Behind the Scenes

On the Irish Waterfront
The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York
James T. Fisher
Cornell University Press, $29.95, 392 pp.

At the height of Irish immigration to the United States, an Irishman arriving in New York would be met and squired to what amounted to a safe house, one of many scattered around the city. Soon, sometimes just days later, he would emerge as a policeman, a sanitation worker, or a longshoreman on the West Side docks—the three occupations controlled by the New York Irish. My great-grandmother’s rowhouse, still standing a few blocks north of the new Yankee Stadium, was one such sanctuary. Her near relations benefited no less than her off-the-boat guests. Her husband Patrick was a cop. Two of her sons, including my grandfather, headed for the piers.

The cozy paternalism of Irish New York didn’t stop at the water’s edge. In the depths of the Depression, my grandfather, by then nearly fifty years old, was convalescing in a New Jersey hospital from a burst appendix when he got an unexpected visit from a colleague. For weeks, the pier boss Mr. Sanders had been playing my grandfather’s number in the racket now socialized as the New York State Lottery. His number, the colleague explained, had hit. Had Mr. Sanders not looked out for Granddad, the family would not been able to pay his doctors, and likely would have completed their slide into penury.

There was a dark side to this care and feeding, as anyone who has seen On the Waterfront knows. The longshoremen pilfered from the cargoes they unloaded, stashing little Shangri-las of coffee...

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About the Author

Paul O’Donnell is a freelance reporter who often writes about religion and pop culture.