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Tributes to Belfast man Gerry Toner, king of New York's Irish

By Alf McCreary

If you're Irish and have been to New York, the chances are you've enjoyed the hospitality of the late Gerry Toner.

The Belfast man, who has died aged 84, was one of the best-known ex-pats in the Big Apple. He was also renowned as one of the most generous.

Any visitor who wandered into one of Gerry's Manhattan hostelries and announced themselves as being from these shores would almost certainly have experienced the legendary Toner largesse.

Ardoyne native John Gerard 'Gerry' Toner certainly knew what it was like to arrive in one of the world's busiest cities needing to hear a welcoming fellow Irish accent.

A man who once worked in the bars of the legendary Queen Mary, Gerry stepped off the great ship for the final time one day, determined to make it in New York.

He started off working in Irish watering holes and ended up owning or co-owning many of them, including the aptly named Kennedy's in West 57th... which many a member of the famous Kennedy clan enjoyed frequenting.

Gerry Toner and his associates gave a whole new dimension to Irish hospitality, with a high standard of food and drink, and a warm and genuine welcome.

As such, they attracted a huge number of patrons, not only Irish-Americans from New York, but also from across the USA, as well as countless visitors to the bustling city from Ireland, north and south.

Gerry had a knack of making friends with all kinds of people, including Irishmen from north and south who shared his professional interests and expertise in good dining.

One such was Bill McCreary, based in New York and formerly from Belfast, who was at one time the head of catering for Transworld Airlines at New York's JFK airport.

Gerry Toner expanded his business to an ever-upmarket clientele, and one of his best-known restaurants was the Abbey Tavern on Third Avenue.

In 1994 he hosted the entire Northern Ireland international football squad, their management, media - and, indeed, some fans - at Kennedy's.

It was a visit that attracted considerable attention - if not confusion, coming as it did shortly before the Republic of Ireland took on, and beat, highly-fancied Italy in the World Cup finals.

Although not directly involved in the tournament, the Northern Ireland team had been on a tour of the eastern seaboard, acting as a 'warm-up' for participating countries like Colombia to play in friendlies.

John Laverty, who was covering the tour for the Belfast Telegraph, recalled: "Gerry was delighted that the Northern Ireland lads had made it to Kennedy's that night, and found it amusing that some of the excited patrons thought that they were in the presence of Jack Charlton's boys.

"Gerry laughed it off and told everybody 'sure it's all the same green'. He was a giant of a man."

Mr Laverty added: "I remember arriving in New York near midnight on one occasion back in 1996, without anywhere to stay because of a delayed flight.

"I did what any lost soul would do... made my way to West 57th - and, within a short time the Kennedy's staff, on Gerry's instructions, found me a great place.

"Not only that, but he wouldn't hear of me paying the tab, even though I'd been enjoying the hospitality for a couple of hours.

"His generosity was unbelievable - and I am sure that he lifted similar tabs for so many people from Ireland who made their way to one of his establishments."

The late Mr Toner, who resided in Garden City, had a wide circle of political acquaintances, including John Hume.

In a tribute, Niall O'Dowd of Irish Voice newspaper fame said: "Gerry was pre-hipster, pre-gastro pub, pre-gentrification.

"He was, instead, an old-fashioned Irish host, charming, smart and everyone's confidante. He had a store of stories to make a cat laugh about his early days in America, and no matter how often he told them, they still seemed hilarious."

Mr O'Dowd added: "Gentleman Gerry was much more than just a great businessman and friend.

"He was deeply involved in efforts to bring a peaceful end to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

"He was very close to John Hume and hosted him on numerous occasions in New York, and also fund-raised for him so that his mission of peace could continue. He was also very involved with the Belfast Flax Charity Trust."

Gerry also gave countless young people a start in their careers in the hospitality business.

Many tributes appeared online in the days following his death.

One friend and former employee wrote: "You were a decent and hard working man.

"Thank you for my happy memories in New York. You were a great boss and it was a privilege to work in the famous Irish pubs."

Another said: "It was truly my blessing to be a part of the Toner family for the past 30 years.

"Incredible memories shared with Mr Gerry Toner that I will never forget."

Mr Toner died peacefully on August 30 at his home.

His funeral Mass takes place today at 10am local time in the Church of St Joseph, followed by interment at the Holy Rood Cemetery.

He is survived by Cathy, his wife of 54 years, his adult children Gemma, Catherine and Patricia, and the wider family.

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