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.
(Listen to: The Story of Irishtown by clicking here)
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.
Watch a video trailer of Exile on Bridge Street:
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).