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An Unlikely Union

An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians

Paul Moses
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    An Unlikely Union
    Book Description:

    They came from the poorest parts of Ireland and Italy, and met as rivals on the sidewalks of New York. In the nineteenth century and for long after, the Irish and Italians fought in the Catholic Church, on the waterfront, at construction sites, and in the streets. Then they made peace through romance, marrying each other on a large scale in the years after World War II.An Unlikely Unionunfolds the dramatic story of how two of America's largest ethnic groups learned to love and laugh with each other in the wake of decades of animosity.

    The vibrant cast of characters features saints such as Mother Frances X. Cabrini, who stood up to the Irish American archbishop of New York when he tried to send her back to Italy, and sinners like Al Capone, who left his Irish wife home the night he shot it out with Brooklyn's Irish mob. Also highlighted are the love affair between radical labor organizers Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca; Italian American gangster Paul Kelly's alliance with Tammany's "Big Tim" Sullivan; hero detective Joseph Petrosino's struggle to be accepted in the Irish-run NYPD; and Frank Sinatra's competition with Bing Crosby to be the country's top male vocalist.

    In this engaging history of the Irish and Italians, veteran New York City journalist and professor Paul Moses offers an archetypal American story. At a time of renewed fear of immigrants, it demonstrates that Americans are able to absorb tremendous social change and conflict-and come out the better for it.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-7366-1
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    On those chilly March days when I walked home with the other boys from Mary Queen of Heaven School in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn in the mid-1960s, someone would occasionally shout, “Rumble!” This shout would go out in March because it was the month of Saint Patrick’s Day, and his sainthood naturally needed to be celebrated with a street fight between the Irish kids and the Italian kids. I cast my lot with the Italian kids, for my ancestry is Italian on my mother’s side of the family. There was no percentage, in choosing sides for a scuffle among...

  5. PART I. IN THE BASEMENT:: The Church as a Battleground

    • 1 “Garibaldi and His Hordes”
      (pp. 11-26)

      Giuseppe Garibaldi would not be the last Italian to learn after arrival in New York that he had to reckon with the power of the Irish.

      The future Italian liberator came to the city in the summer of 1850 at the low point in his struggle, fleeing a disastrous military defeat in Rome. Italian nationalists had taken the city from Pope Pius IX, only to lose it again. Garibaldi had fought valiantly on the barricades to hold the city for the nationalists, then fled when it fell as forces from France and Austria rallied to the pope’s aid. While evading...

    • 2 “The Italian Problem”
      (pp. 27-41)

      When the Reverend Thomas F. Lynch arrived at Transfiguration Church on chaotic Mott Street to become a pastor for the first time at the age of thirty-three, he entered a new world. Before that, Lynch had served at New York’s most fashionable Catholic church, St. Ann’s on East Twelfth Street. There, he catered to the carriage crowd from Greenwich Village, taking up such tasks as directing the parish’s Literary Society for Young Ladies. His pleasant duties included a friendly popularity contest at the church fair with the Reverend James Hayes, who led the St. Ann’s Literary Union. In a fundraising...

    • 3 Tipping Point
      (pp. 42-55)

      In his later years, Monsignor John F. Kearney loved to tell stories about what it was like back in the days when St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in lower Manhattan was an Irish parish. He served as its pastor for forty-three years, and experienced it even longer, for he was baptized in its font. After his ordination in 1866 (after studying in Rome), his first assignment was to the cathedral parish where he had grown up. The seat of the archbishop was moved in 1879 to the gleaming new Gothic-style St. Patrick’s Cathedral that opened on Fifth Avenue, but Kearney stayed...

    • 4 “Race War”
      (pp. 56-70)

      Father Thomas F. Lynch looked with suspicion on the Italian priests at Most Precious Blood Church, a house of worship that Bishop Scalabrini established especially for Italians. Located on Baxter Street, it was a short walk from Transfiguration Church. In an 1891 letter to Archbishop Corrigan, Lynch protested that the Italian priests had failed to stop their parishioners’ September 20 celebrations of the conquest of Rome from the pope. Scalabrini’s priests “never speak in defense of the rights of the Holy Father either in or out of the pulpit,” he complained.

      While the Italians’ September 20 festivities angered the Irish...

  6. PART II. TURF WARS:: Rivals in the Workplace

    • 5 “Can’t They Be Separated?”
      (pp. 73-99)

      On the warm Monday morning of August 20, 1888, a crowd gathered in the Westminster Hotel at Sixteenth Street and Irving Place in Manhattan to wait in anticipation for the Irish American labor leader Terence V. Powderly to testify in a congressional probe of what theNew York Timesheadlined “The Immigration Invasion.” The hearings, called to probe violations of the contract-labor law, had begun the previous month at the Westminster, a six-story edifice with canvas awnings shading each window and carriages parked outside.

      Powderly arrived late, after the first witness was called, and quietly took a seat. Dressed in...

    • 6 “The Other Half of Me!”
      (pp. 100-112)

      Elizabeth Gurley Flynn learned young not to hate the Italians. Born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire, she moved to the South Bronx with her family at the age of ten. Her mother, Annie Gurley, had grown up speaking Gaelic in Loughrea, County Galway. When an Irish friend sniffed about “garlic-eating Italians,” she responded that her grandmother had pulled up garlic from her garden in Ireland and eaten it raw like radishes. When Elizabeth was a little older, she saw neighborhood kids throw stones at “dago” Italian laborers when they passed through selling coal. Her mother would not tolerate this....

    • 7 Black Hand
      (pp. 113-154)

      On the first Sunday of June in 1896, the twenty-six-year-old attorney Francis L. Corrao buried himself in a lengthyBrooklyn Eagleexclusive that claimed to document how the Mafia had taken hold in Brooklyn, then the nation’s fourth-largest city. Corrao, said to have stowed away on a boat from his native Sicily at the age of eleven so that he could be with his emigrant father in Brooklyn, had a professional interest in the article because he represented three men accused in a slaying it detailed. But his interest became personal when he came upon a section headlined, “Why Italians...

    • 8 On the Waterfront
      (pp. 155-178)

      Thomas V. O’Connor, the forty-nine-year-old Toronto-born son of Irish immigrants who led the International Longshoremen’s Association, was beside himself on the morning of October 21, 1919. His men, some seventy thousand of them, had severely embarrassed him by walking off the job—over his staunch objection—two weeks earlier in what became the largest waterfront strike in American history. The workers derided him: before the day ended, he would barely escape a mob calling for him to be lynched.

      T. V. O’Connor, as he was usually known, was a proud man who had worked his way out of poverty by...

    • 9 White Hand
      (pp. 179-198)

      Anna Lonergan knew plenty well what she was supposed to say to reporters or cops—and, more importantly, what not to say. She was the newspapers’ “Queen of the Mob,” after all, having briefly been married to the leader of Brooklyn’s Irish “White Hand” gang before his untimely death. She was also the sister of his successor, whose own premature death had drawn her and a newspaper reporter to the family’s apartment in a brick walk-up at 738 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn on the night of December 26, 1925. It was bitterly cold when Richy Lonergan’s corpse was brought home...

  7. PART III. SHARING THE STAGE:: Politics and Entertainment

    • 10 The Pols
      (pp. 201-247)

      Thirty-two-year-old Fiorello H. La Guardia had high hopes as he started his new job as a deputy New York state attorney general in January 1915. He jumped at the opportunity to prosecute the first criminal charges under the state’s new weights and measures law, a bill the Housewives’ League had campaigned for because consumers were so often shorted. To La Guardia, proving the offense seemed a simple matter of arithmetic: the state accused meatpacking houses of overstating the weight on packs of bacon by several ounces.

      But the opposing lawyer, State Senator James J. Walker of Greenwich Village, had several...

    • 11 Cool
      (pp. 248-270)

      Like Fiorello La Guardia and Tito Pacelli, like Francis L. Corrao and Joseph Petrosino, and like Paul Vaccarelli, Frank Sinatra had to learn to work with and compete against the Irish to achieve success. That was the pattern in the Irish-Italian relationship, and it was so in the world of entertainment, as in many other arenas. Sinatra’s lesson began when he was a kid growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey, and continued right through to his contest to unseat a great icon of Irish America, Bing Crosby, as the king of male vocalists.

      As in many other lines of work,...

  8. PART IV. AT THE ALTAR:: Becoming Family

    • 12 Love Stories
      (pp. 273-295)

      After word arrived that Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino was fatally shot while on an investigative mission in Palermo in 1909, the wails of his infant daughter, Adelina, further darkened the mood in the family’s apartment on Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan. Petrosino’s widow, also named Adelina, was in a precarious position: she knew that the Police Department had failed to protect her husband’s safety. And she had reason to fear that the gangsters her husband had infuriated would come after her and her baby.

      So baby Adelina was raised in Brooklyn after her family moved to a two-story, cream-colored brick row...

    • 13 Food and Family
      (pp. 296-311)

      It might be said that the increasing popularity ofpizzain New York paralleled the rise of Irish-Italian marriages. Like the Italian immigrants who brought it, pizza was looked upon with some reserve in New York in the early 1900s. “Pie has usually been considered a Yankee dish exclusively, but apparently the Italian has invented a kind of pie,” aNew York Tribunewriter commented in 1903, trying to explain “the ‘pomidore pizza,’ or tomato pie,” made from dough rolled out an inch thick with “plenty of red pepper on top.” The pizza’s perceived spiciness was cause for suspicion; an...

    • 14 Sharing the Bastions of Power
      (pp. 312-326)

      On September 12, 1968, Francis J. Mugavero became the first Italian American to head a Roman Catholic diocese in New York State when he was ordained bishop of Brooklyn. A son of Sicilian immigrants who came of age upstairs from his father’s barbershop on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, he differed from his predecessors in many ways. The most obvious was his ethnicity; the four previous bishops of Brooklyn were all Irish, as were all but one of the leaders in the history of the New York archdiocese across the East River. Beyond that, he brought a new style...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 327-330)

    The saga of the Irish and the Italians in New York holds many shades of meaning, as all good stories do. For me, researching this book was a steady reminder of my own humble origins: that supposed authorities in government and academia had judged the blood my Italian ancestors bequeathed to me to be inferior. The same can be said for the Irish, who bore the brunt of anti-Catholic sentiment that remained powerful at least until the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960. It’s a simple fact that both were immigrant peoples, but it’s easy to forget.


  10. NOTES
    (pp. 331-360)
    (pp. 361-366)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 367-380)
    (pp. 381-381)