By Tammy Scileppi
No matter who you are and where you’re from, you’re bound to find meaning in the award-winning film “Emerald City,” which is making its borough debut in LeFrak Concert Hall at Queens College Wednesday, March 14, during a celebration of Irish music and dance.
It’s a story about immigrants and is said to mark “the end of an era in Irish-American identity” as Queens celebrates St. Patrick’s Day events.
To get a better understanding of what the movie is about, picture that iconic black-and-white photo shot in 1932 and titled “Lunch atop a Skyscraper.”
It captures 11 fearless construction workers sharing banter and nonchalantly enjoying their lunch break, while perched atop a suspended beam 69 floors above Manhattan.
Few people realize that most of those guys were Irish-born immigrants who came to New York City in search of any kind of work they could get and were willing to risk their lives to build the RCA Building (or 30 Rockefeller Plaza), so they could support their families.
Did you know that about 4.7 million Irish immigrants who arrived as skilled laborers in the 19th century settled in America? And that many took jobs in construction toward the end of Tthe city’s building boom, which spilled over into the the early 20th century?
Chronicling the lives of a hardworking, hard-living crew of modern-day Irish construction workers, and shot entirely in New York, “Emerald City” is loosely based on Irish-American filmmaker Colin Broderick’s own life story. After immigrating to the Bronx from Northern Ireland in 1988 at age 20, young Colin worked in construction as a carpenter for 25 years, while pursuing a literary career. The filmmaker, who recalled working with many Irishmen who lived in Queens, had his first memoir, “Orangutan” (Random House), published in 2009.
Indeed, there are similarities between the film’s four actors (including Broderick), who portray a group of tough working class fellas trying to make it in New York City, and those Depression-era construction workers.
And here’s a fun fact: According to some accounts, there’s a possibility that one worker captured in that vintage image may have been an Irish lad named Francis Michael Rafferty, who was sitting next to his lifelong buddy, Stretch Donahue.
Featuring up-and-coming talent, the film’s only Queens resident, John Duddy, happens to be a former boxer who at one time was among the best known Irish sports stars in the U.S..
Skillfully injecting bits and pieces from his long struggle with alcoholism into his plays, films, and books, Broderick’s newest undertaking deals with issues facing the workers who became his buddies: depression, excessive drinking, loneliness…and through it all a sense of camaraderie and loyalty. “I just wanted to give people a sense of what the modern-day Irish construction scene really looks and feels like,” he said.
“Emerald City” was shot in Sunnyside, all over Manhattan, and in Woodlawn in the Bronx, where Broderick lived when he first came to America.
Mary Murphy has her own story to share. The Queens resident, who is the daughter of Irish immigrants and proud to be a first generation Irish-American, has made a name for herself as a popular Emmy Award-winning WPIX-TV reporter. And, as a member of the “PIX11 Investigates Unit,” she and her team have been out in front on many hot-button topics, like the opioid epidemic.
The Queens College graduate will be the guest speaker at the upcoming event, which will raise money for the college’s Irish Studies Program – one of the oldest in the nation. Festivities will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. followed by a screening of the film from 7:30 to 9 p.m., and then a Q&A, as well as musical performances.
Murphy recounted her family’s journey.
“Both my parents were born in Ireland on farms. Father came here in the late ‘40s, Mother in the early ‘50s. They met at a Rockaway Beach dance hall in the late ‘50s, got married and settled in Woodside,” she said.
With four kids in tow, the family moved to Queens Village where young Mary attended Our Lady of Lourdes. Later, they called Floral Park home.
“I think that almost any person can relate in some way to the movie, which reveals the struggles that workers had adjusting to the stressors of life in America,” said Murphy, whose parents did not finish high school because like so many others, they had to make a living so they could put food on the table.
Most Irish-born parents like hers went into the service industry or took union jobs. Murphy said her father became a New York City bus driver and her mother worked as a waitress at Schrafft’s restaurant and later at a Catholic rectory.
And like all parents, they encouraged their children to get a good education and dream big.
A new era of affluence in Ireland put an end to the age-old tradition of Ireland exporting skilled manual – specifically construction – labor. These days, young adults living there are more likely to train for technology jobs.
According to Broderick, the characters in “Emerald City” struggle with the burden of upholding a fading legacy as the construction workers who “built New York City.”
“They are like the last of the Mohicans,” he said.
The filmmaker will be “off to Ireland” in two weeks to shoot his next movie, “A Bend in the River.”
Tickets for “Emerald City” are $20 for general admission and $15 for students, veterans and seniors.