A Blacksmith from Limerick in New York


A Feature by Mae Leonard

I was sick that day.   Sick of New York.  I’d had more than enough of the City That Never Sleeps.  But I was really sick in Radio City Music Hall and all its finery was lost on me.    My eyes wouldn’t focus properly and my ears were buzzing.  All I could see was a swirl of red and gold furnishings.   The guide droned on in that unique New York twang explaining the workings of the great stage but all I wanted to do was find the nearest exit.

Yes, Radio City Music Hall was a blur to me that day in New York.   So what if it has the most innovative and technically advanced stage in the world.   So what if its great stage measures almost 70 feet deep and a full city block wide.   I was so sick I couldn’t even appreciate the variety of special effects that can be created on it – including dense fog and rain.

I should have been impressed by the its elevator system which is capable of being lowered 27 feet into the basement or raised some 13 feet above the level of the stage.   

In fact, that stage is comprised of four elevators that are run on a hydraulic system that is so ingenious, the US Navy came to Radio City Music Hall to study the mechanism and borrowed the design for use on their WW II aircraft carriers.   So ‘Top Secret’ was the hydraulic system, that the government felt it necessary to have a special agent watch over the basement during the war years.  

The workings of Peter Clarke’s hydraulic lift at Radio City Music Hall: images courtesy of Viewing New York City (https://viewing.nyc/i-braved-a-walkthrough-of-radio-city-music-hall-meant-for-tourists/)

The guide that day was telling the group of tourists that during the Christmas Spectacular, the elevator system adds to the audience’s delight as the Orchestra appears in front of the stage, disappears underneath only to reappear high up in the back.   She went on and on while spots danced before my eyes and I had to leave in a hurry.    And I did get out and was sick all over the pavements of New York.   My holiday went down the tubes, or perhaps I should say the subway, as I suffered a vicious bout of German measles.

I was reminded of that day in Radio City Musical Hall when I met a man the other day with a story to tell.  

‘The Blacksmith of Limerick’ he said.  

Yes, I said and quoted that poem from my National School days.

He grasped his ponderous hammer; he could not stand it more

To hear the bombshells bursting and the thundering battle’s roar …

‘No. No. No.  This man said, ‘not that Blacksmith – the Radio City Music Hall New York blacksmith.   A fellow called Peter Clarke, a blacksmith from Limerick – ‘twas he designed the stage there.’ 

‘You mean the four stages?   The elevator system?  The hydraulics?’

He nodded each time.   

Peter Clarke was indeed a blacksmith of Limerick.  His father, Joseph, left Limerick and his business at Brunswick Lane and settled in New York in 1869.   He worked on the construction of Brooklyn Bridge but it wasn’t long before the Clarke Family had its own business – Joseph Clarke Railings.   The company made and installed wrought-iron fences, gates and indoor decorative ironwork.   Some of that work is still standing today.

This man I met the other day told me that the New York Clarkes – the Blacksmiths from Limerick – made the huge entrance gate of Third Calvary Cemetery in Queens and the extensive iron fence surrounding the Merchant Marine Academy on Kings Point, Long Island, still holding up well today.

And how did this man I met the other day know all of this?   In the summer of 1995, he met Raymond Clarke from New York who had come to Limerick on a mission.  He searched until he found the grave of his ancestors in Mount St. Laurence Cemetery and had a headstone specially designed for it.  On its face is some Celtic Carving, details of those buried there, some words in Irish, and a chiselled picture of a blacksmith’s anvil and hammer.   A modest reminder of the family that provided the designer of the amazing stage of Radio City Music Hall, New York.

Mae Leonard

Folklorist, local historian and listed Writer for Schools and Libraries, Mae Leonard was born in Limerick City and has been residing in Co. Kildare since 1969. She is a regular contributor to RTE Radio Sunday Miscellany and Thought for the Day. Published in Irish TimesIreland’s OwnLimerick Leader.