Christmas meals in the Madden household!
I attended primary school in Caherlistrane until the age 14, when I got a job working in the Imperial Hotel in Tuam for the princely sum of £1 per week. Starting at 7am. I was to bring in coal to start fires in the kitchen, lounge, bar and dining room. Then mop the floors , feed two pigs that ate the slops from the kitchen, sweep and clean the yard where the guests parked their cars, trucks or whatever mode of transportation they used. Between 12pm. and 5pm. I had a few hours to myself. At 5pm. I had to get the fires stoked and ready to go for the evening meals and drinks in the bar, lounge and dining room. Between 8pm. and 11pm. I was to stand at the main door as doorman to allow guests to enter and leave. At 11pm. the door was closed and I had to allow stragglers in that came late. And then I had to go shine the shoes of guests who left their shoes outside their doors. At midnight I was allowed to go to bed, unless someone had made a late appointment for entry. I had one day off every two weeks. Somehow I managed to find a job at the Montclair Hotel in Dublin and left the Tuam job for £2 a week with one day off a week, which was an improvement but it really wasn’t that much better.
I decided to write to my older brother, Tommy, who was already in New York and asked him to help me go there. I landed at Idlewild (now known as JFK) airport New York on February 14, 1951 with $9 to my name. My uncle came to pick me up at the airport as my brother had been drafted in the US Army. Just as I was landing in New York he was on his way to Germany for two years. Some of my brother’s friends helped me get on my feet when I landed all alone with no cash. I found a job working in an A&P grocery store a few days a week. I was taking home $20 a week which I paid most of to my landlady for room and board. Things were a bit dicey for a while but I managed to survive. I went on to a few better money making jobs such as a waiter and working in a freezer warehouse, until 1955 when I was drafted in the US Army.
Life in the Army
I went to basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey for three months, rumour said we were marked to go to Korea, which did not sound appealing to me. They asked for volunteers to go to the Honor Guard in Washington DC, and although I was always told never volunteer, this sounded better than Korea. The requirements were listed: one must be at least six feet tall, high school diploma (I said yes even though I only had my primary) no police records, no female entanglements, etc., etc. But to cut to the chase I was selected to go to Washington to go to the Presidential Honor Guard, where we had to go through another selection process (which brought back memories of going to the fair in Headford where they inspected cattle and pigs for the slaughter!). I was finally picked to be a member of the Presidential Honor Guard, which required another two weeks of training in the oppressive heat and humidity of Washington. I was selected to be a member of the color guard team which consisted of flag bearers and guards for any and all functions in the Washington and Arlington National Cemetery area. As such, we were always available when dignitaries came to DC for parades, burials, official dinners, etc. We had at least 25 sets of uniforms which had to be kept cleaned, pressed and fitted at all times. Some days we had to change at least three or four times, especially on the hot days. Much of our duty was at the Arlington National Cemetery but we did a lot of arrival, greetings, parades and festive occasions as well. We performed at the second inauguration of President Eisenhower. Many of our jobs were at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is one of the most visited tourist places in the United States. I was discharged February 1958.
After my two years in the army I was home again looking for employment. I ran into one of my old friends who was working as a bartender and he offered to teach me. After only a few hours of training I got a job in Astoria, Queens where I was immediately thrown into the deep end, tending to an 85 foot bar on my own. The hungry mouth will do many things for a few bob, and things were going well so I kept my nose to the grinding stone. My boss, Martin McGrath from County Clare, owned two other bars in Astoria and suggested I keep my eye out for a bar to invest in with him. Eventually we found a location we liked and on August 14th 1958 we began operation in the bar where I would work for the next 50 years: McGrath’s Bar at 30-23 36th Ave, Long Island.
The first year as a bar owner was not easy as the bills kept coming in and the customers were sparse. A few times in the early days my partner had to stake me as my financial situation was nothing to brag about. That same year on September 20th I married my wife Elizabeth who I had met when I was in the Army. She is the daughter of a man from Gort and her mother’s people were from Derry. Unfortunately for my new bride and ever growing family I devoted a lot of time to the bar. We lived in an apartment in the Bronx, NY for a few years until my family got too big and we bought a house in Yonkers in 1963. There we reared five children, all of whom are college educated, most have graduate degrees and all of whom I believe to be upstanding citizens of the US. The hours in the bar were long but I liked the business and I loved mingling with so many different people. The neighbourhood was a melting pot of many different ethnic groups. We had many Greeks in Queens and at that time there was a Spanish influx as well as pockets of Irish, Italian etc. I enjoyed meeting all different kinds of people- until they over imbibed at which point they could become a real pain!
Martin died a few years after we took over the bar and leaving me as the sole owner for just the next half a century. Over those years there were plenty of memorable events in McGrath’s Bar. I remember when one of my regulars, a young Irish man, came in for his nightly 7&7 after driving a bus route all day long. After over-indulging he went home and decided to make himself a meal but the only thing he had in his cupboard was a canned ham. He put the sealed can on the stove and fell asleep. He awoke to an explosion, windows blown out and his ceiling mottled with pieces of tin and ham. Needless to say the fire department did not find it nearly as humorous as we did back at the bar the next day.
Another story worth telling was the time I was arrested straight from behind the bar. I had a pool going on a seven horse race, $1 a horse, winner takes home $7. I sold one to a customer and as I am giving him his number the gentleman next to him announces himself as a police officer and arrested me for gambling. It was around noon that I was taken to the police station. Around midnight my wife and her father came with my $500 bail. A few months later the case was thrown out and I escaped being classified as a hardened criminal.
Which leads into my next story. The state liquor authority kept a record of every incident that occurred in licensed establishments and your liquor license renewal hinged on operating your business according to their rules. Over the years my bar had a few minor warnings: men with Budweiser brains having a spat, someone found on premises outside of business hours, etc, but nothing major. One year two young guys who worked nights in office buildings became regulars in the mornings after their shift. At one point the building they were working in was the state licensing office, now this was before computers so all our infractions were kept in a physical file. Long story short – when I applied for my next license renewal the officials were very confused as to why they had no record of any infractions at my bar. I acted as surprised as they were.
The last item I will say about the bar business is that in all my times serving alcohol I never took part in the drinking, as part of my confirmation pledge. I’ll admit to a sip or two here and there but I believe my alcohol intake in all of my life would not exceed a pint. It was not for religious reasons or fear that I stuck to my pledge, rather I simply did not have a taste for it.
I enjoyed going to Ireland with Elizabeth often when we were younger. As an American she got a kick out of things we took for granted, for instance the first time she saw my father drop to his knees for the daily Angelus she thought he had a heart attack. Then when he lit his pipe with a long piece of paper she thought he was making a flame thrower. When we visited Connemara she asked me how I could leave such beauty and my response was that I couldn’t eat rocks and drink salt water.
Ireland has changed drastically since I left in 1951, then we had no running water or electricity, we had ration books, couldn’t get the bare necessities and even though we took two sods of turf to school each day the teacher kept his butt to the fire so we got no warmth. Ireland has come a long way from these days, sometimes I get melancholy for the old days but no one can halt the wheels of progress. I wish them all well but hope Ireland maintains some of its “Irishness”.
Life in Yonkers Today
I have 21 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren with two more due shortly. My wife and I are in our mid 80s and still live in our empty nest in Yonkers. While my younger brother Jack Madden lives in Galway and I still love to make visits back, my returns are getting to be few and far between as Elizabeth has arthritis and is no longer able to travel. In my waning years I like to read, play 25, surf my iPad, listen to traditional Irish music – Kilfenora Ceili Band, Sharon Shannon (I think she is very gifted) and of course our own Galway man Joe Burke.
I am a proud American citizen but will never forget my Galwegian upbringing. UP GALWAY!