Seamus and Caitriona Clarke launch relief efforts in New York to help the Irish community
Inside the epicentre: Frank Brady writes here of his experience in New York. Frank is a native of Manorhamilton, retired university professor, former Leitrim Guardian Person of the Year, member of the Leitrim Football Club (NY) and Leitrim Society (NY) and is currently a sports journalist with the Irish Echo.
So far New York State represents over 40% of the fatalities and almost 43% of the overall cases documented in the United States. Unfortunately these are very frightening statistics, but regrettably New York was very slow, not only to recognize the problem, but also to take effective action.
The city was handicapped with an inept Mayor who refused to close the schools as the evidence of the pandemic was mounting. Indeed the gravity of the virus was down- played and met with an air of arrogance as theatres on Broadway reduced admission prices to try and fill seats, spouting an asinine adage that “the show must go on”. The organisers of the St Patrick’s Day Parade and Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared to be singing from the same hymnal as they were adamant that the parade would go ahead, the rationale being that for over 257 years it had gone on despite Civil War, World Wars, depressions, recessions and major epidemics. Thankfully at the eleventh hour the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in, stopped the nonsense and pulled the plug on it. Otherwise the scene was being set for perhaps the greatest petri dish in the world for cultivating a virus, or basically playing Russian Roulette with peoples’ health.
So sadly the virus got a good head start before any containment efforts were implemented. Perhaps a good indication of how grave the situation is that Central Park has now been turned into a field hospital with tents reminiscent of the TV show MASH, the Navy hospital ship Comfort is docked in New York harbour with a 1000 bed capacity, and the Javitt’s Convention Center in Manhattan has been turned into a hospital with a 2500 bed capacity.
However the most harrowing sight was to see a fork-lift move bodies into a refrigerated trailer, a make-shift mortuary. There is a perilous shortage of equipment, and if you are unfortunate enough to be stricken, your chances of survival may depend on the availability of a ventilator. It is also ironic that some of the protective equipment is currently being imported from China, the origin of the virus. The War Powers Act has also been invoked which compels major companies, such as General Motors, the Aviation industry etc. to manufacture equipment that is urgently needed against the coronavirus.
The Medical Ship Comfort coming into New York to provide medical relief for the thousands stricken with Covid-19
In fairness to the County Leitrim Society of New York they moved swiftly once they grappled with the potentially devastating consequences of the insidious corona virus. They cancelled their 125th anniversary dinner dance scheduled for March 13, though substantial expenses had already been incurred. Obviously this was the correct decision, more so given the fact that the cadre of honorees included octogenarians and nonagenarians.
Indeed nearly four hundred and fifty had signed up for the function and the numbers were still trending upwards. Donal O’Connell, the President, informed me that the event will be rescheduled for mid-September, presuming that a sense of normalcy has returned by then. Given the constrained and dangerous circumstances that are currently operative Donal informed me that he and a team of his officers are in regular communication with the older and perhaps more vulnerable members to offer assistance should the need occur. At this stage there are no reports of any members contracting the disease.
However that is not the case with the Leitrim football clubs as a number of players from the men’s and ladies’ teams have contracted the virus. None have been reported to be extremely ill, but they are experiencing varying degrees of the symptoms.
Closed.. JP Clarke's, The Leitrim home away from home. Picture: Sharon Brady
All are self-quarantined, and some are able to work from their homes. It is believed that the virus was contracted from a running group and a party that some attended. So much for the immunity of the younger generation, but their youth, fitness and health probably blunted the effect of the virus, and hopefully will also expedite their recovery.
While a number of people have been side-lined by the illness, many more have become unemployed due to the closure of bars, restaurants, beauty and hair salons, constructions sites and what are regarded as non-essential businesses. Granted some of the displaced workers will qualify for unemployment benefits available in the Government’s rescue package.
However there are many who will fail to qualify, particularly young Irish who are undocumented or in the process of obtaining a green card. They will have no safety net, no family support, no health insurance, no work, no sport, and no opportunity to socialize with their friends. Exacerbating their predicament will be the fact that rent, utility and phone bills will have to be paid, really a tough situation to face with no income and perhaps limited savings.
I spoke to Seamus Clarke, the proprietor of JP Clarke’s saloon on McLean Avenue in Yonkers, and also the major sponsor of the Leitrim team, the Gortletteragh man is acutely aware of the predicament of these young people. Incidentally the McLean Avenue area was once referred to as “Little Leitrim” due to the number of Leitrim-owned businesses in it.
Seamus is hoping that the situation will be brought under control within a few months and that nobody will be forced to go back to Ireland because of financial hardship. However he is not prepared to sit back and see what happens. Seamus is part of the McLean Avenue Merchants Association, who at present are in the process of setting up a steering committee that will include the GAA, County Associations, the United Irish Counties, Irish affiliated organisations and the Aisling Center to address the urgent needs of these young people. Incidentally the Aisling Center is an outreach center in Yonkers and Caitriona Kenny-Clarke is Chairperson of the Board of Directors.
Currently the plan is assist people to obtain government benefits, such as small business loans, emergency funding, unemployment benefits etc. It is also envisaged that aid will be given for food, rent, medical expenses and whatever urgent needs that may arise. Seamus is confident that the Irish and the Irish-American Community will respond generously to this unprecedented crisis. Seamus stressed that the Leitrim business folks are well-noted for their generosity.
Another business man on McLean Avenue is Oliver Charles, the proprietor of the Butcher’s Fancy, a native of Aughavas, before being transplanted to Meath. Oliver is one of the few people to see his business spike during this crisis, but he’s quick to add that there’s little joy in that with so many of his acquaintances and customers facing hardships. In fairness to Oliver and his wife Liz, they have kept their prices stable, while some of his competitors have resorted to shameless price-gouging.
Oliver and his family will be part of the relief effort and he’s currently soliciting his suppliers for donations to help those in need.
Marie Dunleavy, Journal Chairperson for the County Leitrim Society of NY Dinner Dances, is on the front lines of the coronavirus Picture: Sharon Brady
This fight against the coronavirus has been labelled a war, and there are plenty of heroic Leitrim folks at the battle lines, among them are members from the Leitrim Society, nurses such as Beatrice McWeeney, Bernadette and Marie Dunleavy, Patricia O’Brien, Dr Kevin McGovern, and hospital employee, Anna Mulvey-Buggy.
Such is the overcrowding in Elmhurst Hospital, Queens, where Anna works that it has been named “Bedlam” where patients’ beds are adjacent to each other rather than the recommended six feet for safe social distance. Marie Dunleavy aptly summed up the situation at her location when she said, “do your best to stay out of the hospital, it’s a total germ fest. So many people have the virus that the health care workers will end spreading it to everyone. We are running out of gowns and we are told to use the one gown for multiple patients, thus increasing the possibility of spreading the infection. Now we get one mask for three days and just one face shield for the whole time. It’s unfortunate, but the more who stay at home the better off they will be when possible.”
It is almost incredulous in what is regarded as one of the richest countries in the world, to see nurses wearing plastic garbage bags as make-shift surgical gowns in a New York City hospital. Basically what the over-worked and under-protected nurse is saying is that you should avoid the hospital like a plague. Incidentally, a former Limerick hurler, Michael Dowling, the CEO of Northwell Health with 65,000 employees, heads up the task force in New York for Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The schools closed belatedly in New York, and there were reports that some education officials failed to report some early incidences of the virus. However once upon a time if you were out of school, well, you were out of school. Fortunately or unfortunately that is no longer the case as now we have virtual classrooms, remote learning, distance learning, online instruction and all sorts of other technological machinations for imparting knowledge.
Fiona Smyth (nee Finneran), originally from Glenfarne noted that these modern methods of education are working very well during these mandated school closings with her two grammar school children, Brid and Eugene. They are required to sign on the computer at specified times, complete assignments in a timely manner, stay on task and they receive timely and appropriate feedback on their performances. Definitely a long way from my days as a disciple of the red biro ! My daughter Sharon is pursuing a graduate degree, and her courses are continuing on line with a minimum of interruption. Good to see that despite the tribulations of this treacherous disease, the education of the youth is continuing.
It has often been said that when doctors differ, patients dies. Well in New York we have politicians differing and dithering. President Trump proposed an enforced two-week quarantine and travel ban on New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut in the hopes of protecting the rest of the country from the epicentre of the outbreak.
Governor Cuomo ripped the plan as a “Civil War kind of discussion, totally bizarre, counter-productive, anti-American and anti-social”. In essence telling Trump New York is my territory, and don’t interfere, however well-intentioned and life-saving the strategy might be. Meanwhile in many cases there is great fear and uncertainty as the nefarious numbers keep escalating, with no discernible flattening of the curve in sight. Despite voluminous statistics and projections being trotted out, nobody really has a clue of the extent of the virus.
Though specific incidences of the disease have been identified, that is just a function of the testing, and may be totally unreliable about the extent of the disease. The frightening and very real possibility exists that there are thousands of carriers out there unidentified who still have the capacity to infect thousands more, and unfortunately the mortality will continue to spiral upwards.
This virus certainly has changed our life-styles; we have no sports, no church, no bars, no restaurants, no social life, many with no work, and no toilet paper. Here’s hoping that we have all of the above in my next epistle from the Big Apple and hopefully coronavirus will be just a name in the medical journals.
Stay safe, stay well and if you can, stay in.