What once are derogatory, offensive terms, often change in time. “Irish” was once a terrible and oppressive thing to be called. In the ports of New York, Boston and New Orleans and in the Pennsylvania mines, the Appalachian mountains and anywhere else in the United States after the the Great Hunger, to be named such a thing was akin to spitting in your face. The Irish were clan-like, fiercely communal people who fenced themselves off from the incumbent Anglo-Saxon culture.
They worked hard, sure. But they played like animals. Bare-knuckle fist fighters that fought each other for the spirit in it and the fun. For blood and boast. Pride in the prowess of their ancient surnames. Gamblers that played a foreign card game called “faro” with words that harkened to an ancient language. The language of a nomadic Celtic past that had been banished from the mainland of Europe centuries earlier by Julius Caesar. Pushed to the Western-most islands of the continent. Now pushed passed the isle of Ireland, they took to the sea and landed in a new world. Born to soldier and brawl.
Like the Irish in the 19th and early 20th centuries, African-Americans have fenced themselves off from the Anglo-Saxon culture. Many have mixed their race with whites, whether on purpose or of rape. If there is one thing that mystifies the people of homogenous countries, it is the idea of the typical American being of mixed race. An entire country of mostly mixed-blooded people clashing together to make the most powerful culture the world has ever known. All were once desperate to leave their homogenous cultures like traveling gypsies running from war or famine, or were enslaved, only to land in a mish-mash of mixed raced people.
That is a Diddicoy. A mixed-blooded gypsy.
In Ireland still to this very day, a group known generally as Travelers roam the boreens (country roads) in caravans challenging each other to bare-knuckle fights for the right to boast. One-on-one they fight with almost no rules between them, other than honor. Some of them are part Romani, some of them are not sure if they have any true Romani gypsy blood as they almost all carry Celtic or Norman surnames like the Joyce’s and the Doherty’s. There are many derogatory terms for them like Tinkers, Pikeys or the Pavee and of course, Diddicoys.
In Chapter 7 of Light of the Diddicoy, the first book in the Auld Irishtown trilogy, an immigrant is shot at 25 Bridge Street, the saloon that the White Hand Gang calls headquarters under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, 1915. Detective William Brosnan, a 53-year old Dubliner turned New York cop investigates as the immigrant takes his last breath on the floor among the mortar hods and shovels in the corner of the saloon.
The candles that light the saloon flicker when the front door is opened and the sounds of the trolleys rushing overhead along the Manhattan Bridge rail tracks breaks the silence inside. Brosnan is attempting to extract information from Paddy Keenan, himself a native of a small town outside Kilkenny, Ireland and the saloon’s tender. When Keenan, who is known as the gang’s Minister of Information, refuses to part with any knowledge of the shooting, Brosnan slams his hand on the bar and looks upstairs where the office of the gang’s leader is, Dinny Meehan. Brosnan then points his finger at Keenan and says, “This gang ain’ nuttin’ but a bunch o’ thiefs an’ diddicoys, anyhow. They’re days’re numbered, ye heard it from me right here and now!”
It takes a Dublin jackeen who knows English slang to describe the gang as Diddicoys, as the word comes from the derogatory description of a mix-blooded Romani-gypsy, particular to England. But a good description it is. You see, I spent three and a half years reading articles about the White Hand Gang and its members. When you pull police reports and death certificates and any description you can find of the lifestyle and habits of the Irish-American gangsters along the Brooklyn waterfront of the era, you find out a lot about them.
What I found in them that is most glaring is a complete lack of regard for law, as most gangsters do, of course. Actually, calling it a “lack of regard” isn’t strong enough. Not close enough. I would rather describe it as a complete distrust in law.
An excellent description of the mentality of the people who lived in what used to be called Irishtown in Brooklyn, which nowadays we call DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and Vinegar Hill, was Willie Sutton’s book Where the Money Was. He said the people who lived where he grew up didn’t believe in even the most basic organizations such as hospitals because it was said “they’d give ye the black box.” This black box symbolized death and the reason the Irish always got it was because the hospital administrators didn’t believe the Irish were worth the bed. And when someone more upstanding arrived at the over-crowded hospital, they had to make room. So they gave the black box to the Irish to give the bed to more law-abiding, respected citizens. Sounds crazy and superstitious, but that was his description. And I found a consistency to that in my own research of the White Hand Gang members of Brooklyn’s Irishtown.
After reading so much about these gangsters and coming across Sutton, the greatest bank robber of his time, I began to put it all together. It suddenly made sense: These Irish-Americans were the offspring of victims of possibly the worst, most atrocious and horrific miscarriage of justice the world has chronicled. They were the Famine-Irish that settled originally along the waterfront in Brooklyn. The ones that survived the casket ships and the Great Hunger of 1845-1852, An Gorta Mor, it’s called in Irish. It was law that starved their people and their children to an emaciated death in the ditches and road-side graves back in Ireland. Over a million dead and a million more sent to places like the Five Points in Lower Manhattan and “Auld Irishtown” in Brooklyn. Their tenant farms replaced by cattle, a more suitable income for English landowners in Ireland.
It was law that sent them to foreign lands. And it would be law that instilled the greatest distrust in them.
It would not be unlikely to assume that some, if not many, of the original Famine-Irish were actual gypsies, for there is a great relation to gypsy culture and the gangsters of Irishtown in Brooklyn. Not just in the disbelief in man-made law, but the superstitions, the thieving from the established people, the tradition of bare-knuckle fighting, the powerful belief in honor and, of course, the great Code of Silence that pervaded men and women who lived underneath the bridges in Brooklyn.
There are countless examples of a gangster getting shot and refusing to name his perpetrator. “I got mine, I’ll make sure he gets his” was usually the answer. The Traveller community in Britain and Ireland still think this way. They do not seek law to settle their disagreements, they seek blood. Whether it be retribution or a challenge. Just as was done in Irishtown and the Diddicoys of the White Hand Gang. A challenge is a challenge. One-on-one. Man against man with no weapons and no rules. Just a pair of fists and a man’s will. That was the character of the people of Auld Irishtown.