I’m only now beginning to recover from the jet-lag, having 14-24 May in Brooklyn, a part of New York generally considered desirable. The leafy streets with their brownstone buildings around the Park Slope area of Brooklyn are indeed very elegant. Walk down one of them as dusk descends and lights come on and birds fire a final salvo of song, and you might well reflect that while money can’t buy you love, if you had enough you could buy a very nice home-place here.
There was a time when this area had a strong Irish connection. The Vinegar Hill area is named after the famous 1798 battle in Wexford, when Irish rebels were defeated and many fled to this part of America. In the second half of the nineteenth century, an Gorta Mór sent thousands more to Brooklyn .
They weren’t all model citizens. In 1876, the New York Times commented: “Desperate outrages by organized gangs of ruffians have been frequent occurrences in Brooklyn”. The period after the American Civil War saw illegal whiskey distilleries set up all over Brooklyn, most of them run by the Irish. It was a black-market economy and some of those who’d fled the Great Hunger now found themselves unexpectedly wealthy. And they didn’t hide it – wild spending sprees with balls and dances in the Pier area of Brooklyn were frequent.
The Irish living in Brooklyn were both good customers and loyal allies of these newly-wealthy distillers. Transgressions and disputes were settled internally, without resort to the police. Any overly-ambitious police officer could often find himself posted elsewhere, if he showed too much interest in the empires of the whiskey bosses.
But all good (and bad) things come to an end, and 1869-71 saw the “Whiskey Wars” in Brooklyn. The authorities were keen to assert their authority (and tax-collecting powers), but they had to fight their way in. The New York Times reported the clashes: “As the minions of Uncle Sam’s authority moved through the most dangerous thoroughfares, showers of stones and like missiles saluted them. Men, women and children would cluster on the roofs, armed with anything hey could throw. Sometimes they would tear down the chimneys of their habitations to fling the bricks streetwards”.
Eventually the authorities prevailed, and many of the Irish found work constructing the famous Brooklyn Bridge and working on the Brooklyn waterfront.
During the 1970s when I lived in Canada, the people there had a strong antipathy towards their southern neighbour – they saw Americans as loud and brash. I haven’t found any of that. From the American officials manning immigration at Dublin Airport to strangers on the streets of Brooklyn who stop and ask “Are you looking for somewhere? Can I help?”, I’ve found nothing but courtesy and interest. An interest which, when you mention you’re Irish, increases immediately.
Of course, everywhere looks more attractive when you’re on holiday. But it’s not hard to see how many Irish have found a home here and opportunities they could never have found in Ireland. Down at the water’s edge, if you look to the left you see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, through which so many Irish came; if you look straight ahead you see Manhattan, much of which was built by the Irish. The Irish may not have built New York, but they built a fair share of it.
A year from now, could Brooklyn, New York and the US be led by President Trump? Locals I speak to say it’s unlikely, but invariably add “It’s not impossible”. And as they speak, they look a little embarrassed and more than a little worried.
But hey – glass half full. Imagine if Trump were Irish.