The panoramic photo above is actually from 1907 at the Chelsea piers of Manhattan, well before the outbreak of World War I. On May 7, 1915, it was sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Kinsale, Ireland just months before Liam Garrity, protagonist of Light of the Diddicoy (first book in the Auld Irishtown trilogy), was to set out for New York in a similar Atlantic crossing.
Thomas F. “Tanner” Smith, was an early 20th Century gangster along the Chelsea piers. As a young man, he became leader of a gang called the Marginals. Also known as the Irish Paddy Gang that was closely linked with the infamous 10th Street murderer, Owney Madden and the Gopher Gang in Hell’s Kitchen.
Although Tanner Smith had a less than Irish-sounding surname and Madden was actually born in England (of Irish parents), these were two of the last remaining Irish street-level gang leaders in Manhattan. Their downfall from street-level gangster was precipitated by the NYC Strong Arm Squad combined with some (mostly Jewish) gangsters who were leaders of the Labor Slugger Wars and their willingness to turn over on their comrades for shorter jail terms.
I’m getting further away from the Lusitania, but I must digress a bit more before closing the circle.
Tanner (which means “bold, intrepid” in the Irish language) and Madden, leader of the Gophers (which means “alliance” in the Irish) were great allies during the 1900s and early 1910s and together they kept the docks of Manhattan in the hands of the Irish, even as things were changing quickly.
Eventually, Madden was sent to prison, but later became a famous half-legitimate mobster/businessman (Cotton Club owner). Tanner got into all kinds of trouble, but eventually settled on boss stevedore at the Chelsea docks before being shot in the back while playing cards.
In Light of the Diddicoy, Tanner Smith is an ally of Dinny Meehan, leader of the White Hand Gang of the Brooklyn waterfront. Meehan was born in a saloon over Hudson Street in Manhattan and was raised on the street by Smith before moving to Brooklyn in 1900 as an 11-year old.
When Tanner is down and out and Dinny’s White Hand Gang is on the up-and-up, Dinny tries to help out his old buddy by hiring him to kill a Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) recruiter, Thos Carmody (in real life, this man’s name was Frank Madden, but the surname of this minor character had to be changed due to causing confusion). The devastating consequence of this attempted murder-for-hire is not resolved until the third book of the Auld Irishtown trilogy.
Okay, anyhow, back to the Lusitania! (I get started on writing about the era and just can’t stop myself, sorry).
In October of 1915, four months after the sinking of the Lusitania, Light of the Diddicoy opens with Liam Garrity leaving Ireland for New York. It is a terrible time for traveling across the Atlantic as the German Imperial Navy had established dominance over the sea lanes via their U-Boat fleet.
It is a sign of desperation that a 14-year old is sent during war-time to America. The type of desperation that has always embodied the emigration of the Irish.
Symbolism is very important in the first and third chapters of Light of the Diddicoy, and the dangers of the Atlantic crossing is set up as a horrifying experience set in the hull of an outdated ship (RMS Teutonic) via the steerage class.
Garrity has never traveled before and is alone, save the ninety or so other Irish third-class citizens who are jammed together in a callous dorm in the stern of the ship. English stewards round them up cruelly and the sound of the choppy English accent sets Garrity’s fears alight.
After the ship has begun moving, Garrity’s imagination takes over. He can’t see anything outside, so his ears play tricks on him. He believes he hears wild men somewhere in the distance, but which is only the men of the fireman’s castle “feeding the old bitch” coal to keep her devilish fires going.
He then hears what he believes are the sounds of U-Boats under the ship, but then admits he wouldn’t know what the sound U-Boats would make anyhow.
His fears of being torpedoed take him over while the ship heads into an Atlantic storm. Everyone in steerage is sent flying across floor as the ship bobs and “gesticulates” in the ocean, and Garrity thinks of the old sea-faring songs that romanticizes the death of Irish peasants during the Atlantic crossing. These are reminiscences of the casket ships that had starved Irish within their hulls during the Great Hunger (Potato Famine), though we are set in the heart of the late Industrial Age of iron-casked ships.
Garrity cannot stop thinking of the Lusitania and other ships that were sunk and that fate must be calling him, as so many other Irish had been called, for a death in the Atlantic. Sucked in by the “great vaginal drink” that is the sea.
Anyhow, when I saw the 98th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, which took place just months before the beginning of Light of the Diddicoy, I thought we could put together some connections about the era. I feel sad that World War I and Progressive Era New York is not as popularly remembered as others, though maybe it’s an opportunity for this book to thrive.