On St. Patrick’s Day, I was invited to speak at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall with Borough President Eric Adams at the traditional Al O’Hagan breakfast. Below is the speech given.
St. Patrick’s Day has become a day of green top-hats, orange beards.
For many, an excuse to over-drink.
For some, it is still a day to honor the saint himself, who brought Catholicism to Ireland.
For most of us here today, it is a celebration of the Irish in the United States, particularly New York.
So, with my historian cap on.
On the only day when everyone is considered Irish, I wanted to talk about when we were immigrants.
When we were immigrants, things were different.
Mmm, not really.
After the Irish rebellion of 1798, The Acts of Union of 1800 enveloped Ireland into Great Britain.
By then, Britain’s flag the “Union Jack” was colloquially deemed by Irish women and men as “The Butcher’s Apron.”
Soon, life would become untenable at home when the blight of the potato came to Ireland in 1845.
Worse were the economic policies that came from London in response to widespread reports of starvation in Ireland.
Here in Brooklyn, the vast majority of its population was the Dutch and Anglo-Ascendency.
Almost no Irish, certainly not Catholic Irish.
In fact, less than 1% were Irish-born.
Ten years later, in the census of 1855 after Ireland’s greatest tragedy had mostly resolved, there were over 56,000 Irish-born that had settled, mostly along the waterfront area of Brooklyn.
This comprised an incredible 27.5% of Brooklyn’s population.
Historians have often debated what was more difficult: Living on the tenant farms in Ireland during that time period? Or crossing the Atlantic Ocean?
We are the result of those who survived both.
Now, there are 40 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry.
But if I could ask you to do anything today, it is this: Please try and imagine the conflict that would’ve arose from the Dutch & Anglo gentry and the Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s Brooklyn.
This Dutch and Anglo ascendency though, can you picture them with the top hats and tails, some wearing high knee-socks and the funny-looking slippers? The white wigs and the fluffy collars?
People who saw themselves as “high-born” or “well-bred” and “genteel.”
Now imagine the Irish that had just been dumped on the waterfront: Shoeless, wearing patched-up rags, strewn with lice, weakened by cholera, yellow fever and dissentery, gaunt and starving, only about half spoke English, all of them though had that terrible, hated Irish accent.
We take for granted that the Irish accent is so loveable. Back then though, it was a sign of extremely low caste. And worst of all, they were Catholic! The hated religion that their English forebears had so boldly rebelled against!
One of the most difficult things for us to do is to reconcile the past. But we must remember that at every second of every moment, we are creating a new history. Therefore we have to remember that so many of us Irish are the offspring of refugees.
We come from “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . the wretched refuse. . . the homeless, tempest-tost” for whom Emma Lazarus wrote her famous poem, describing how the United States lifted its “lamp beside the golden door.”
In this very neighborhood where we sit today. Right here, is where those Irish settled. Not in brownstones or apartments or duplexes. Not even in tenements.
They squatted in empty lots.
Back in Ireland during the Great Hunger, known widely if not falsely as the “Potato Famine,” after being evicted, families had to dig holes in the ground and covered the entrances with sticks and brush. They called these “scalps” or even worse, “scalpeens,” which were the smallest, most rudimentary dwellings.
In fact, there is evidence that the same thing happened in this neighborhood, particularly over by Fort Greene Park, where our ancestors holed-up like the most desperate of refugees we see on television today on the news.
A New York Times article described the area in 1848 – I’ll quote from it, but I’d like to point out the perspective of the writer, which was that of disgust toward these homeless and starved people:
“There was an extensive colony of Irish people who had settled on the vacant lots of Fort Greene, which… from the number of pigs and dogs there, was known as ‘Young Dublin.’”
The article then rudely describes how the police made a concerted attack upon this “pigdem” which “rooted” out the Irish living there.
The comparison of Irish to pigs and dogs is palpably described in the article.
With nowhere to go, the Irish refugees then moved to Jackson’s Hollow, an area consisting of empty lots and hills at this time between Flushing and Gates avenues east of Fort Greene Park.
The same New York Times article said of the makeshift dwellings there, “Nine out of ten of these shanties have only one room… which does not average over twelve feet square” and “the cradle is seldom empty.”
In a Dec. 18, 1863 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jackson’s Hollow was described thusly
“Lying in the very heart of the city, and given over to hogs and cows, and to the squatter sovereigns who have erected wretched shanties upon it.”
From these humiliating and loathsome origins grew a culture, extraordinarily similar to the gypsy and rebellious subcultures of Ireland.
What sprung up from these scalpeens and shanties were hundreds of the original murderous Brooklyn gangs.
I have argued for a few years now that these gangs were not created out of some love of crime or a result of alcoholism, but that these gangs were formed solely for the purpose of feeding families. Pooling resources. Combatting poverty and oppression. And how else to do that?
The next generation of young Irish of the 1860s through the 1890s roamed Brooklyn in big numbers before unions came to power.
They built buildings, and bridges, loaded and unloaded ships on the waterfront, manufactured sugar, coffee, shoes and soap. The working class Irish. Wearing boots, working hard, playing harder.
The word “gang” as we know it in Brooklyn originated in the different types of longshoreman groups that worked together, such as “deck gangs” that stacked goods in a net on the deck.
“Hatch gangs” that lowered the goods into the ship. And “Hull gangs” that worked inside the ship and organized the goods inside.
Eventually, the word “gang” came to describe the longshoremen in general, who violently protected their jobs from the owning class and other ethnic groups.
For instance, there are many reports of ships being burned from Wallabout Bay down to the Erie Basin because the shipping company did not go through the right channels in procuring a labor force.
They’d never make that mistake again.
I mean, who were they going to complain to, the police? The predominantly Irish police force?
Now, I won’t take up much more of your time but, if you hadn’t already heard what I am about to tell you, then I’m very proud to introduce you to it.
Brooklyn’s old Fifth Ward, which is now known generally as DUMBO and the Vinegar Hill area, was once commonly referred to as “Irishtown.”
There were many enclaves that were originally settled by Irish Catholic immigrants in Brooklyn from Greenpoint down to Gowanus, but Irishtown became the most famous.
Because of its refusal to assimilate into Anglo-American culture.
Irishtown had a cast of comical characters that retained their Irishness to the core and collectively, they had an incredibly deep sense of distrust toward law, itself. Particularly English law (since it was English law that starved them in Ireland, evicted them and forced them to emigrate).
But in New York at the time, the people of Irishtown would have certainly seen law as once again hostile toward them and their ways.
Therefore, gangs of young ruffians in Irishtown (working class men) kept policemen out, or paid them not to do their job.
In the 1870s things began to slowly change. The Civil War took many young men out of Irishtown for cannon fodder.
More importantly, the US government was not getting taxes from the lucrative black market inside Irishtown, the distillation and sale of whiskey and poitin.
Long before Prohibition, there was the Whiskey Wars that took place in Brooklyn’s Irishtown between the police and Irish gangs that kept them out.
In 1873 though, police, federal agents and marines invaded Irishtown through the Navy Yard. And this time, they had the numbers and had rations. They were going to occupy Irishtown until every last whiskey still was thrown into the East River.
The battle had begun.
As usual, the people of Irishtown took to the rooftops and threw bricks and paving stones down on the cops and soldiers, (better known as Irish confetti).
Women opened their kitchen windows and with a child in one arm, threw more Irish confetti on the “invaders”,
Eventually they left, having arrested and beaten back the dominant Irishtown gang of that era, a gang known as the “Velvet Caps of Irishtown”
But over time the steady flow of locally distilled liquor came to a trickle.
By 1900, Italians, Jews, Poles, African-Americans and Russians began living in the area and the legends of Irishtown began to fade, but many of the attributes remained and one last Irish-American gang from Irishtown took-on those traits as their own, such as:
The Code of Silence
The inherent distrust of law
The domination of longshoreman labor
And a very distinct Irish flavor
With surnames such as Meehan, Lovett, Lonergan, Connolly and Donnelly, the gang became simply known as The White Hand in response to the Italian Black Hand of South Brooklyn.
Click here to learn more about members of the White Hand Gang in the book series: Auld Irishtown
Willie Sutton was born in Irishtown in 1901. He became famous in the 1930s, and not the good-kind-of-famous either. He was a bank robber and when asked by reporter why he robbed banks. Sutton answered, “That’s where the money was.”
In his very popular memoir, aptly titled “Where the Money Was,” Sutton described Irishtown as having “made him,” and how it was the White Hand Gang that forced Brooklyn’s own Al Capone to move to Chicago,
Quote: “Because the Irish mob played too rough.”
Sutton also described “a code of silence was observed in Irishtown more faithfully than omertà is observed by the Mafia… Nobody ever talked in Irishtown.”
Unfortunately for Irishtown, it’s most famous residents were almost always thugs, corrupt politicians, gangsters, chiselers, skimmers, illegal whiskey distillers, faro and craps dealers, ladies of the evening, refugees and bank robbers.
Sounds like it might make a good book series, doesn’t it?
Over the last few years I’ve fielded emails from hundreds of people wanting to know where to look up information about their Brooklyn Irish ancestors, and if there’s a pattern to what they’ve found out about their great-uncles and great-grandmothers, it’s that they were involved in nefarious, illegal and often surprisingly devious situations.
I’ll say it again.
One of the most difficult things for us to do is to reconcile the past.
But we must accept the truth.
After accepting the truth, it is up to us how to respond.
Remember, we are making history, right now.
Thank you and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
Learn more about the characters in the book series Auld Irishtown:
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