PADDY-WHACKED, The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster. By T. J. English. Regan Books. 454 pages. $27.95.
It is fitting that this attention-grabbing book hit the market in March, when over-sentimentalized takes on Irish heritage around St. Patrick s Day prevail among American Irish, many of whom are now generic white American(s), far removed, says T. J. English, from the WASP establishment s view of their 19th-century ancestors.
These mostly sorry wrecks had fled the politically mismanaged genocide of the potato famine to find, like many another immigrant would, that the few doors open to them entailed the worst of scut-work. In their case it was ditch-digging, hustling, and gangster life.
Their big advantage was arriving early, speaking English, and having experience in dealing with a ruling class exemplified by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. They moved ahead of other immigrants socially and economically, making them the object of envy or disdain among others, like the Italians, who were both their partners and competitors in crime.
Despite the book s subtitle, it is not a new story. Nine pages of bibliography attest to that. Think of it as a kind of roundup, told by a master storyteller and facile, observant writer, who has explored in depth the context of his subjects, many of them long-forgotten. He grabs one s attention and offers food for thought.
There are fascinating tales of the old timer mob/political bosses, like immigrant John Morrissey in New York, the oft-cuckolded godfather, Big Mike McDonald in Chicago, and the socially conservative family men, Bathhouse John Coughlin and Michael Hinky Dink Kenna, who followed him. They did well for themselves by looking after their lesser in return for voting loyalty and muscle.
English sees their role as equivalent to that of the protective societies that in Ireland helped an impoverished citizenry in desperate throes. Yet by no means call him an apologist for their cruelty and excesses.
Like the IRA in Ireland today, embarrassed by a recent murder that smacks of gangsterism, those who once offered protection here came to demand to be paid for it, or else.
Second and third-generation Irishmen made their way into business and public service. The quick-tempered wild men among them, however, engaged in considerable whacking for hire and for pique. Names like Jimmy Coonan, Mad Dog Coll, and Bugs Moran come to mind. Prohibition, which lent itself to centralized control, was not to their taste.
The Italian mob ran them out or hired them to kill other Irish targets and they did it as business. A few of these survived late into the last century, among them Frank Sheeran, who in a book released last year confessed to killing former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa for money. He said he d killed for Hoffa, too. He hoped his confession would ease his path to heaven.
In all, the Irish-American gangster experience is no prettier than any other. English argues it is the flip side of raw American capitalism the Halliburton-KBR experience comes to my mind after reading the latest Vanity Fair. It is the same path ethnic groups have taken when their members are shut out of the mainstream, something policy makers should remember when dealing with today s gangs in and out of prison.
Being of the persuasion that editors exist to make writers look good, I do think English should get a rebate from Regan Books.
Misspellings like alter for altar, (pages 44 and 177), a reference (page 186) to Legs Diamond as a cruel and viscous not vicious person, and a footnoted reference (page 188) to novelist William Kennedy s O Albany as a peon rather than paean to his hometown, should never have survived.
In all this slick writer s work is a swell read, and an instructive one, down to the escapades of Boston-Irish mobster and cold killer of at least 19, James Whitey Bulger.
Eileen Foley is a former Blade associate editor.
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