Brooklyn and the Irish


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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.





15 Responses to Brooklyn and the Irish

  1. Scott May 29, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

    New Yorks a city I’d love to visit Jude, but not to live in as there is huge problem caused by gentrification.

    A friend of mine moved there a year ago and lives in Astoria in Brooklyn, so not prime location Manhattan but still pays 26000 dollars a year rent for a one bed apartment.

    Similar problems are emerging in Dublin. A couple I am friendly with ones a doctor and the others a dentist can only afford a one bed apartment in Dublin, again not even prime city centre location.

    People can say what they like about Belfast but the one thing I’m grateful for is the affordable housing.

    • jessica May 29, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

      “People can say what they like about Belfast but the one thing I’m grateful for is the affordable housing.”

      Oh, what are people saying about Belfast?

      I have always found the people of Belfast to be the most friendly and up for a bit of craic more than any other part of Ireland. The Belfast sense of humour is unique

      • Scott May 29, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

        “Oh, what are people saying about Belfast?”

        Awk it just a throw away comment Jessica, I guess I mean when you listen to the radio and people are always complaining about this and that about Belfast.

        I’m not from Belfast but I live over the east side of the city now and I absolutely love it the people are great and every year there are more and more improvements. An example of this would be the connswater greenway that is partially completed. Just back from a walk in the sun around Orangefield park and they have done a first class job of doing it up.

        Seeing things improving year on year gives me heart and it’s important to remember that even though everything’s not perfect there is still some good going on.

        • jessica May 29, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

          “Seeing things improving year on year gives me heart and it’s important to remember that even though everything’s not perfect there is still some good going on.”

          Absolutely Scott.
          I think that is the priority going forward, building the economy, updating the infrastructure, bringing in new jobs and investment.
          It would be nice to see more in the west of the city and throughout the province and not follow the south where Dublin sees the majority of the benefits.

          If it weren’t for the ball and chain of unionism we would be so much further on but that will change significantly over the next 10 years as the decline in the unionist majority accelerates.

  2. Sherdy May 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

    ‘Imagine if Trump were Irish’!
    He may not be but he has certainly learned his pre-election tactics from the late Ian Paisley, with all his bluff, bluster and intolerance.
    When I watch and listen to Trump I cannot help thinking he is the reincarnation of The Big Man.

    • Ryan May 29, 2016 at 4:50 pm #

      “When I watch and listen to Trump I cannot help thinking he is the reincarnation of The Big Man.”

      Your actually on to something Sherdy. Trump’s family comes from some small Scottish island community that is devoutly Protestant/Calvinist in thinking, even today its still as devout in 2016 as it was in 1916. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that btw, its up to that community what it wants to do. But the island is definitely run DUP/Paisleyite style. Playgrounds are closed on Sundays and swings tied up. Pubs closed. No kids out playing, etc a DUP Paradise.

      I remember watching a show about Trump and he returns back to the island to explore his roots (his mother was born on the island). The local residents weren’t fond of Trump. They were quiet people who didn’t like this big rich billionaire yank coming to town.

      I don’t know if Trump is distantly related to Paisley but it was revealed just last month that Oliver Cromwell is a distant ancestor of Trump. Yes, THAT Cromwell. I think that’s the Irish American vote lost already……lol……

  3. ben madigan May 29, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

    mr trump’s mother came from scotland – from the isle of lewis, to be precise. he’s not well liked there according to some

  4. Perkin Warbeck May 29, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

    Brooklyn during the Fifties/ Sixties exerted an influence on Ireland and other places besides , Esteemed Blogmeister, which was mainly mediated through the magical conduit on Manhattan called the Brill Building.

    The song melodic was the medium.

    Every morning for years on end, such tunesmiths as the Neils, Sedaka and Diamond, Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman, Barry Mann and Cynhthia Weill, etc etc etc would journey west across the Brooklyn Bridge to their cubby holes in the Brill Building and work unpretensious nine to five day jobs.

    Whose end product was aural abracadabra.

    A whistelable list which included such titles as ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘ Stupid Cupid’, ‘ Oh, Carol’, ‘Who’s Sorry, Now’, ‘Yakety Sax’, ‘A Teenager in Love’, ‘Blame it on the Bossa Nova’, ‘Stand by me’, etc etc etc.

    Another word inextricably linked with Brooklyn was the D-word, Dodger. Which franchise upped sticks, of course, and moved further west to LA in 1957. They were reputed to have gained the name due to the skill of the Brooklyn natives in evading the city’s trolley streetcar network.

    One wonders if it inspired Neil Sedaka to compose ‘Braking up is hard to do’?.

    PS While The Donald may not be Irish, Esteemed Blogmeister, it must be said he is as least as German as Hausfrau Saxe Coburg Goth while he indubitably more Scottish than The Duke of Edinburgh. Donal Rua’s mammy hailed from the Isle of Lewis: her , erm, mother tongue in Tong was – don’t tell Gregory Crooked-Mouth – Scots Gaelic.

    Slainte mhath agus slainte mhor !

  5. Ryan May 29, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

    “But it’s not hard to see how many Irish have found a home here and opportunities they could never have found in Ireland.”

    I always wanted to move to the USA but I’ve come to the conclusion I can achieve what I want here in Ireland, so I’ve decided to practice what I preach and stay here. If the right economic policy is pursued in Ireland then we can hopefully make opportunities here for people so they wont have to emigrate. This open wound on the Irish nation we call “Emigration” needs to end. Its terrible that our biggest export is our most talented young people, many of which went on to achieve great things in all sorts of fields from Entertainment to winning Nobel Prizes. This culture of emigration has to end.

    “The Irish may not have built New York, but they built a fair share of it.”

    I always remember my mother telling me as a kid if the subject came up that the Irish, the Polish, the Italians and the Germans all built America. She also said the Irish built Australia and much of Britain and Canada. But the USA has always been special to the Irish, not surprising since around 40 million people there have Irish heritage, roughly 10% of the population. Australia has a massive population of Irish, I even have family there and my two cousins moved there to join them in 2011. An estimated 25% of the British population (excluding NI) have at least one Irish grandparent.

    “Imagine if Trump were Irish”

    Trump is certainly more Scottish than Irish but I wouldn’t be surprised if he dug up his family tree to find an Irish ancestor so that he can play to the Irish American vote when election time comes. John Kerry in 2004 played almost entirely to the Irish American voter base in his Presidential election campaign. Trump attended and donated to a Sinn Fein fundraising dinner in New York in the 1990’s, he’s pictured shaking hands with Gerry Adams. Maybe he’ll wave that photo around if he’s in Boston campaigning?….

    Will Trump be President? I don’t know but don’t rule him out because a lot of people, and not only in the USA, are sick of the current political powers and their agenda. In fact, I believe there’s more to fear from Hillary Clinton becoming President than Trump….

  6. Iolar May 29, 2016 at 4:53 pm #

    Sir Edward Pine Coffin had charge of the relief operations during the famines in Ireland and Scotland 1846 – 1848. The terms on which charitable relief was given, however, led to destitution and malnutrition among its recipients. A government inquiry could suggest no short-term solution other than reduction of the population of the area at risk by emigration to Canada or Australia. Highland landlords organised the emigration to Canada of about 16,000 of their tenants.

    Belfast did not escape the ravages of famine. In 1846 and 1847, agricultural and industrial production was in crisis and a soup kitchen was opened in Hercules Street. Two further soup kitchens were opened, one in Howard Street and the other in Great George’s Street. The Belfast Workhouse was designed to cater for a maximum of 1,000, however, by November 1846 it had 1,103 occupants. Dysentery and typhus fever were widespread. Fatalities exceeded 600 in the first quarter of 1847 and nearly 3,000 individuals were dependent on the Belfast workhouse. Thousands of people in Ireland and Scotland were abandoned by central government. Many suffered and many died. Many left for other countries and there are many rags to riches stories.

    Mr Trump appears to have little interest in his Scottish ancestry. The real tragedy is that such a wealthy individual is now preoccupied with building walls. It is perhaps fortuitous that there were few walls in Canada and America in 1850.

  7. Beachguy May 30, 2016 at 3:28 am #

    Astoria is in Queens not Brooklyn and is a much desired area to live because of it’s easy access to The borough of Manhatten a/k/a New York County on two subway lines and the relatively low rents.

    And the borough of Brooklyn is identical with the county of Kings. There are five boroughs comprising the City of NY and a lot of counties comprising the State of NY but I don’t remember how many.

    Got that?

    I assume that both Queens and Kings were named in honor of the forebears of the current inhabitants of a certain palace in London.

    And how was Hicksville? I hope you went out there on the LIRR.

    • Jude Collins May 30, 2016 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks for that information, BG – and I’m not sure the peremptory ‘Got that?’ is needed. I didn’t make it to Hicksville, I’m afraid. Not trip is perfect…

      • Beachguy May 30, 2016 at 8:49 pm #

        Well I didn’t mean to be peremptory. It’s just that the geographical/political subdivisions in NY can be confusing .

        More a wry question since my explanation may have left many scratching their heads.

        And yes , your failure to make it to Hicksville deprives your trip of perfection.

    • Scott May 30, 2016 at 10:20 am #

      Your absolutely right beachguy my mistake

      Astoria is in Queens not Brooklyn.

  8. Donal Kennedy May 30, 2016 at 7:24 pm #

    Isn’t Astoria Walled Off?
    Sounds like an Elysian Field for Trump.