T.J. English writes about crime with an enviable zeal. As a former screenwriter for NYPD Blue, it’s where his bread is buttered. A previous book, The Westies, dipped into the subject of Irish crime with its in-depth look at a couple of Celtic charmers operating in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen who were famous for dismembering their victims.
This book goes farther still. Now we have the goods on the Kennedys.
Joe Kennedy used the mob - Irish, Italian, whoever he needed - to build a fortune in hootch during the glory years of the Volstead Act. Once he became a millionaire many times over, he recruited the likes of Frank Sinatra, who loved the mob, to influence Godfather Sam Giancana. With the constant pressure of the mob on the local political machinery, Joe got his second son elected president, then sat back and watched while third son Bobby went after the cosa nostra with unbridled enthusiasm. Word was the big guy wanted to smear the Italians, making them look like America’s only mob and soft-pedaling the role the Irish underworld played on the big stage of American - especially Northeastern - crime. Many people believe the hit on John was mob-inspired.
Many of the Irish who went to the bad were desperate men. They’d come from a background of famine or The Troubles, and they had nothing whatever to lose. In a Catholic culture where men are kings of the home scene, they didn’t have to answer to the little woman, and they had a weakness for drink that made a slide into crime bearable. If Paddy didn’t want to work on the railroad, the lure of Tammany Hall with its power-brokering and promise of pay-offs to the faithful beckoned, along with the simple of exercise of beating and bullying one’s fellow man. The gangs of New York, English makes clear, were an outcome of the political machinery, not the root of it. In the name of protecting the neighborhoods from the other bad guys, the Irish criminal gleefully imported drugs and thugs onto the local scene.
It wasn’t only the men who adopted the low life. Remember wishing you could “shimmy like your sister Kate?” Kate was a big time Irish madam in New Orleans whose irascibility increased with her corpulence.
And it wasn’t only the low life that attracted the needy new arrivals. With all that crime, more cops were needed. The pay was lousy, but entry level jobs were swamped with Irish applicants – “many famine immigrants for the first time found themselves empowered after years of starvation and humiliation.” It wasn’t unusual for the police to walk both sides of the corruption-ridden streets. The Irish cop could have respectability and an inroad to ill-gotten gains.
This book can be read for its wealth of fascinating stories as well as its twisted political history. Many of America’s major cities have been shadowed with the specter of organized crime, and the Irish were there first. The stuff that hit the fan moved uphill and down – from the hard streets and shanty-towns where honest folk tried and failed to make the American dream work, to the highest halls of power.
English says that Irish crime is just a memory. He’s written a tale to keep the memory alive.