The street front of The Ceili House, an Irish pub in Queens, New York

The Ceili House, an Irish pub in Queens, New York

By Laurie Hertzel

It’s a standard story for American newspapers: the story-behind-the-story of someone who has died suddenly and tragically. But when Keith Duggan wrote about the life and death of Sarah McNally for his newspaper, the Irish Times, it became a different kind of story entirely.

“A very Irish life cut violently short” was published April 6, 2o24, just one week after Sarah’s murder at the Irish bar she worked at in New York. But the story only mentions her death in a glancing sort of way, and it barely mentions the accused murderer (a former boyfriend). It is more a meditation on on the typical Irish immigrant experience in New York.

Irish Times Washington D.C. correspondent Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Sarah is the touchstone throughout Duggan’s story, but he resists the predictable dive into  personal aspects of her life and relationships. Instead, he delivers a narrative, with flashes of first person. The story begins with the rain in New York, and the writer’s journey from Manhattan to the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens; it is about the changing neighborhood where Sarah worked, the Irish bars where Irish immigrants like Sarah have long found work, the people who knew her or knew other Irish immigrants like her.

Duggan’s observations are intimate and empathetic:

No matter how many times you make the brief crossing from the teeming city to the Irish enclaves, the difference between those two worlds is always breathtaking.

Sarah’s death happened “at teatime.” The bar where she worked was a place where “people thought the world of her.” It was, as Irish bars in New York often are to Irish immigrants, a place of “sanctuary.”

One theme of the piece is silence. Instead of using the brusque phrase “refused to comment,” Duggan makes it clear that it’s simply too early for people who knew Sarah to talk about her. The mood in the bar was “warm if exhausted.”

Later in the piece, Duggan interviews Eileen Reilly, who runs a community center in the neighborhood. It’s late in the day, but he lets the reader know that she makes time for him:

As we sit chatting in her office, several staff call ‘good night, Miss Reilly,’ from down the hallway as they leave for the evening.

The whole story is infused with intimacy and empathy. It ends with a piercing conclusion:

In the bar life, you meet many people. In an era of remote working, of hours and years staring into a computer screen, the bar trade has remained true to the idea of the workplace as a society. Over a decade in New York, Sarah McNally must have shared a pleasant word with an inestimable number of people and formed valuable friendships with many of those who are today in a state of heartbreak and disbelief. They will remember her for a long time in the various corners of New York. It is probable that there will be a moment of silent reflection before the big GAA match in Gaelic Park this weekend. And silence is appropriate: it is little wonder that Sarah McNally’s nearest and dearest have been unable to speak about her, at least for the time being.

It’s Saturday again and there are no words.

The hows and whys of the writing can best be explained by Duggan himself, with whom I had a discussion via email. The following is edited for length and clarity.

What was the original assignment, and how did you approach it?
The death of Sarah McNally took place on the Saturday of what was a bank holiday weekend in Ireland. I work and live in Washington D.C. as Washington Correspondent for The Irish Times. I got a message at 7 a.m. on the following Tuesday and was on a train an hour later. The assignment was to write a piece for the Weekend section of our Saturday edition, which generally contains reviews and longer pieces. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure how to approach it until I was travelling up to Manhattan and began to think about what had happened.

How much do you consider audience when you write? This felt to me like a story for folks back home in Ireland, though it was also fascinating to me, an American.
I don’t normally think about audience except in the general sense of trying to make a story as appealing or interesting or informative as possible. But this was unusual. To begin with, I didn’t really think of it as a story — more as a terrible event which we were compelled to cover and which I dreaded doing. I’m not a crime reporter per se. I was conscious of how Sarah’s murder was covered in the New York tabloids and began to think about how bewildering and terrible this must have been for her family and friends, including those who were regulars in the bar.

Why did you include small scenes of first person?
The details of the death were documented in all media in Ireland and in the NYC tabloids. Police reports and comments strongly suggested that this was an instance of domestic violence that took place in the most public of settings — an Irish bar, on a Saturday evening. I decided I didn’t want to rehash the grim events of what happened. But I was aware that people back in Ireland were, understandably, shocked. One of the reasons for this, I felt, was that Sarah McNally could have been them or someone they knew. Everyone in Ireland could relate to her story: leaving Ireland for New York, working in the hospitality industry.

Can you also talk about your use of second person, which makes the story feel very intimate? That’s an unusual structure that American journalists would be warned against using.
In some ways I think the American journalistic tradition is a lot more formal than it is in Ireland the UK. In a piece like this, The Irish Times is comfortable in allowing that second-person perspective that you mention. But I really just wrote about what I encountered that day. As it happened, all of New York was engulfed in a dismal rainstorm that afternoon. It changed the entire city. I took the E train out to Queens and knew that this was a journey Sarah McNally must have made many times. All I was really trying to do was to give readers an idea of what Maspeth was like. And the bar, The Ceili House — here was an everyday Irish bar that was suddenly at the centre of a big media storm. And yet when I called in on Tuesday afternoon, it was virtually deserted, just two customers and the bar lady and the little vigil. I had a brief conversation with the bar lady but she asked me not to quote her. I wanted to make it clear that even though she didn’t wish to speak publicly, she was in no way unfriendly.

Most stories in American newspapers that deal with violent death give as many details of the death as possible. You not only didn’t do that, but you made it clear to the reader that you were not going to do it. Why?
It’s always disconcerting for Irish readers to read the way American media covers violent death. In Ireland, those details are never reported until the trial.

I felt that anyone reading the piece either already knew of the details or could easily obtain them. And of course, the attacker was known to Sarah McNally. It was allegedly carried out by someone who had meant something to her. I think because of the circumstances of her death, her personal life had kind of become public property. That’s understandable: Violent deaths are reported. But it did feel like a violation. If there was a way to cover this story without repeating that graphic detail, it seemed the most sensible and respectful way of doing it.

Let’s talk about your opening, which is cinematic — a feeling of movement from Manhattan to Queens, the recollection of a scrum of reporters outside the bar, and then the quiet of the interior of the bar a few days later. Can you talk about how and why you crafted the opening in this way?
That wasn’t down to any great deliberation on my part. I think I wrote that piece on Wednesday because it had to be filed Thursday morning. So I just described what I encountered over the day. I started out getting off the train at Penn Station, where it was absolutely lashing rain, and 90 minutes later was in the bar.

Your story addresses a changing neighborhood — once very Irish and safe for Irish immigrants, now only partly Irish. This gives a richness to the story, avoids clichés. How did you approach the reporting of this?
I took the train over to Jackson Boulevard and then a taxi down to Maspeth. The taxi driver took us by that community hall that I visited. I looked it up and saw that it was run by a lady with an Irish name, Eileen Reilly. And I knew the area must have been an Irish neighbourhood at some stage but it didn’t feel that way now. I called up unannounced and Eileen was wonderful and spoke about the transition of Maspeth from predominately Irish to a multi-cultural part of Queens. It would seem that all of those traditionally Irish strongholds are beginning to fade and change.

Please talk about your last line  — It’s Saturday again and there are no words.which really stayed with me.
It just came to me as I was writing that end paragraph and thinking of what it would be like for the staff and regulars in the bar the following Saturday.

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Laurie Hertzel recently retired as senior editor for books and special projects at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She the author of “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.”

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