The power of family lore: uncovering Brooklyn’s “Auld Irishtown”
I was at first made aware of an “Irishtown” in Brooklyn by an elder through word of mouth, which of course is the ancient form of Irish storytelling. My grandmother, who was born in Brooklyn in 1917, first mentioned Irishtown in passing when telling of stories from her childhood in the humble tenement neighborhoods. Because her family was often forced to move due to their financial state, she got to know many of the old Brooklyn neighborhoods.
My grandfather, James Lynch (b. 1915), who was a much better listener than a talker (of course, that made him a great bartender) agreed. “Yes, yes, there was once an Irishtown in Brooklyn,” he said. “Certainly was.”
It was the mid-1990s, I suppose, when I heard these rumors. At that time, however, I was still dreaming of becoming a writer. But as the hierarchy of wants goes, it was drinking alcohol and collecting girlfriends that I was more interested in.
Come 2003 – when Martin Scorsese’s classic “Gangs of New York” was released – and the world makes the connection between Irish-immigrants in the 19th Century and the Five Points section of Lower Manhattan. I had yet to finish my first book then, but I suppose the idea of a novel about Brooklyn’s Irishtown had begun to mingle in my mind.
But I had yet to clear my own head. With a young family needing my full attention, I put off my writing aspirations.
In August of 2009, I came across a collection of articles about the White Hand Gang in Brooklyn’s “Irishtown.” After three years of research and many, many hours spent at the Municipal Archives on Chambers Street in Manhattan, I had come to the conclusion that I was going to write a trilogy called “Auld Irishtown.”
The only problem? There was no real official labeling of a neighborhood called Irishtown. And consistent with the Famine Irish that settled there, who often preferred passing on stories orally rather than writing them down, Irishtown was never a declared region. There were other names for the neighborhoods inhabited by Irishtown residents such as Vinegar Hill, the Navy Yard, Brooklyn Heights, and what we now call DUMBO, but Irishtown was never recognized as an actual place in Brooklyn.
I began to wonder how I could name a trilogy of books after something that was never acknowledged in official records. Well, I had a job to do, as I resolved to prove my grandparents correct.
The earliest mention of an Irishtown in Brooklyn referred to an area south of what we now consider Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill. In the book “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898,” authors Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace refer to the original Irishtown as “Below the Heights of Gowanus” where “Brooklyn rolled south to the sea. Here the landscape of scattered farms and villages was largely untouched by the 1830s boom, with one exception.”
The exception, explained Burrows and Wallace, was Fort Hamilton, where “wharves rose along the shore for landing supplies. Fort Hamilton village, also known as Irishtown… its shacks housed construction workers, many of them recent immigrants, and the Irish women who did laundry and opened small stores.” Of course, this was some years before the famine, but already we see the makings of the slums where Irish immigrants lived along the waterfront, where the ships load and unload goods.
In “A History of the City of Brooklyn,” author Henry Reed Stiles writes that by April of 1844 the Irish immigrant neighborhoods had moved north to Cobble Hill. That spring, great tensions erupted between the natives and the Irish; according to Stiles, “when a riot [broke out] between the Native Americans and the Irish in the neighborhood of Dean and Court and Wykoff streets,” it took two companies of uniformed militia to quell the riot.
Of course, it wasn’t until 1845 that the great blight of the potato in Ireland, worsened by the British attitude toward the Irish tenant farmers, would force more than one million into coffin ships bound for Canada, Boston, Australia and the pier neighborhoods of the New York harbor. After that, there were many sightings of Irish living in the same neighborhoods where the ships had unloaded them close to the Fulton Ferry slip.
These were the Famine Irish. Among the most destitute people on earth at the time, they showed up in Five Points and Brooklyn’s Irishtown shoeless and wearing rags after a grueling journey across the Atlantic. Many of them, their numbers still undocumented today, died on the way. If you can imagine wearing nothing but worn, stitched rags during a winter crossing, either stuck in the hold of a clipper with the pigs or on the deck with the driving wind, rain and sleet, then maybe you can begin to understand the horror of their realities. These were the people that would make the Irishtown of Brooklyn; these were the survivors of a horrific predicament.
In “Brooklyn By Name,” authors Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss discuss the establishment of Brooklyn’s Irish neighborhood: “By the middle of the [19th] century, nearly half of Vinegar Hill’s residents were Irish, many of them dockworkers at the Navy Yard, and the neighborhood was informally called ‘Irish Town.’” Brooklyn Daily Eagle also reported on Brooklyn’s Irishtown, describing it as a slum along the waterfront where two-story clapboard houses resided.
By the end of the Civil War, there were illegal whiskey distilleries all over Irishtown and for many, it was a boom era. It was a black market economy, and those who had their own distilleries to supply a very thirsty Irish population comprised a new population of suddenly-rich Irish.
In a comical feature article in the New York Times from March 18, 1894 titled “KINGS OF THE MOONSHINERS: Illicit Distillers who ruled in Irishtown,” the author and an “old-timer” recall the suddenly rich Famine Irish as being overtly gaudy in their wild spending sprees; they also organized ostentatious balls and dances in the pier neighborhood.
The power of these illegal distillers and their ilk eventually spread so deeply into politics that many of the Brooklyn Democrats of the 1890s started out with connections to the spend-thrift illegal distilleries in the 1860s and ‘70s. “The extent of the moonshine traffic was never fully known to outsiders. The whole neighborhood was a unit in defense of the stills,” the article goes on to describe.
But the party would have to end, and in Brooklyn’s Irishtown it would not come without a brawl. Uncle Sam wanted his share, but the “bhoys” of Brooklyn wouldn’t budge. Thus began the Whiskey Wars of 1869-1871. And where else could you have a “Whiskey War” than in good old Irishtown?
In the Times article, an old-timer recalled, “As the minions of Uncle Sam’s authority moved through… the dangerous thoroughfares, showers of stones and like missiles saluted them. Men, women, and children would cluster on the roofs armed with anything they could throw. Sometimes they would tear down the chimneys of their habitations to fling the bricks streetward.” The message was simple: “Stay out of our neighborhoods.”
After the Whisky Wars were over, the late 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s marked a time of industrialization in Brooklyn. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge provided the Irishtown men plenty of work. “The erection of factories and warehouses” was changing the character of Irishtown, the Times article reported.
The economy of the Brooklyn waterfront was dependent on the shipping companies. Trucking, stevedoring, shipbuilding, warehousing, coffee, corrugated box-making and even bomb-making companies began to call Irishtown their home. The immigration of Italians, Germans, Jews changed the environment as well, as the Irish no longer dominated the neighborhood.
By the early 1900s, many of the Irishtown families had secured table jobs within the waterfront businesses and the building of the Manhattan. But the lowliest of the Irishtown poor became members of the gangs. These gangs were intertwined with the stevedoring companies and the unions, and often were hired by one to kill or maim a rival of another. Most notably was the White Hand Gang, whose headquarters was a two-story shack and saloon under the Manhattan Bridge at 25 Bridge Street.
Irishtown had always been a place of great ruckuses, but it was the dock gangs that gave it the reputation of being a dangerous place. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Meyer Berger, in his book “The Eight Million,” wrote that “Records in the Medical Examiner’s office show that in the ten years from 1922 and 1932, there were 78 unsolved murders in the section of Brooklyn called Irishtown–the rough cobbled area between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Fulton Ferry, under and around the approaches to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.”
Brooklyn Daily Eagle consistently included quotes from old-timers who remembered Irishtown. In the Eagle’s July 13, 1941 edition, one old-timer wrote in to say he was “born in Irish town, Bridge and Prospect streets over Redman’s Saloon, back in 1892.” Later he moved to Concord Street where his family “lived on the third level with the El.” He proudly reported that he used to sell the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on the street and remembers hocking the paper to interested readers when President McKinley was shot.
Another old-timer was Patrick Larney, who spent 57 years in Irishtown. In 1940, he published a poem in the Eagle’s “Old-Timer’s” Section:
Well I do remember that cold day in November
I left the old home I love so well
and moved to a place decorated with lace
and then became a swell.
I cannot forget that old home I left
In that town of great renown
I long to go back to that old-fashioned shack
in dear old Irishtown…
Where I spent my boyhood days and where I wore a crown.
I moved to a place where I don’t know a face and now I wear a frown.
I long to go back to that old-fashioned shack in dear old Irishtown.
* * *
On November 2, 2012 – All Saints Day – my family laid to rest my 95-year-old grandmother. In the months before her passing, I made a promise to her that since she kept the stories alive, I would to dedicate my next book to her and that I was out to prove, by hook or by crook, that the Irishtown of her childhood would be made real from the clutches of rumor.
Humbly, she thanked me, yet I could tell it made her a bit uncomfortable to receive that kind of attention. I reminded her, however, that if it weren’t for her, the memories of “Auld Irishtown” could not have been passed to me.
For which I will now pass to you.
* * *
Eamon Loingsigh’s third book, a historical novel called “Light of the Diddicoy,” about the White Hand Gang, is due out soon. For his full story on Brooklyn’s Irishtown, visit his blog at http://artofneed.wordpress.com/
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