Liam Garrity is the narrator of the Auld Irishtown trilogy. On his death bed, he is telling the story of his youth. Although the story takes place in the past, it is told in the traditional Irish oral method of present tense. Much of the story details his direct experience with the violent longshoreman gang known as The White Hand during World War I era New York City. Woven within his personal accounts are stories and events he tells that are related to the many elements affecting his life at the time.
In August of 1915, Garrity’s father witnesses the dramatic graveside speech of Patrick Pearse at the burial of Fenian rebel O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery. Knowing that a rebellion is at hand (his father is a Volunteer) fourteen year-old Liam is sent to work with his uncle (a union longshoreman) in Brooklyn.
Born William James Garrihy, his last name was mistakenly changed at Ellis Island to Garrity. In fact, at one point he shows frustration at all the different names he has in Brooklyn, a metaphor for his coming of age. He is called Liam, William, kid, child, buoy, muck and Poe, at various times in the books. Also, everyone in Irishtown is known as “Patrick Kelly,” a moniker used when outsiders want to know a gang member’s names.
Liam has a stable personality in a morally upside down world. He is genuine, thoughtful, has a great sense of humility, but is swept up in the violence of his time. Not until the Easter Rising occurs in April of 1916 does he realize that he must get his mother and sisters out of Ireland before British soldiers come to his family’s farm.
Like so many of the Irish diaspora, he is torn between returning home to fight for his country’s freedom, and starting a new life abroad. Because of the ongoing world war however, it is impossible for him to return. His only chance to get his mother and sisters to New York, both logistically and financially, is to join the gang, who control labor and since getting work is so difficult.
But Dinny Meehan, leader of The White Hand, does not give favor freely. Liam must pay, not in money though. In blood.
Along the way, Garrity describes the many pressures put on a gang that has outlived
its time. The violent enforcement of the ancient Irish Code of Silence that still exists in 1910s Irishtown has affectively kept outsiders out. But change is coming, as it always does to New York City.
Many want control of the bountiful waterfront docks of Brooklyn including the industrial businesses, Italians from South Brooklyn and the longshoremen’s union. Anglo-American law is also inherently opposed to gang rule. But most importantly, Liam sees the traitor in the gang’s midst, “Wild Bill” Lovett, who longs for Meehan’s seat of power above the Dock Loaders’ Club overlooking the Manhattan Bridge and the city’s skyline.
As a teenager, Garrity is unsure of his future. Primarily concerned with surviving and getting his family to New York, his own aspirations are set aside. But when he meets The Gas Drip Bard, he realizes then that he will tell this story. But because of the terrible things he was forced to do, he does not want it told until twenty years after his death.
Outside of Ennis, in County Clare in the west of Ireland, the wind kicks upon the hills under the same gray sky where once starved children, women and old men were buried callously, if not left by the ditches. Where the weakest of the agrarian poor were communally laid in what are now mere humps of turf. Paupers’ graves that for over 160 years have not been fully honored by truth nor been properly acknowledged. Even if two million of them perished of starvation and common disease, over a million more died jumping desperately into coffin ships. The facts had never made a difference as to the truth of their demise, such as numbers as stiflingly affecting as up to twenty-five percent of a country’s population dead or dispersed.
Now finally comes The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy. This seminal work and its stance on Ireland’s most titanic event, written by its most famous historian, Tim Pat Coogan, has been bantered about for many years: A formal condemnation or blame on English policy and policymakers for the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 and the “extermination” of so many poor by starvation, disease and emigration.
It has traditionally been with great difficulty for this story to be told, even though the Irish are known as epic storytellers. My grandfather, a gentle man of little emotion, tried but had such a hard time recounting the oral stories that were passed to him from his grandparents and parents that he found it necessary to turn away from me as he continued. In my family’s longshoreman saloon in Greenwich Village around the turn of the century and in our home where the cause of Irish freedom was still debated in my childhood and where copies of Coogan’s biographical work on the Irish Republican Army sat at my grandfather’s table from my earliest memories, I heard story after story of the Famine. Passionate stories, angry stories, and irrefutable facts to support the emotion behind it. Yet in my formal education in the United States, I never heard a mention until I reached university level.
For too long, there has been much gray over the past like the gray skies over the paupers’ graves in the hills of western Ireland. It seems Coogan’s greatest contribution to this calamitous event is to sum up the condemnation for us. To focus in on the intention of those with the ability to help the sufferers, rather than to allow history to remember it as an act of nature. Not to fan the flames of war or rally the revolutionaries, but to explain discreetly, truthfully, and in an Irish voice, why today there is still an open wound.
For all those Americans with surnames such as Connolly, Donnelly, or Kennedy; Australians with Fin, Finnigan, and Flanigan; and Canadians with O’Hara, O’Neill, and O’Leary, the reasons for their original arrival has too often been shaded in gray. But the fear, the death, and the struggle endured by those families of the Great Hunger, condemned to a fate worse than stray dogs, were not gray at all. Ignored by governments, they were forced into the slums of the New York docks in stitched rags or settled in South Boston and other places (and many others died in the Port of Quebec). They recovered quickly, and then went to work and helped build through toil and hope the great cities we know today. Much of their own memories of Ireland were of a sad place where sad things happened. Unnerved, uneducated, traumatized, disenfranchised, these Famine Irish, as they were known, often found more struggle and racism in their new homes.
In time, the frame of their story would be obscured by the politics of the ruling classes. And in telling their own tragic story, the reasons for their arrival in new lands were all too often dis-remembered in guilt, clouded by an oral tradition and a need to not dwell on the past while instead planning for the future.
In The Famine Plot, Coogan explains that it wasn’t until 1916 that Ireland began its true push for freedom and to govern and to express itself of its own history. But during the Eamon de Valera era, much of the academic class in Ireland was still heavily influenced by London and the soft-spoken, non-Republican Dublin professors that did not want to add their voice to the violence occurring in the north.
Coogan’s work is not the first on the topic, though it is the brightest and most obviously damning. There have been many works. Of note is Cecil Woodham-Smith’s 1962 affective work, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (also on my grandfather’s table), which outlined blame particularly on the English civil servant Sir Charles Trevelyan who administered “relief” during the Famine, but fell short of condemnation, stating instead that Britain’s record was simply “hard to defend.” But even that was too much for most academics, who criticized Woodham-Smith’s work for being biased.
Many works have followed, but not quite with the effect of Coogan’s sharp pen. In the opening chapters, The Famine Plot outlines the brewing of a catastrophic event. Religious oppression after Henry VIII’s abdication from the Catholic Church, the outlawing of education for Catholics; English landlords that spent their rent profits in London; failed rebellions including that of 1798; and a tradition of English racism for the Celt as being a lazy, popish, tribal, and feckless people. By the year 1800, after hundreds of years of invasions and oppression from their English neighbors, Ireland was brought under the umbrella of the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Act of Union like Scotland and Wales. But as Coogan rightly specifies, even important English Parliamentarians on the eve of disaster admitted that Ireland was not governed like a kingdom, but instead was only occupied by colonial soldiers that protected English businesses to extract Ireland’s natural resources. There was little governing of the people, especially outside of the Dublin Pale. In reality, the majority of Irish families, supposedly benefiting from the wealth of Great Britain’s economy, were solely dependent on the harvest of one crop: the potato.
However, Coogan saves his best argument for the most pertinent players during the Famine. Taking apart the philosophies of these royal English policymakers and their economic and religious treatises that prevail still today, he points directly to the heart of the matter. Breaking it up with the precision, with the gentle heart of an Irishman and putting it back together with the coolness of an historical analyst, he begins with providence.
“Providence, the divine will, was declared to have a large bearing on the subject, as it generally does when the rich debate the poor, or the strong confront the weak. It was an era in which in America the indigenous Americans were going down before a similar doctrine: Manifest Destiny,” he writes.
In this religious invocation by English political economists, God divinely chooses who shall live and who shall die and governments are not to intervene against His will. That God rarely chose them for death and instead chooses the most vulnerable of the peoples was certainly convenient for the powerful. The effect of policymakers interpreting God’s will and pointing it at the poor would, as we find out, be a large factor in causing Ireland to never again reach the population levels of the 1841 census.
After providence, Coogan points to laissez-faire capitalism as affecting how English colonial rule could justify standing by while a famine raged next door. Years before the Famine, English economists decided that raising cattle in the Irish land would be much more fiscally productive than depending on the feckless Irish to pay rent on it. A plan was needed to exchange the Irish people for cattle. English policy during this time was smitten with the ideas of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and “moralist” who famously outlined the philosophy of capitalism in Wealth of Nations. The notion that “greed is good,” as director Oliver Stone sarcastically underscored in the movie Wall Street, was the prevailing economic philosophy then, as it is now. As is documented, even Smith was shocked at the perversions that accompany power within capitalism when he witnessed his own countrymen rape the Virginia tobacco fields and garner outlandish profits on the backs of free labor from African slaves without government regulation. In Ireland, the perversions of an economic doctrine guiding morality would justify extermination.
The interpretations of God’s providence coupled with laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t explain by itself how so many people could have been allowed to perish by hunger, and this is where Coogan takes his boldest step.
In recent years, on numerous blogs, Facebook, and in general conversation, there has been great cynicism toward the use of the term “famine” to describe what actually happened. As Coogan points out succinctly, a famine occurs when there is no food to be eaten, which was only true of the potato. But Ireland under Britain’s colonial rule exported grain, corn, cattle, and many other foodstuffs on a regular basis. “Ireland had no shortage of food,” Coogan writes. The London political economists of the time, however, termed these exports from Irish lands “cash crops,” which effectively meant they were the lawful property of the business community and not to be allocated for relief. With evidence such as this, the debate in Coogan’s book turns the description of the Great Hunger from “famine” to “extermination” and even “genocide.”
Early on, in chapter three to be exact, Coogan outlines his thesis when he quotes the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. One of those terms of genocide in particular rings with a great clarity here: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Coogan’s intent here is not to say that England caused the blight of the potato. That was a matter of nature, of course. Instead he points directly to allowing its people for which it was responsible within the terms of the Act of Union, the Kingdom of Great Britain, to be so vulnerable as to be completely dependent on one crop. Furthermore, the deliberate attempt to utilize a natural disaster to “inflict conditions that bring about its physical destruction” is another powerful and ringing interpretation of the United Nations charter.
Here, Coogan levels his stare adroitly on the prevailing economic philosophy and the political economists in London at the time when he uses a famous quotation from the Irish Nationalist John Mitchel, who described the situation at the time as “God sent the blight, but the British sent the Famine.” The Famine Plot then describes Trevelyan’s followers in London as imposing an absurdity when they enforced, sometimes with soldiers and ships, the policy that “Ireland’s property should pay for Ireland’s poverty,” therefore expunging responsibility from London’s colonial lap with no more than a stroke of a pen and fatally placing care for the Famine in the metaphor of the economic market’s cold “invisible hand.”
To impose an illogical, calamitous condition such as Irish taxes needed to pay for Irish relief, Coogan states, is the perfect analogy to the idiom “extracting blood from a stone.” The taxes levied on Anglo landlords in Ireland were high, but when the poor could not pay their rent, they were evicted. Often by force, these starving families were sent to the countryside while their homes were destroyed to make way for cattle grazing. The consequence of eviction was devastating, and the poor were often too weak to travel and so desperate that they tried eating the grass, like cattle. In enforcing this policy, Coogan declares, genocide can be interpreted.
At the time, even some Englishmen agreed that “famine” could not be a truly intellectual description. As Coogan underscores, one English parliamentarian resigned in indignation feeling as though he is “an unfit agent of a policy which must be one of extermination.”
This policy of extermination went on to include the “work scheme,” such as road building, which didn’t pay a laborer enough even to fill his own belly, never mind the rest of his family. Also, the Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 that “effectively undid much of the benefits of the soup kitchens and brought an incalculable amount of suffering and death upon the starving.” The Workhouse, which became only a place for the sick to die, at one point, only allowed “fit” people within its gated doors. This meant that those considered too weak, such as children, the elderly, and women, were turned away, often by force.
All of this in the name of improving the economy and allowing God’s divine will to take shape was well within Trevelyan and many of his peers’ direct plans when he described the Famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population.” Trevelyan is also quoted as saying, “The greatest evil… is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.” And finally, “The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”
There are many ways to describe what happened. Famine, genocide, and extermination are only a few. But Coogan does well in outlining the motivations and the actions of those responsible under the Act of Union. But the legacy of the Great Hunger still survives today. Nothing can bring back the dead or the dispersed, but some things can be acknowledged. In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a halfhearted, politically motivated apologia in order to help talks between his government and the IRA. But still today there are stains that remain on British officialdom. Particularly its chivalric code and order. Sir Charles Trevelyan, at this very moment, is still honored as Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, a distinction awarded to him during the middle stages of Ireland’s greatest tragedy in 1848. The means of removing him from the Order is outlined by Queen Victoria’s 1847 process for revocation due to, “felony, or any infamous crime derogatory to his honour as a knight or gentleman.” Though he is long dead, Trevelyan is still credited as being a Knight Commander of the Bath, even as modern history has uncovered the horrific intentions his quotations reveal or, at the very least, his indefensible failure or lack of willingness to properly manage funds for one of the most devastating colonial catastrophes ever recorded. For him to remain honored as a gentleman is an open wound for Ireland and its great diaspora.
The effect of the Famine on the world has been long lasting and is still quite alive today. The symbol of hunger has persisted in Irish politics and the “hunger strike,” which has a pre-Famine Celtic history called, in Irish, the troscadh. Pádraig Pearse, the poet executed by the British for being a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising mentions it in his famous poem “The Rebel,” when he turns red in shame and anger for his people who “have gone in want, while others have been full.” This symbolized hunger was utilized as an allusion much more directly when in 1920 Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died in a British prison after seventy-four days on a hunger strike. In 1981 ten IRA prisoners, including Bobby Sands, also died on a hunger strike that radicalized the nationalist movement of the time.
Today, as Coogan prepared for an American tour, the barriers that were propped against him seem to reveal that there may still be discontent over the interpretation of his book and his previous works. It took multiple attempts for Coogan to procure a visa for the American tour, and as he explained on his blog, “Somebody somewhere it appears did not want me to visit the United States to publicise my book on the Famine. It was suggested to me that some securicrats in the U.S. embassy had decided to do a good turn for their buddies in the British ‘Spookdom’ by blocking my attempts to enter the United States on a Book Tour.”
But with the intervention of New York Senator Charles Schumer and a raucous Irish-American community that was outraged by the terrible treatment of an esteemed author, Coogan was eventually granted a ten-year non-immigrant visa.
Maybe the most glaring reminder today of the Great Hunger of 1845-1852 is the cold, factual daily evidence of the Irish surname in foreign lands. Although emigration from Ireland continued in the nineteenth century after the Famine and through much of the twentieth century, what comes to mind when an Irish surname is attached to a cockney accent, or an Australian twang, or the drawl of the Southern United States is the curtain of history that remains mostly veiled. With The Famine Plot, we now have a platform in which to understand the intentions of the policies and the policymakers of an occupying force that helped exacerbate a blight on potato crops that had no business devastating an entire European country, sending the weakest and most vulnerable into shallow graves, onto ships bound for inhospitable countries with purpose and intention as its means. And with this book, my grandfather, who has since passed, raises his chin high in my memory now that the reasons for our family’s arrival is described in terms that are grounded in reality, not politics.
The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan
Eamon Loingsigh’s book, “Light of the Diddicoy” about an Irish-American gang in Brooklyn circa 1916 is due for release in
The Leighton family is part of the intricate story (and histories) behind the Auld Irishtown trilogy. There are three brothers, Pickles, Darby and Frank. Sadie is a cousin of the brothers, and Sadie’s mother’s name is Rose. The Leighton family is of Irish ancestry, but lived in East London before moving to Brooklyn at various times.
Outline – According to what we’ve been told in the first two books, Light of the Diddicoy and Exile on Bridge Street, Pickles and Darby Leighton arrived in Brooklyn first, sometime in the 1890s. Because they were so young, they do not have English accents. Pickles and Darby were original members of Coohoo Cosgrave‘s White Hand Gang in 1900 when Meehan first arrived in Brooklyn. But Pickles and Darby join Bill Lovett‘s Jay Street Gang after Cosgrave committed suicide. By the time Meehan is organizing all the Irish gangs in Brooklyn in 1913, Sadie Leighton is already there. Meehan, using the oldest method known to mankind in bringing enemies together, asks Sadie to marry him in hopes that the two Leighton brothers will join forces with him. But things are much more complicated than that.
Sadie Leighton – We know her as Sadie Meehan, Dinny Meehan’s wife and mother of L’il Dinny in the books. But Sadie arrived in Brooklyn due to her two cousins’s assistance, Pickles and Darby, who were sent at a much younger age. Sadie has a very thick East London accent and a kind, nurturing soul. In 1912, Dinny Meehan forces all of the Irish gangs to follow him, or become extinct. In this act, Meehan, McGowan and a young Vincent Maher come to nineteen year-old Bill Lovett’s gang and offer a truce in the form of a murder. Lovett, seeing Meehan’s power, agrees to allow Pickles, one of his followers, to accompany them in the assassination of Irishtown’s biggest gang leader, Christie Maroney. At the sensational trial of Maroney’s death, Sadie sat next to Harry Reynolds, which, according to lore, Meehan did not like at all. In any case, the trial led to Pickles being convicted, while Meehan, McGowan and Maher were all set free. Many people say Meehan set Pickles up, but in order to control the situation, Meehan asks Sadie Leighton to marry him. Their betrothal, according to the old ways, would mean that Meehan and all of his followers would join forces with the Leightons. But it never actually happens that way, which, if looked at from afar, is a symbol of old cultures dying in the new world. Never at ease with the fact that her husband set up her cousin, there is an underlying source of conflict between Sadie and Dinny Meehan. But Meehan knows that Pickles can’t be controlled, and so he leaves him in Sing Sing to rot.
Pickles Leighton – As mentioned, Pickles joined Meehan, McGowan and Maher in the murder of Irishtown’s biggest gang leader, Christie Maroney in 1912. But this information only comes from stories pieced together in the first two books. By the time Garrity, the narrator arrives in Brooklyn in 1915, Pickles has already spent two years in the penitentiary of Sing Sing. Pickles, a wild young man who can’t be controlled, certainly feels spited, particularly when he finds out Meehan has married his cousin, Sadie. So, when he finds out that McGowan, Dinny Meehan’s righthand man has been charged and sentenced in a separate crime and is sent to Sing Sing too, he decides to get even. With the financial help of Bill Lovett (who has at this point had no choice but to join Meehan’s White Hand Gang), Pickles pays a Screw (a.k.a. prison guard) to beat McGowan to death.
Darby Leighton – With his brother Pickles, Darby originally met Dinny Meehan in 1900, when they were eleven year-old kids. Meehan’s father had just died. The leader of the gang back then was Coohoo Cosgrave, a few years older than his followers. Their headquarters, and where they also slept every night, was underneath an Irishtown pier. Cosgrave, seeing Meehan’s prowess, helps him bury his father and makes Meehan his righthand. This angers Pickles, and by extension, Darby too, who is more as a follower. Throughout the books, Darby is known for one thing, being “eightysixt from the gang,” which means he is banished from the White Hand territory. Lovett wants Darby to work with him in Red Hook, but Meehan shuts that idea down right away fearing more reprisals against him for setting up his brother Pickles. Always on the periphery, Darby is seen in the books being hunted down by The Swede. Eventually though, he hopes Bill Lovett will make a move against Dinny Meehan so that he can avenge his brother and the betrothal of his cousin Sadie. Until then, he must lay in wait outside the gang’s territory.
Frank Leighton – Frank is a minor character who emigrated to Brooklyn due to Dinny Meehan’s assistance after marrying Sadie. He is the eldest brother of Pickles and Darby and has a thick London accent. Meehan got him a job as a manager at the Kirkman Soap Factory a couple blocks from the gang’s headquarters in Irishtown.
Rose Leighton – The mother of Sadie, aunt to the three Leighton brothers, is only mentioned once so far, and that is the story told by The Gas Drip Bard about Dinny Meehan’s being exonerated in the sensational murder trial of Christie Maroney. She sat next to Sadie. It is assumed Rose went back to East London a few months after L’il Dinny’s birth.
The White Hand Gang did not come to power in Brooklyn by being kind and understanding. It was the symbolic murder of Christie Maroney that brought the many gangs together as one. Then, it was the Enforcers that kept members in line, and outsiders out.
In the Auld Irishtown trilogy, Dinny Meehan is the leader of the gang. There is no doubting that. Meehan has never lost a fistfight whether it be in Manhattan, Brooklyn or inside Elmira’s Reformatory or the penitentiary walls.
Meehan’s seat of power is above The Dock Loaders’ Club on Bridge Street in Irishtown. Between him and The Dockbosses that keep power on the dock terminals, the Enforcers both watch over Meehan and show up on the docks when someone refuses to pay tribute to The White Hand.
There are three Enforcers with three different roles. The Swede, Vincent Maher and Tommy Tuohey.
Jimmy “The Swede” Finnigan – The Swede is not Swedish, but he looks it. At 6’5″ with white hair, humungous fists and a psychotic temper, The Swede is a volatile mauler whose demand for control and order in a place where chaos rules, leaves him in a constant state of indignation. Lean and muscularly built, white-skinned and with a “freakishly long, ugly horse face,” he trusts no-one, except his leader, Meehan, who is the only person in the world that can calm The Swede’s rage. Before Liam Garrity arrives in 1915, as the story is told, The Swede ran a gang in Red Hook around 1913 until his sister Helen was kidnapped by the Black Hand. Recently exonerated in the sensational murder trial of Maroney, Meehan appears from Irishtown and offers to pay the ransom if The Swede joins forces under the umbrella gang, The White Hand. After paying, a gang of young Irish “bhoys” invades a Red Hook Italian establishment, kills a man, beats many others, and takes back twice as much money as they’d given for ransom. In the meantime, however, The Swede is so happy to have his sister back, that a strange love grows between them. Months later, his sister gives birth to a child. Non Connors, Bill Lovett’s righthand man, once confronted The Swede by saying, “At least I didn’t fuck my own sister!” Well, Non Connors will have to pay for that.
Vincent Maher – Sometimes known as “Masher,” which in those days actually meant a lady’s man, though it can easily be construed in other ways as well. Vincent is the youngest of the Enforcers and Dockbosses, coming in just a month or two younger than Bill Lovett. According to Sadie Meehan, Dinny Meehan’s wife, Vincent was the second of the three orphans the Meehan family took in (Harry Reynolds was first, narrator Liam Garrity third). He was arrested in the murder of Christie Maroney, along with Meehan, McGowan and Pickles Leighton. Maher is a murderer, very simply put, a very handsome murderer who uses his status to bed as many girls as he can. In Exile on Bridge Street, he is described as having, “no moral issue in both separating the virginity from a young female with his blood-filled cock as he does removing the life from a male with his snub-nosed, single-action revolver.” His favorite hangout, other than The Dock Loaders’ Club, is The Adonis Social Club, a bawdyhouse in the Italian section of Red Hook. There, he is treated like a king, and with prostitutes at his calling, he’s in his heaven. But an Irisher in the Italian section means trouble for Maher. Skinny, thick haired, good looking with an open-vest and a .38 in his belt, Maher is a weapon used to enforce the Code of Silence within the gang, and also to keep foreigners out of The White Hand’s territory.
Tommy Tuohey – How Tuohey was brought into the White Hand Gang is still somewhat of a mystery. In fact, much of what Tuohey does and says remains a mystery too. Originally an Irish traveler, or gypsy (i.e. diddicoy), he somehow landed in Brooklyn. An accomplished boxer, Tuohey trains Liam Garrity, the story’s narrator, to help Garrity defend himself. Even though Garrity is from Ireland, even he can’t understand much of what Tuohey says. His dialect is so thick, and he speaks so quickly that most people just look at him quizzically, or ignore him. Except when in a fight with him. At 6’1″ and always at the ready for a bare-knuckled fistfight, Tuohey swears allegiance to no one unless they can beat him, man to man. As the story goes (what little of it we do know) when Meehan asked him to join the gang in 1913, Tuohey laughed. “And who-in da hell is it ye t’ink ye are? Who is it?” Tuohey demanded. When Meehan challenged him to a fight, Tuohey swung first. Within a minute however, Tuohey woke up on his back after Meehan got to the inside of him. From that point on, Tuohey’s honor and loyalty was given to Dinny Meehan and The White Hand.
The Auld Irishtown trilogy begins in 1915, but the histories go back a very long way. Let’s quickly talk about the importance of Dockbosses after Dinny Meehan‘s rise to power in Brooklyn’s Irishtown circa 1913.
Since The Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s, the waterfront territory ruled by Irish gangs in Brooklyn went as far as North Williamsburg, and down to Bay Ridge in the south, with Irishtown in the middle. But since there were more people than jobs available in the cramped tenement neighborhoods along the shoreline, the Irish had to fight to feed their families. Every day multiple gangs of starved young men would brawl against each other over a port terminal for the right to charge laborers tribute. With no central leadership, the Irish gangs were a collection of “wild bhoys” in a brutally violent climate.
When in the 1880s and 1890s Italian immigration to South Brooklyn exploded, the Black Hand sought power and the Irish were forced to work together to hold the northern terminals. By 1900, however, a gold-toothed pimp named Christie Maroney held sway in Irishtown. But Maroney was allowing the Italians into the old Irish territories, prostituting its girls and charging exorbitant rates on loans for his own profit. Maroney was seen by everyone in Irishtown as a traitor, including the storytellers. The feeling was hopeless in Irishtown and the old ways were being lost to time. It would take a giant of a man to save Irishtown.
1912 saw Dinny Meehan’s meteoric rise from nowhere was highlighted when he and a few followers murdered Maroney in a Sands Street saloon between the bridges. After a sensational trial, Meehan was released, and then organized all of the Irish gangs that once fought against each other. His headquarters was above The Dock Loaders’ Club on Bridge Street in, of course, Irishtown.
In order to keep power, and keep the old ways alive in Brooklyn, he needed to enforce a strict Code of Silence and, most importantly, name loyal, violent men to run each of the main port terminals along the Brooklyn waterfront in his gang’s name, The White Hand, to keep the Italian Black Hand out.
All of this happens before fourteen year-old Liam Garrity, the trilogy’s narrator, even arrives. But he learns about the histories from Beat McGarry and The Gas Drip Bard, Irishtown storytellers. He now re-tells the stories in this trilogy for you. The stories that came out of Auld Irishtown.
There are five dockbosses that report to Dinny Meehan (from South to North):
“Wild Bill” Lovett – Red Hook Terminals
Harry “The Shiv” Reynolds – Atlantic Terminal
John “The Lark” Gibney – Baltic Terminal
James “Cinders” Connolly – Fulton Ferry Landing & Jay Street Terminal
Cute Charlie Red Donnelly – Navy Yard
All of these dockbosses have histories of their own, but it is important to understand that Dinny Meehan brought them all under the umbrella of The White Hand, and that is one of the main reasons a gang could still rule labor in Brooklyn as late as the 1910s while so many others gangs had been eradicated, or forced into cover under “legitimate” businesses.
Wild Bill Lovett, well, there’s too much to be said about him for one paragraph. Go here to read more about him.
Harry Reynolds, at first a man who kept to the shadows in Light of the Diddicoy, he emerges in Exile on Bridge Street as a main character. According to Dinny’s wife Sadie Meehan, Reynolds was the first of Dinny’s orphans (Vincent Maher was second, Liam Garrity was third) who was taken under his wing, lived in the Meehan brownstone on Warren Street, eventually becoming an integral part of the White Hand Gang. It is known that Reynolds grew up in the St. John’s Boys Home, an orphanage, where he used to sneak out at night. Climbing down through sidewalk coal holes and crawling up chimneys, he stole into tenements blackened with coal and sold goods to pawn shops. In a revealing moment, Reynolds tells Liam that he doesn’t even know if he is Irish since his surname comes from the nurse that adopted him at the orphanage. It has been said that he first me Dinny Meehan and McGowan in Elmira’s Reformatory long before the Christie Maroney murder. At the trial in the Maroney murder, Reynolds sat very close to Sadie, which upset Meehan. Reynolds is handsome, always wields knives (hence his moniker “The Shiv”), but somewhat average in build. He looks remarkably like Dinny Meehan and is very good with his hands. Due to his being an orphan, Reynolds does not have a family yet longs to be included in one. He does not keep a righthand man, but is the most respected dockboss in the gang.
Before Dinny Meehan took power, John “The Lark” Gibney‘s biggest enemy was Big Dick Morissey. Gibney was a member of the Red Onion Gang, led by Garry Barry. Both had gangs that fought violently against each other for power over the Baltic Terminal. Meehan forced the two enemies to work together and in the Auld Irishtown trilogy, they are best friends. The Lark, as he is mostly referred to, earns his moniker because he is constantly larking people. Farting in a water closet that made Lumpy Gilchrist puke on himself, dumping Garrity upside down in a garbage can and learning how to say “kiss my ass” in Gaelic from Tommy Tuohey, The Lark is a heavy drinker who loves song and battle. He is thickly built, though Big Dick is taller and bigger. In some accident, he lost three fingers on one of his hands, leaving only his pinky and ring fingers.
Cinders Connolly was a member of the Swamp Angels, a collection of East River pirates that lived in a rookery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Gotham Court. Beneath it were long sewers that connected to the waterfront, where they pilfered from ships, took the booty through the sewers and sold it to small businesses. The Swamp Angels had been around for a very long time and raided ships moored in Brooklyn too, but were eventually broken up by the Strong Arm Squad around the time Dinny Meehan took power in 1913. To bring together the gangs, Meehan offered Connolly the dockboss position on the two terminals closest to the Dock Loaders’ Club in Irishtown, Fulton Ferry Landing and the Jay Street Terminal. Connolly is tall, somewhat gangly, only violent when need-be, good-looking but with very bad teeth. He is known as being honorable and is often seen smiling and encouraging others, including Liam Garrity, the narrator of the trilogy. He has a wife and four children. Connolly keeps Philip Large, a “fool mute” as his righthand man. Connolly got his moniker “Cinders,” not only because he may be a pyromaniac, but because “that’s how he leaves ships in the harbor when its captains refuse to pay tribute to the White Hand.”
The father of Red Donnelly ruled a turn-of-the-century Navy Yard gang for many years until he was murdered. His father was a child of The Great Hunger and arrived around 1852. Starved, shoeless, red-haired, he made his way after his parents died. The second “Red” Donnelly, who reports to Dinny Meehan in Irishtown, is not as powerful as his father was. He often compromises with people in order to avoid conflict. When making fun of teenager Richie “Pegleg” Lonergan for showing up at the Dock Loaders’ Club with his mother, he is challenged to a fight and is embarrassed by the boy, even as he out-weighed him by fifty pounds. Red does not have a specific righthand man, but often employs lower level gang members until Henry Browne appears in Exile on Bridge Street (Fall, 2016).