By Kami-Leigh Agard
In 1991, Congress recognized March as Irish American Heritage Month, and since then, it has been a bipartisan declaration by every president, celebrating the achievements and contributions of Irish Americans nationwide. In this month-long series, The Rockaway Times salutes our local Irish Americans, expanding on the conversation around what it means to be Irish American. These individuals all exude, not just their passion to preserve Rockaway’s rich legacy as NYC’s premier Irish Riviera—but also their passion to pass it on to the next generation. In this week’s installation, meet Tom Murphy, eternal Rockaway resident, and proprietor of Rockaway staple, Curran’s Superior Meats.
Within five minutes of meeting Tom Murphy, you’ll see that these Irish eyes are not only smiling but sparkling with mischievous humor. Just listen to his Irish brogue impersonation of his family in Ireland, and you’ll be roaring with laughter, thinking if he wasn’t a butcher for the last 40 years, he could’ve been a stand-up comedian, like Jay Leno, whose photo graces his shop’s wall.
However, jokes aside, Murphy, like with his butchering trade, strongly holds dear his and Rockaway’s Irish roots. “I love Rockaway, and being an Irish local, I’m especially proud of our contributions and everything we’ve accomplished here in building up Rockaway,” he said.
A second-generation Irish American on both of his parents’ sides, Murphy shared that at age five, he moved with his family to Broad Channel, then Beach 114th Street from Bayonne, New Jersey in the 1970s.
“My mom, Eileen, was a tough one from Washington Heights. Her parents were from Donegal, Ireland. My dad was from the Bronx, with his parents hailing from County Kerry. I always get people coming into Curran’s asking where I’m from. Well, I tell them my parents came from the Bronx ‘cause people like a Bronx guy. But then I take the sauce, and say in a ‘Joisey’ accent, ‘I was born in Bayonne, NJ. What the hell was I doing in Jersey?’”
When asked what Rockaway was like in the 1970s, Murphy’s eyes lit up. “As a working-class Irish family, like most in the area, we loved it! Back then, you’d go out at night, walking along the boulevard and know everybody by name, and everybody knew you. We were all like an extended big family. My brother, Georgie, and I basically lived on the beach with our friends. Something as simple as going to the penny arcade on Beach 116th Street brings back great memories,” Murphy said.
He and his siblings attended all local schools, P.S. 225, J.H.S. 180 and Beach Channel High. When he was 17, his father took him to his job to see if he wanted to be a Local 147 union sandhog.
Like Murphy’s father, traditional sandhogs were Irish or Irish American, and it was not uncommon to see multi-generations of families working on the same projects. Starting with the Brooklyn Bridge in 1872, the sandhogs built a large part of the NYC infrastructure, such as the subway tunnels, sewers, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. They also worked on the foundations for most of NYC’s bridges and skyscrapers.
“Both my brothers were sandhogs. I remember when my dad first took me to check it out. This little elevator brought us underground. As we went down, I thought I was entering a cave with bats. Then we took a train to the job site, where 70 to 80 guys were shoveling and what they called, ‘shaping.’ They would blow up dynamite to make a passage. It’s hard, dirty work, and after a couple hours, I said, ‘Dad, take me back.’ It just wasn’t for me,” Murphy shared.
He shared that his passion was more in running a business of his own. “I first worked in a deli on Beach 113th Street. After learning that part of the trade, I decided I wanted to own a bar. I found a spot on Beach 97th Street, where the old Flynn and McLaughlin’s was, and opened Tom Murphy’s Pub. Across the street was Playland, but unfortunately, this was 1985,” he said. As Murphy tells it, that year, Playland was knocked down and the bar went bust.
So, he headed to Beach 129th Street to work for Curran’s. In an Irish brogue, impersonating his former boss, Murphy said, “The owner, John Curran, liked me and said, ‘I’m gonna make a butcher out of you for Christ’s sake now!’ I laughed because I didn’t know how to be a butcher. This is when all my friends were becoming cops, firemen and lawyers.”
However, Murphy stayed with Curran, who he says taught him everything he knows about the sacred art of butchering.
Then one day, according to Murphy, Curran, getting up in years, asked him to take over the store. He responded, “John, I’m worrying about paying my rent, and you want me to take over the store?” Well, Curran did enough convincing because Murphy has been the owner ever since they shook hands on the deal.
Murphy said, “I learned my trade, and for the last 40 years, I continued John’s legacy when he opened the shop in 1960. He taught me a lot and I still keep his old Irish sayings in mind like, ‘If you wouldn’t sell it to your mother-in-law, don’t sell it to anyone else,’ and ‘Your first loss is your best loss,’ which means in other words, if I have a piece of meat that I don’t like, send it back or throw it away. John really drove in the importance of personalized, customer service.”
Murphy loves his work, so much so, that even after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the shop, he determinedly came back with his staff and opened up a new shop on Beach 116th Street in June 2013. “I’m grateful because with the community’s support, we proved the naysayers wrong. I’m also grateful that I was able to keep my same workers, and this year marks 10 years we are open at this location.”
He also shared that the community showed their support and love during an especially difficult time when his son, Tom, passed away four years ago. “Many knew my son, as he used to come in the shop every Sunday to make his specialty, mac and cheese. He was my best friend. So many folks reached out, with some even driving all the way to Farmingdale for his funeral. This is something I will always hold dear,” he said.
For Murphy, the Irish community will always be an important element of Rockaway’s tightly woven fabric. “Whether I’m visiting my family in Ireland or just interacting with my customers here, the Irish culture is alive in all of us. However, Rockaway’s ethnic diversity has grown, and it just makes us even more special and blessed to live in our oceanside community,” he said.
Curran’s Superior Meats is located at 239 Beach 116th Street. For their daily specials and more info, call: (718) 634-7408