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Captain Brian A. McAllister

7 November 2005
1 hour, 40 minutes

Preferred Citation:
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University

Biographical Note:

Brian A. McAllister was born in 1932 in Brooklyn, New York, the eighth child of Anthony J. (1899-1984) and Marjorie McAllister. He is the great-grandson of James P. McAllister who emigrated from Cushendall, Co. Antrim and in 1864 founded a lighterage (1) company in New York harbor. This family-owned business, now called McAllister Towing Incorporated, is one of the last surviving tugboat operations in New York City waters today. It has seventy tugboats at nine ports on the east coast, as well as twelve barges; in addition, it owns and operates three ferry vessels running from Port Jefferson, New York to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Raised in his grandfather’s house at 1510 Albemarle Road in the Prospect Park South section of Brooklyn, Brian McAllister was educated at Holy Innocents grammar school and Brooklyn Preparatory High School. In 1956 he graduated with a B.Sc. from the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Throg’s Neck section of the Bronx, with several licenses including Third Assistant Engineer. After two years with the United States Navy and several on merchant marine vessels, McAllister traded his below-deck engineering experiences to captain McAllister tugboats, lighters and ferries for his father. In the early 1970s he moved into office operations in the company headquarters at 17 Battery Place and in 1974 succeeded his father as president of McAllister Towing.

Towing in New York City’s harbor declined steadily during the twentieth century – from a high of eight hundred tugboats in 1929 – as changes in railroad transport, trucking and containerization affected the number of ships entering and leaving the port. Tugboats “tug” much larger and heavier vessels for a variety of reasons, by attaching one or more towlines, depending on the latest technology. The Depression hit the industry very hard and many towing companies were put out of business during the 1930s. Oil barges became a lifeline until the prices of oil skyrocketed in the 1970s and 1980s, forcing McAllister Towing to diversify and to expand operations to other east coast ports and even Saudi Arabia in order to survive. McAllister Towing and its nearest competitor, Moran Towing Corporation, are the two principal companies remaining in the industry; they have reached a give-and-take balance that benefits both and enables them to continue to make New York harbor their base of operations.

Being Catholic rather than being Irish was more central to the identity of the family when Brian McAllister was growing up in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, McAllister’s grandfather, James P. McAllister (1869-1935, known as “Captain Jim” and “Dean of the Harbor”) appears to have been connected to important Irish nationalists in New York City (2). In June 1919 he sent his son, Anthony, to the Hoboken, New Jersey piers to bring Eamon de Valera into New York City on a McAllister tugboat. De Valera, President of the nascent Irish Republic, had just escaped from Lincoln prison in England and traveled aboard a German ocean liner to the United States, where he would spend the next eighteen months fundraising for an independent Ireland.

In January 1967 Brian McAllister married Rosemary Owens, who taught mathematics at the United Nations International School in New York. At the time of this interview, their sons, Brian Buckley McAllister and Eric Michael McAllister (General Counsel and Treasurer respectively), were Vice Presidents for McAllister Towing.

(1) A lighter carries cargo from ship to shore.

(2) James P. McAllister’s obituary says he was born in Ireland and brought to New York when less than one year old. At the time of his death, he was an honorary chieftain of the Knights of St. Patrick. See “James M’Allister, Shipping Man, Dies,” New York Times,15 November 1935, p. 23.

Kerri Farrell (KF), Linda Dowling Almeida (LA), Marion R. Casey (MC)

Excerpt No. 1
A typical day for McAllister Towing
Disc 2, 22:23-24:54

Listen to Excerpt No. 1*

Transcription of Excerpt No. 1:

MC: What happened today? What cargo did you escort in, what ship did you escort out? Do you know?

BM: No – I could tell you some of it, ‘cause I watched it go by the window.

MC: Yeah, okay.

LA: Yeah, just for example, we just want to know what you’re into.

BM: I saw two or three oil barges go by – but if I took my time and looked out the window here (3), I could probably see our boats going in and out with the various steamships. And, uh – [dials dispatcher]

MC: I was just curious.

BM: Yeah, but no, no, I do this two or three times a day. For one reason or another, I’m talking to the dispatcher here. [ringing]


BM: Yeah, hey, what’s going on?


BM: Yeah, Brian here, who’s this?

DISPATCHER: Hey, Brian, it’s John, how you doing, sir?

BM: Oh, John, good to talk to you. John, what’s going on over there now?

DISPATCHER: In reference to what, sir?

BM: Well, you got any ship work going?

DISPATCHER: Oh sir, yes sir, always. It’s been very busy.

BM: Very busy.

DISPATCHER: Very busy, outstandingly busy.

BM: Well, how many ships have we handled today?

DISPATCHER: Uh, today, we had 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17 – 17 ships today.

BM: Holy mackerel!

DISPATCHER: Yeah, we’re doing good Cap’, we’re really going at it.

BM: What are you doing on the coast?

DISPATCHER: On the coast…well the Columbia-Miami (4) is being towed. On the outside –

BM: Where’s she going?

DISPATCHER: Of course, we got a lot on charter too, Brian, as you know: the Christine, the AmyChristine to Reinauer (5), the Amy to Weeks (6), the Bruce to Bouchard (7), the Marjorie to Bouchard, the Charles D. [to] Great Lakes (8), and the [McAllister] Bros. is filling in on sanitation for Moran (9), while they do some repairs. So the coastal work that’s in there right now is just for Columbia Miami.

BM: And all those other boats you have on charter, they’re towing oil barges where?

DISPATCHER: Well, yeah, they’re towing oil for Bouchard, the Bruce and the Marjorie, of course. The Amy’s doing more construction materials, docking construction materials, [for] the Leonardo. Christine has been pushing oil steady for Reinauer, and the Charles D. is just doing dredging for Great Lakes on the New York off Howland Hook (10).

BM: I see.

DISPATCHER: Doing very good, Cap’, I think we’re having quite a good run here.

BM: OK, well, keep up the good work, John.

DISPATCHER: You got it sir, we won’t let off.

BM: Hey, yeah…alright. Thank you.


BM: Bye.

(3) 17 Battery Place, Suite 1200, New York, New York

(4) A Columbia Coastal Transport, LLC vessel

(5) Reinauer, specializing in petroleum transportation

(6) Weeks Marine, Inc., a New Jersey-based tugboat company

(7) Bouchard Transport Co., Inc., an oil barging company

(8) Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company

(9) Moran Towing Corporation, a New York-based tugboat company

(10) Howland Hook Marine Terminal, near the Goethals Bridge in Staten Island, New York

Excerpt No. 2
On Irish identity
Disc 2, 43:20-44:49

Listen to Excerpt No. 2 *

Transcription of Excerpt No. 2:

BM: Of course, I did go to Ireland [mid 1980s] – you know, I took the two boys when they were about 15 or 16 and we went out and, went to the old house, and they showed us how they dug the turf – you know, so there’s a real feel, I have it, you know? And I love the music, I love the music.

LA: But there was nothing formal through associations or dancing, or music lessons.

BM: No, no – and my father – uh, my mother’s birthday was St. Patrick’s Day.

KF: Oh.

BM: So he could never go to St., St. Patrick’s, what was that, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick (11). You know – I used to go, I went to it a few times. It’s like, 10,000 lawyers, OK, and it’s a madhouse. The most enjoyable thing is to go to Carnegie Hall for the Chieftains, or the Clancy Brothers. Oh man, that was the best, especially when they sing the war songs! You know, out of Ireland. And then Frank Patterson, I loved him. So that’s, that’s – what are you gonna do?

The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in the City of New York holds its annual banquet on March 17th.

(11) The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in the City of New York holds its annual banquet on March 17th.

Excerpt No. 3
Catholicism and the decision to captain a tugboat
Disc 1, 19:08-21:28

Listen to Excerpt No. 3 *

Transcription of Excerpt No. 3:

KF: Was there a lot of Catholicism in your upbringing?

BM: Oh, yeah, my mother and father were both very, very devout Catholics.

KF: So you went to Mass every Sunday?

BM: Oh, a lot more than every Sunday.

MC: And the parish?

BM: We belonged to Holy Innocents (12). Yeah, that was one of your questions I didn’t answer yet – and the Holy Innocents school was right there, you walked –

LA: So you went to Catholic grammar school?

BM: Oh sure.

LA: High school?

BM: High school, Brooklyn Prep (13), with the Jesuits. As a matter of fact, my parents were not too happy about me going to a non-Catholic college. I mean, you were supposed to go to a Catholic school.

LA: Is that what your brothers and sisters did?

BM: No, no, well I had one older brother that also went to Fort Schuyler, which was New York State Maritime College. You know, I graduated with a license as a third assistant engineer, any horsepower, unlimited horsepower – steam and diesel, sounds great, you know, and I went to sea for awhile after the Navy – first became an ens (14). in the United States Navy and went to sea for two years there, and then started going to sea on my deep sea license on big ships. And then one day I said, “Dad, I don’t like being in the engine room any longer. I want to become a captain.” He said, “What? Are you crazy? You went to four years of school to become an engineer! Engineering is the only thing in life; if you understand engineering, you can figure anything out. Those deck apes don’t know what they’re looking at, looking at stars for crying out loud. There’s nothing educational about that.” I said, “Well, that may be but, Dad, I’d like to have my hand on the wheel. I’d like to see where I’m going. I like the whole job of moving barges and ships around the harbor, and I enjoy it.” And you know, that’s where the real money is anyhow. And then when he saw me making too much money as a single guy, he didn’t like that either. A man should not make too much money before he is married.

(12) Holy Innocents Roman Catholic Church, 279 East Seventeenth Street, Brooklyn, New York

(13) Brooklyn Preparatory High School in Crown Heights

(14) Shorthand for ensign, a commissioned officer in the Navy ranking next below a Lieutenant junior grade.

Excerpt No. 4
Eamon de Valera, the McAllisters and movie-influenced Irish history
Disc 1, 2:52-7:36

Listen to Excerpt No. 4 *

Transcription of Excerpt No. 4:

BM: So there we are. Uh – can I tell you an interesting story about the McAllisters?

KF: Absolutely.

BM: My father?

KF: Sure.

BM: Uh, uh, this is the story of Eamon de Valera (15). He’s heard it (16). And in the 1920’s or thereabouts (17), Eamon de Valera came over to this country to raise money for whatever was going on between him and Michael Collins (18) or whatever. I don’t exactly know the specific time, but it was very controversial. And uh, so, my grandfather was big in politics you know and so forth, uh, he says “Tony” – I don’t know whether he called him Tony or Anthony, but, uh, he says, “He’s coming in. Eamon de Valera is coming in. He’s gonna – he’s coming in on a German ship, he’s gonna be docking over there in Hoboken, North German or something like that (19). You go over on such and such tugboat, you get him – they don’t want him to be taking the ferryboat across with every Tom, Dick, and Harry and a lot of assassins and whatever – and you bring him over here and drop him off at the Battery and everything there.” Which he does – he goes over there and meets him, you know, and he’s talking to him on the tugboat. And uh, he, uh, he tells my father, he says, “Now anytime you come to Ireland, you come and see me.” You know? So that’s, uh, whatever it was, 1920. Anyway, in the 1950’s, 1955 (20), my father goes to Ireland with my mother – her name was Marjorie Buckley – and two of his sisters. So, they go wandering through [Ireland] and they’re in Dublin, and they go to, uh, the Dail. Is that how you say it?

LA: Mhmm.

BM: Dail.

LA: D-A-I-L.

MC: Dáil.

BM: D-A –

MC: I-L.

BM: L. Dial.

LA: D-A-I-L.

MC: Dáil. Dáil. Dáil.

BM: Dáil. Okay.

MC: Like D-A-W-L. Pronounced.

BM: Okay. Dáil. Anyway, he goes up there and they’ve got these guards there, you know, and he says, “Where do you think you’re going, buddy?” And he [Anthony McAllister] says, “Well, I’d like to go in and say hello to Eamon de Valera.” ”No, no, no, no. Now do you have a date here, I mean, do you have an appointment?” You know? And he goes through this whole thing and finally he says, “Well look” – you know – and he tells him the story, and he tells him this story of how he got on his boat and brought him [De Valera] over [to New York] and he [the guard] said, “Well, you wait here awhile.” In a little while, the guy comes back. He says, “Yeah, Mr. De Valera” – or the honorable or whatever they call him (21)– ”he’ll see you.” He goes in there, and they talk and talk and talk, an hour or whatever it was. And the only thing I can remember was my mother had no idea where the name Buckley ever came from, and she was wondering if she’s really truly Irish; because she thought she was, you know, but she had no way of tracing her, you know, origins. They, you know, a lot of people never talked about it for whatever reason. And, uh, Eamon de Valera said to her, “Yes, that is an Irish name, it’s O’Buckley, or something like that, you know, it’s been anglicized and something, but it is Irish.” So, that’s all I could ever remember. The other thing I remember is that my father used to, you know, brag constantly to whoever was Irish around that he had personally known Eamon de Valera – he’s a good personal friend, we talked and talked and talked – and this man is one of the great guys, and on and on and on. Until the time that I saw the movie Michael Collins (22), and came to realize that no-good sneak Eamon de Valera pulled the trigger on the great Michael Collins, [played by actor] Liam Neeson. My father would roll over in his grave if he saw that movie. He – you know, you grow up with one [way of] thinking –

LA: An image of somebody.

BM: And then someone tells the opposite side of the coin, and there you are.

(15) Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), a major figure in modern Irish politics, who served as both prime minister and president of Ireland.

(16) McAllister’s son, Brian Buckley McAllister, VP and General Counsel for the company, was in the room at the time this story was told.

(17) June 1919

(18) Michael Collins (1890-1922), a colleague and political rival of de Valera, assassinated during the Irish Civil War.

(19) North German Lloyd and the Hamburg-American Line both docked their ocean liners on the west side of the Hudson River at Hoboken in New Jersey.

(20) Probably no later than 1954.

(21) De Valera was Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland) between 1951 and 1954.

(22) Michael Collins (Dir. Neil Jordan, Warner Bros., 1996)

Photo Credit:

* To listen to this interview, you will need to have RealAudio, a free audio player, installed. Click here to download the software.

Note: A Guide to Brian A. McAllister’s interview, and a log at ten minute intervals, is available in the Archives of Irish America.