In the Big Apple, folks don’t measure distances in miles. Rather, it’s all about time in the city that never sleeps.
So, by Manhattan pub owner Tom McGrath’s reckoning, starting on Friday, it’ll take him somewhere around 60 hours over nine days to get from New York to Annapolis, Md., by way of Northeast Philly.
At 61 years old, the native Irishman will cover that route completely on foot to raise money for a new memorial to one of Philadelphia’s and the nation’s most distinguished Irish-Americans, Commodore John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy.”
The stone and bronze memorial and a surrounding plaza will be installed at the U.S. Naval Academy. The national board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic fraternal and charitable organization, has led a years-long campaign to plan and fund the installation.
For the record, McGrath’s planned route will cover about 250 miles and include a stop at AOH Division 39 headquarters, 7229 Tulip St., on Sunday evening, July 22, for a casual reception. The Irish-American community and public at-large are welcome to attend. The event is planned from 5 to 8 p.m., and tickets are $20 at the door. Proceeds will benefit the Barry Memorial fund.
McGrath plans to cover about 30 miles a day until he reaches the Naval Academy. That’s farther than a conventional marathon.
Fittingly, very little seems conventional about the former Gaelic footballer and Irish provincial boxing champion.
“I went to the Olympics in Montreal in 1976 and I saw Eamonn Coghlan run for Ireland and I started running every day,” McGrath said, explaining his indoctrination into the physically and mentally taxing realm of ultra-marathons.
A native of County Fermanagh in the historical province of Ulster, he had already immigrated to New York City by then.
“I found that running long distances was no problem for me,” he said. “Then one day the guys didn’t show up to play a game of (Gaelic) football, so I went out to run. I ran for four hours and it was no problem.”
He’s barely stopped since.
In 1977, he won a footrace from New York to San Francisco, covering 3,046 miles in just over 53 days to stamp his name in the Guinness Book of World Records.
In 1988, he placed third in the International Association of Ultrarunners World Championship 1,000-mile race, covering that distance in 15 days, 18 hours.
One time, he even ran an “ultra” inside the former Shea Stadium in Flushing, N.Y. It was the 100-mile “world championship,” he said, and Coghlan — by then a personal friend —showed up to cheer him.
Coghlan, a former NCAA champion for Villanova University, is now a member of Irish parliament. He was best known in his competitive heyday as a world-record holder in the mile. So a 100-mile race wasn’t exactly in his comfort zone, even as a spectator.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Slow down!’” McGrath recalled. “So I speeded up.”
He doesn’t do competitive races very often anymore.
“I’ve done a lot of them. I’ve done my share,” he said.
Instead, he focuses on charity events where he can solicit pledges for the miles he runs.
In 1994, he galloped, trotted and shuffled 500 miles and raised $100,000 to rebuild the running track in New York’s Central Park. And just last year, he completed the Six Counties 300-mile Charity Run in the north of Ireland in 10 days.
McGrath is no stranger to Philadelphia, either. He used to hear about the city quite a lot from his mother, who claimed she was born here.
“They came over on the boat and my grandmother was pregnant. (My mother) was born in Philadelphia and then they went right back,” he said.
“They couldn’t find work and were homesick.”
McGrath grew up in a family of 11 on a farm near the village of Ederney, population 200.
“I’d wake up in the morning and I’d think about sports immediately — basketball, football, boxing, athletics,” he said.
He first visited Philly as a teenager with a Gaelic football team from Tyrone. They stayed in the area for about two months in the summer of 1969 for a tournament.
Rather than return to the farm, McGrath chose to stay in America and enroll in college. Even then, however, his life revolved around sports.
“With the boxing, I started my own club at college,” he said. “(But) with Gaelic football, the games got scarce in New York. I couldn’t get enough. It wasn’t enough to satisfy me.”
It only fueled his dedication to running, even after he landed in the bar business and bought a place of his own, the Black Sheep at 38th Street and Third Avenue. Now, extreme running is his way of maintaining equilibrium in the rest of his life.
“Being in the bar business, you see a lot of stuff happening. And if you try to keep up with (the customers), a lot can happen to you real quick if you get too involved,” he said. “You can lose your business real quick.”
That doesn’t stop his customers from trying to keep up with him.
“They’ll say, ‘I’ll race you around the block.’ I’ve heard that a million times,” McGrath said.
In reality, his runs can last four hours or more on the hard and muggy city streets. In preparation for the Barry Run, he’s been training during the heat of the afternoon, just to prepare for the 90-degree-plus conditions.
“I have to be smart and drink plenty of water. And if I have to walk a bit, I walk a bit,” he said. “You always listen to your body and a little music. I put in the hours. And if you put in the hours, you put in the distance.”
Although separated in time by more than two centuries, McGrath and Barry have shared many of the same steps.
“He left the shores of Ireland and made it to the top. He was born and raised in poverty in Wexford and made it to the top of the United States Navy. That’s one great achievement,” McGrath said.
Barry served as a captain in the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War and commanded the victorious Alliance in the final naval battle of the war off of Cape Canaveral in March 1783.
In February 1797, President George Washington issued Barry the first officer’s commission of the newly established U.S. Navy. He remained head of the Navy until his death in 1803.
There’s a statue of Barry outside Independence Hall and a bridge named after him spanning the Delaware River between Chester, Pa., and Bridgeport, N.J.
Until recently, however, there was no permanent memorial at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“Our involvement is where he came from and because he never got the credit he deserved,” said Seamus Boyle, the AOH national president and a member of Division 39 in the Northeast. “No (outside group) has ever put up a monument in the Naval Academy before. The AOH is the first to do it.”
Early this year, the AOH erected a memorial arch over a foot entrance to the Academy grounds. It’s known as the Barry Gate.
The nearby monument is a bigger effort, however. It will take about $200,000 to erect the stone and bronze marker and develop a plaza to surround it. The AOH has raised more than $150,000 toward the cause. The group hopes to surpass the goal with McGrath’s long-distance run.
“When we approached Tom, he said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Boyle recalled. “He said, ‘What if I do a run from New York to Annapolis?’ We laughed and he said, ‘I’m serious.’”
“When this came up, I said it would be a privilege and an honor,” McGrath said. ••EndFragment