Old Gaelic Graffiti Graces Seaport Wall

From Irish Echo

December 12-18, 2001

By Stephen McKinley

Construction workers at the South Street Seaport Maritime Museum in lower Manhattan made a remarkable discovery during renovations last July: graffiti in Gaelic.

While uncovering a horsehair plaster wall in a building at 6 Fulton St., one of the masons, himself an Irish immigrant, found himself staring at a drawing of a harp, the symbol of Ireland.

As the mason peeled back the plaster layers, he found more Gaelic words, and drawings of two Irish immigrants. It is believed the writing and drawing was done shortly after the U.S. Civil War in the mid to late 1860s.

Senior historian and curator at the museum Steven Jaffe took up the story: "The museum has been undertaking to create a new 24-gallery permanent exhibition called World Port New York, which will open in 2003. The team of masons uncovered graffiti in black paint, including the words 'Erin go bragh,' 'Erin Mavourneen,' and, most significantly, the words 'e pluribus unum,' the motto of the United States.

"There was something symbolic in this Irish guy finding the harp of Ireland on a wall in lower Manhattan."

The patriotic motto, Jaffe said, would have been particularly important for post-Civil War Americans and immigrants.

"The graffiti is an intriguing mix of Irish and American pride," he said. The landmarked row block where the graffiti was found is considered one of the nation's most important surviving historic commercial buildings: in a poignant sense after Sept. 11, it was an early world trade center, inhabiting lower Manhattan, a center of commodity import and trading, particularly coffee, tea and spices.

Jaffe believes that the graffiti was drawn by Irish immigrant employees of a coffee company doing business in the row.

"There are several references to a man called James P. Bennett," Jaffe said. "The company itself was run by an Irish immigrant, James Bennett [1845-1908], a coffee and tea merchant. Bennett immigrated in 1863. By 1868 he was listed as working with a Jewish merchant, Joseph Stiner."

In 1870, Bennett left and started his own business at Nos. 10 and 8 Fulton St. Jaffe and his colleagues at the South Street Seaport museum have done extensive research trying to find a photograph or portrait of Bennett, including looking at Ancient Order of the Hibernians records, to no avail. "We never found a photo of Bennett, but this discovery has been an intriguing twist in our search, because we now have a drawing of him, which is part of the graffiti," Jaffe said.

"It's a kind of childlike drawing, a caricature, of a guy with a beard and a moustache. His benevolent ghost must be hovering over us, because this exhibition combines two themes, immigration and the role of lower Manhattan in maritime trade, and this guy was a product of both."

The graffiti is currently in a stable condition, but Jaffe said that conservation work would be a priority. "We will have to have a conservator look at the graffiti and advise us," he said.

Jaffe noted that Bennett came to a tragic end. He committed suicide in Brooklyn in 1908 after losing money in the financial panic of 1907.


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