Conrad Street contractor Kevin McCafferty shares stories about growing up in Ireland.
Well here we are at St. Patrick’s Day again (more like St. Patrick’s month these days) and it’s time to drink green beer, get Fighting Irishmen tattoos, and wear shamrock Mardi Gras beads, just like the Irish. Wait bro, what’s the guy with the accent saying? It’s not?
“Saint Patrick’s is a big sh*t show here,” according to local contractor and card-carrying (green, of course) Irishman Kevin McCafferty.
Hard to blame him. Living in an apartment right above Murphy’s (and a fixture at the corner of the bar most nights), he’s got a front-row seat, and every year he knows when St. Pat’s is coming by the sound of “Whiskey in the Jar” playing endlessly on the Murphy’s jukebox. “It kinda comes up through the floorboards,” he says. Early March thru April, whether he likes it or not.
Maybe that’s why he met us at Cranky Joe’s to talk about the holiday and being Irish. If that was the plan, it didn’t last long. Fifteen minutes into the interview, a tin whistle was piping up from speakers behind us (along with a guy in a Flyers hat at the jukebox who was pretending his umbrella was a sword.)
“In Ireland it’s more of a holy day. You go to church and visit the family graves. Once you get that out of the way, then you get your beer.”
It helped that Kevin’s home town, Strabane, is so small he didn’t have to walk more than ten minutes to get to a pub, or anywhere else for that matter: “It’s about the size of Roxborough.” But nothing at all like it. A mostly rural town on the banks of the River Foyle (a “wee river like the Schuylkill”) in Northern Ireland, Kevin remembers growing up milking cows and plucking chickens.
His chore was gathering eggs every morning. At week’s end, his grandfather would ask him to point out whoever wasn’t laying. Those hens became Sunday dinner. “I felt like an executioner…” (insert dry smile here).
It’s the spirit that got him through an interesting life in Northern Ireland. Born August 16, 1969. FUN FACT: he’s birthday twins with Carolyn – same date & year, even. But while Woodstock was the biggest thing happening on this side of the globe that Summer, in Kevin’s neighborhood, Irish nationalists had just declared war on British loyalists, sparking a 30-year guerrilla war known as “the Troubles.”
It was not an easy world. When he was 10, he was walking to mass with his mother and happened to look back at a church a hundred yards away. The roof suddenly lifted 20 feet in the air — like some kinda magic. He didn’t understand it was bomb blast until the shock wave hit him in the chest.
OMG, what did he do? Nothing. Although indeed a church (!) had just exploded before them, it was not their church, so his mother simply turned him around and hurried them onto services up the road: “As a kid you just think it’s normal because it happened all the time.”
In fact, Strabane was the most bombed town in Northern Ireland, with 300 bombs going off in the space of 5 years. We ask him how that changed his view of the world and, after thinking about it a moment, he finally says, “People die.”
It wasn’t all hardship, though. His mother taught him to love music (and paid for music lessons, violin and flute mostly). “She’s from Donegal. Music is a second language there.” It’s why he loves “tin whistle” music to this day. And she bought him pints when he was 12. (But never Guinness. He accidentally drank a glass of milk with a cigarette butt in it when he was six. Ever since, the taste of Guinness reminds him of that milk.)
Amidst the regular violence, there was a silver lining – all the bombings created a demand for contractors. At 15 Kevin decided he’d had enough school and became a carpenter repairing bomb damage throughout the city.
By 18 he was ready to get away from all the violence and the harassment from the British military. He wound up in Roxborough in 1988 and immediately got a job in construction. The money flowed and he eventually started his own business in stucco and concrete.
Today he works jobs in East Falls, Manayunk, and Roxborough — he met many of the guys in his crew in the 90s, shortly after he arrived. “Known ‘em a long time. They’re experienced and good to work with.”
No need to tell us, we caught up with him recently on a job in Roxborough, They poured 12 tons of concrete into a basement, moving the wheelbarrows at top speed to keep the concrete from setting too soon: “And that’s not even our biggest job.”
When he steps outside for a smoke, he points across the street at a building with a stucco finish. “That’s mine — see the color? Always use putty or something neutral, It’ll hold up a long time. Ages well. Never use white. I always tell my customers that.”
Although he often works in Roxborough and Manayunk, he lives in East Falls because it reminds him most of home. “It’s a small town. People will say hello to each other. They help each other out. They may not have a lot but they’ll share what they’ve got.”
Keep an eye out for Kevin at the corner of the bar at Murphys. Despite what he says, we bet he’s a bit more homesick this time of year. Buy him a beer — not Guinness — or thank him for the deck he built for Murphy’s. But please no “Whiskey in the Jar.” Try Mary Bergin, it’ll get his Irish eyes smiling.
PS: More Irish in East Falls: “Good Craic at Cranky Joe’s”