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 made mention in passing when telling of stories from her childhood in the humble tenement neighborhoods. Because her family was forced to move often 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.”
The earliest mention of an Irishtown in Brooklyn was actually further south than our destination of Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill. In the book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 the original Irishtown was “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.” 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 Great Hunger (commonly known as the Irish potato famine), but already we see the makings of the slums where Irish immigrants live in “shacks” along the waterfront where the ships load and unload goods. A theme we will find all the way through the Marlon Brando film “On the Waterfront” of 20th Century fame and later even.
In A History of the City of Brooklyn by Henry Reed Stiles, by April of 1844 the Irish immigrant neighborhoods have moved north to Cobble Hill. That Spring found great tension between the nativists and the Irish, “when a riot 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, we have many sightings of Irish living in the same neighborhoods where the ships had unloaded them close to the Fulton Ferry slip. Still in a terrible state after their journeys, we see Stiles describe the area.
“In January of 1847, the ship fever broke out in Hudson Avenue, near Tillary, having been imported by a ship load of Irish emigrants, and continued to rage in that and other localities in the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th wards, during 1847 and ’48.”
These were the “Famine Irish,” as they were derogatorily named. The most destitute people on earth at the time. Literally showing up in Five Points and Brooklyn’s Irishtown shoeless and wearing rags after a grueling journey across the Atlantic. Running from the hunger for any shore that would have them. 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. The survivors of a horrific predicament.
For 1849, Stiles describes a certain part of every year in Irishtown as “the cholera season.”
Racism against the Irish was always present, and in 1854 in the neighborhoods of Irishtown, “riots had broken out between the Irish and parties affiliated with the Know-Nothing party.”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, an Irishman from Brooklyn, Captain William Hogan of the Tandy Light Artillery, “commenced among his countrymen the organization of an artillery company, which eventually did good service with the Irish Brigade (The Fighting 69th).”
In Brooklyn By Name, a book by Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, Brooklyn’s Irish neighborhood is established. “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.”
In different articles in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other newspapers and books, Brooklyn’s Irishtown is described as a slum along the waterfront where clapboard houses of two stories reside amongst the alleys and the myriad of winding streets by the water. These shacks sway with the wind and often crumble into the dirt roads. When earlier the Erie Canal became fully operational, the ports and piers, wharfs and docks of New York became the busiest in the world. Brooklyn played a heavy role in importing and exporting of goods and for the Irish working class immigrants in the dock neighborhoods, there was plenty of labor work to done.
Of course, the Irish are not known simply as workers. They played very hard too. They are characterized as being heavy drinkers, but also as being deeply suspicious of the law. In fact, one of the biggest features of the people of Irishtown is their blatant disregard for law. Mixed with their old-country tradition of making “poteen” or “mountain dew,” caused a war in Brooklyn.
By the end of the Civil War, there were illegal whiskey distilleries all over Irishtown and for many, it was a boom era. Why were they illegal? Well, not a one ever paid a red penny in taxes to Uncle Sam. It was a black market economy, and for those who had their own distilleries with plenty of taverns and saloons to supply a very thirsty Irish population, it created a lavish few new-rich Irish that even they couldn’t have foreseen.
In a comical feature article in the New York Times of March 18, 1894 called KINGS OF THE MOONSHINERS: Illicit Distillers who ruled in Irishtown, the author and an “old-timer” recall the suddenly rich Irish as being overtly gaudy in their wild spending sprees.
Men like “Ginger” Farrell, “Ned” Brady and John Devlin (Irish surnames, of course) were “men of robust physique, bluff manners and iron determination” and “had wild, barbaric notions of what constituted real luxury.”
In fact a man named Grady was, “the chief purveyor of ornaments for the gang.” A rogue jeweler in Irishtown, Grady supplied the new-rich rascals with “headlight diamond studs” and half-pound gold watches and other jewels that were “dazzling in their luminous intensity.”
They also organized huge balls and dances in the pier neighborhood, “a lavish display of jewelry did not limit their extravagances. Most of them kept fast horses and played high games of poker. The festivities of Irishtown were held mainly… on Adams Street.”
The power of these illegal distillers and their ilk had reached into politics so deeply 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 cops too, they were dealt with firmly and quickly so that the black market could continue. When a police officer “made himself obnoxious, his transfer to some other district was easily secured” by request from the illegal distillery owners to their connections in downtown Brooklyn.
“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?
Prohibition was passed in 1920, but the first war against federal officials over liquor happened along the Brooklyn waterfront.
Raids began in the neighborhood from local and federal agents. And here and there a few barrels were turned over in the street. But soon the connections set in and patrolmen were paid well to give information to the distillers for information concerning an upcoming raid.
Always though, there was a commotion. A fight with officers, women parading their children in the streets feigning fear of authorities and doctors summoned when the usual victim got clapped on the noggin. It was a calamitous affair, entering the neighborhoods, officers would remember. And not much whiskey was ever detained to boot.
“Raids by revenue officers… were always warmly received,” an old-timer remembered in the NY Times article. “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.”
But when an officer was (inevitably) killed on an “Irishtown thoroughfare,” the marines stationed at the Navy Yard were summoned. “Armed sentries surrounded the lawless section.”
The book Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corp. confirms the role of the marines when it says, “Between 1867 and 1871, Marines from the Brooklyn barracks sortied into Brooklyn’s ‘Irishtown’ on nine separate occasions to help federal revenue officers break up illegal distilleries.”
Blockaded cellars were broken into by the authorities and “hogsheads of illicit fluid were smashed and emptied into the gutters… When the bluecoats had completed their labors, not an illicit distillery remained in Irishtown.” And finally, the war was over in Brooklyn.
The late 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s sees Brooklyn overcome with industrialization and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge provides the Irishtown men plenty of work.
“The erection of factories and warehouses,” was changing the character of Irishtown, the old timer in the NY Times said.
The economy of the Brooklyn waterfront was dependent on the shipping companies. Trucking companies, stevedoring companies, ship building, warehousing, coffee companies, corrugated box-making companies and even bomb making companies called Irishtown their home now.
The immigration of Italian, German, Jewish and every other nationality changed the environment as well. Never again were the Irish to dominant the neighborhood. It would forever be known as a working class neighborhood where the ships let off, but not as “Irishtown.”
Even with all the industrialization that took over Brooklyn, still some of the old wood-framed, pre-Civil War buildings remained as evidenced by a blog (Artists Without Walls) post from 2011 refers, “in a neighborhood that was called Irish Town… The neighborhood was populated by poor Irish immigrants who lived in over-crowded, wood framed houses that were, more often than not, firetraps. My family experienced the consequences of these living conditions when… my great great grandfather… died in a house fire on August 31, 1884.”
By the early 1900s, the Irishtown families had settled in stable jobs along the waterfront businesses and the building of the Manhattan Bridge in 1909 again provides work. 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.
The “Shape Up” practice of forcing hopeful longshoreman to “prove” their worth by running faster than the others was entrenched as it had been established many years earlier. Most “fellas” in Irishtown had to pay up front to work unloading or loading a ship, unless they were “in.” That usually meant you were from an original Irish family or were friends with the Irish-American gangs that dominated the waterfront rackets. Those rackets included collecting “tribute” from pierhouses, shipping companies, trucking companies and, most importantly, from immigrant longshoreman.
There were many Irish-American gangs in Irishtown then. 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 and wild rumpuses, but it was the dock gangs that gained 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.”
The article was about an aged Anna Lonergan who, in her younger years, was known as “Queen of Brooklyn’s Irishtown Docks,” as she was the sister of Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan and widow of two of the White Hand Gang’s most notorious leaders “Wild” Bill Lovett and Matty Martin. All of whom died by the bullet in dock gang wars.
Some other evidence that justifies the naming rights of the area as once called Irishtown is the opening sentence of the book Where the Money Was whose author was quite possibly the world’s most famous bank robber, Willie Sutton. In the opening chapter named, “Irishtown Made Me,” Sutton describes his birth like this, “I was born on June 30, 1901, on the corner of Nassau and Gold in a section along the Brooklyn docks known as Irishtown.”
Sutton said that in Irishtown, men like Dinny Meehan and Bill Lovett, leaders of the White Hand Gang, were the local boys’ heroes and that “Scarface Al Capone was a member of the (rival) Italian mob, and it was common knowledge in later years that he had gone to Chicago because the Irish mob played too rough.”
The White Hand Gang at that time was brought together in order to fend off the rise of the Italians, whose practice of kidnapping and ransom was generally described as “Blackhanded.” But the main business of the gangsters of Irishtown was the dock labor racket and the loading and unloading of ships and trucks, and 25 Bridge Street was the saloon where they were headquartered.
Here is a description from the November 21, 1923 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (p. 2), which was in the very long obituary of the recently murdered Bill Lovett, “They assemble in the morning and wait for a call to work on the docks. The system under which they work is about like this: Brown or Smith gets a consignment of goods and wants somebody to help his truckman. He goes to 25 Bridge St., sees the boss of the local, and men are sent to load the consignment on the truck. For this, they get so much a package. That part of old Brooklyn is a wilderness of weather-beaten houses what is known as the bridge district.”
So, by 1923, even a local is no longer calling the area Irishtown. Instead, it is the Bridge District. Again, the old neighborhood is remembered by the locals and the old-timers. So popular were these stories, that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle kept regular space in their pages for old-timers to talk about the old times.
In this 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.” Meaning the Elevated train used to pass by his window burning coal and making a big racket. He was also proud that he used to sell the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on the street as a youth 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 when he decided to write in 1940 to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s “Old-Timer’s” Section. He knew the area well since he represented it in the State Assembly and the Board of Alderman. He spoke of the Christmas tradition in Irishtown and sent in this poem:
“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 All Saints Day, November 2, 2012, my family laid to rest my grandmother after she lived a long and prosperous 95 years. In the months before her passing, I made a promise to her that since she kept the stories alive, I would 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 and others like her, the old-timers, that the memories of “Auld Irishtown” could not have been passed to me.
For which I will now pass to you.