By George Stahl
Special to the Sun
It’s 1823. We are looking in at a scene unfolding in a small, falling apart, two room apartment in the middle of County Cork, Ireland. In the outer room, a man and his two sons, and the man’s friend, Sam are fidgeting from sitting to pacing, sitting and pacing. Their nervous anxiety suggesting an outcry of, ‘Catch me when I fall. I’m going to pass out!’
Then, from the other room, a loud scream, and a sudden sound of a baby crying at the top of its lungs. It’s September 4, 1823 and a boy named Barney Flaherty has just been born. Eventually, young Barney’s parents decide that the hard times in Ireland need to be exchanged for the rough times in America, and they get on a boat and sail for New York. They settle in Brooklyn and by now, Barney is nine years old. He and his brothers and sisters find that making friends on the streets of Canarsie is not all that easy. They get into numerous scrapes, some a little more serious than others. Another year goes by. Barney’s mother is taking in laundry from the neighborhood, and his father is sweeping the floors at the local pubs when he’s not partaking of the spirits these establishments have to offer. More often than not, Barney’s father comes home owing the pub more than they owe him. Seems that a swept floor for a shot of McNair whiskey is not an equitable trade.
When Barney was 10 years old, and his father had hit rock bottom for the umpteenth time, a man approached the preteen and handed him a chance at a job. There were no child labor laws back then, and unfortunately school was not mandatory. So, Barney read the ad in the newspaper the man handed him. ‘You go to this address tomorrow afternoon, and ask for that man in the ad. You won’t be disappointed,” the man said. Barney was ten, but he knew not to totally trust a man over twenty with a heavier Irish accent than his.
Something told Barney though, that it was worth a shot. The next morning, early, he was at the door to the building housing The New York Sun Newspaper. This could be Barney’s chance to help his mother, and to maybe sway his father to get out of the bottle. He’d settle for helping his mother.
When the doors opened, a man dressed like a banker stood on the stoop. He announced that the interviewees would be brought in ten at a time. Barney, being at the front of the line, the tall, slender man looked down at him. “Where’s your father boy?” he asked. “Don’t know,” Barney answered. “I’m here for a job like it says in this here ad.”
The man did not argue with him. He didn’t have the time, so he allowed Barney and nine others into the building to wait in line for an interview. Barney sat in a hallway with the others, waiting to called in.
A lady came out and called,’Next.’ Barney thought it was his turn, so he stood up and walked towards her. One of the other guys tried cutting him off, but the lady saw Barney and she pushed the man aside and took hold of Barney’s shoulder. ‘I think you’re next young man,” she said escorting him to the double oak doors at the end of the hall. “Thank you,” Barney smiled at her.
“Don’t thank me yet. You still have to get past Ben,” she said stopping at the door. “Who’s Ben?” Barney whispered. “Uncle Ben to me, Mister Day to everyone else,” she smiled, opening the double doors, and nudging Barney through. “What’s this?” Day asked with a cigar in his mouth. “I’m publishing a newspaper here, not running a baby-sitting service,” Day said looking down at Barney. “The ads says adults, men and women….” Day insisted. “No, it doesn’t. It just says unemployed, and well, I am. Unemployed that is,” Barney said. “Sir.”
Day sat back in his chair and looked at his niece. They exchanged looks and smiles and Day leaned forward. He stared at the 10-year-old standing at eye level to him as he sat in his chair. “If you throw a newspaper into the bushes that’ll be enough for me to fire you. If you throw the customer’s paper on the curb, that’ll be enough for me to fire you. If you so much as throw the paper in any manner that is not on the front walk to a house, well…you know what that means,” Day snarled. He turned to his niece and winked. She looked down at her shoes and smiled. Barney looked at Day and smiled. “Then, it’s a good thing I am not too be a home delivery boy. I want to be a newspaper boy. I want a spot on the streets of Manhattan and I want to sell newspapers to the people walking by.”
Day was offering him a job in the neighborhoods and apartments. “Why isn’t your father here with you?” Day asked. “I don’t know where he is. I haven’t seen him for a while. He’s not here, I am,” Barney said.
Day looked at his niece, and then turned back to Barney and extended his hand. “Son, you are a newspaper boy,” he said.
That was 186 years ago today, September 4. Barney Flaherty from Cork, Ireland and Canarsie in Brooklyn, was New York’s first street corner newsboy. What he did opened the door for hundreds of other boys who had to find ways to help feed their families. Their profession is still alive and thriving thanks to the young men and women who carry our nations newspapers to houses, businesses, and newsstands all across the country, right down to the men and women who deliver the Kern Valley Sun every Wednesday to you.
Happy Newspaper Carriers Day!