If any nationality has been linked to organized crime in the United States over the years, it would have to be Italian-Americans, at least in popular perception. Thanks to countless books, movies, and TV shows, from The Godfather right up to The Sopranos, the image of the Mafioso has become synonymous with the face of gangsters in America.
But guess what? Long before there was a Mafia, another ethnic group brazenly ruled the streets of New York, Boston, Chicago, and other big American cities and that was the Irish Mob. From hellish beginnings as penniless immigrants in the mid-19th century, a parade of ruthless Irish-Americans battled their way to power and established the first crime syndicate in America, one that lasted for close to 150 years.
That story is chronicled in an interesting documentary on the History Channel with the deceptively whimsical name of Paddy Whacked. It will debut, appropriately enough at 8 tonight St. Patrick s Day.
Wide-scale Irish immigration to America had its roots in the mid-19th century potato famine in Ireland. More than a million people died nearly a third of Ireland s population many of them with their lips green from eating grass in a futile attempt to get nourishment.
Others looked across the ocean to America for survival and opportunity, and before long hundreds of thousands had emigrated to the United States, many of them winding up in south Boston and lower Manhattan. But America was hardly the land of opportunity they had imagined; most of the Irish Catholic immigrants lived in squalor and poverty, and were loathed by the largely Protestant Americans already here factories would post signs reading Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply.
In desperation, young Irishmen banded together in street-corner gangs the models for those depicted in Martin Scorsese s bloody 2002 film Gangs of New York and they began taking what they wanted.
The first gang leader from the streets to achieve prominence was a burly fighter named John Old Smoke Morrisey, who ran gambling joints, saloons, and brothels in New York City, ultimately aligning himself with Tammany Hall, the city s corrupt Democratic political machine.
Over the years, a succession of colorful characters with names like Owney The Killer Madden, Dean O Banion, Vincent Mad Dog Coll, and Mickey Spillane (not the Mike Hammer author, by the way) established crime syndicates in various cities.
The popular image of the Irish hoodlum was glamorized by action movies that starred James Cagney, who portrayed the urban Irish mobster as smart, daring, and charismatic.
But eventually a rising force on the American crime scene began to make inroads into the Irish Mob s turf. In New Orleans, New York, and elsewhere, bloody challenges to the Irish were mounted by the Sicilian Black Hand, the forerunner of what would come to be known as the Mafia. Murders became commonplace as the two sides wrestled for dominance all across the country.
In 1924, Mafia kingpin Al Capone arranged the murder of popular Chicago Irish boss Dion O Banion, who was given the largest funeral ever seen in Chicago.
Paddy Whacked is long on colorful fact and conjecture but sorely lacking in production values. Its re-enactments of fight scenes and gun battles are almost laughable, but they don t detract from a story that s rich in interesting lore.
The documentary s most intriguing assertion involves perhaps the best known of Irish-American families, the Kennedy clan.
According to the program, Boston native Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of JFK and Robert Kennedy, was a bootlegger during Prohibition who supplied liquor to a rogue s gallery of crime bosses, including Capone. Much later, during his son s presidential campaign, Papa Joe reached out to the mobsters for help, and Sam Giancana, then the Mafia boss of Chicago, delivered the state of Illinois for JFK, helping to provide his winning margin in the 1960 election.
But the new president double-crossed the mobsters by appointing as attorney general his brother Robert, who promptly declared war on organized crime even those bad guys who had been business partners of his father. The gangsters were enraged by what they saw as Kennedy s treachery and reportedly vowed that someone would pay a price.
In 1963, JFK was assassinated, and the documentary suggests that could have been the ultimate hit in the ongoing wars between the Italians and the Irish.
By the mid- 90s, the luck of the Irish ran out. and these days it s the Russian mob, the Colombians, the Latin Americans, and others who represent the face of organized crime in America. All of them are following a pattern of rags-to-illicit riches in this country that was originated not by the well-publicized wiseguys from Sicily, but by a bunch of roughnecks you never heard of who turned out to be some of Ireland s most colorful, if unsavory, exports.
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