St Patrick's Day, New York - Lenin, The Orange Riots & The Slaughter On 8th Avenue
The Orange Riots - New York 1871
* Sean Penn's much overlooked classic tale of New York Irish Gangsters - State of Grace - has probably the best cinematic sequence ever based around the 5th Avenue Parade
St Patrick’s Day is almost upon us once again – and the biggest (and most strangely anachronistic) parade will be the annual rumble down 5th Avenue.
If you have never experienced the New York Paddy’s Day parade in person – try and picture what Soviet Era Moscow would have looked like on Red Army Day if Brezhnev loved Pipe Bands and Lenin was from Mayo.
See the serried ranks of the NYPD, the various Fire Departments, the National Guard units, Marines, Army, Coastguard and Navy, chests out, banners flying, marching in lock-step through the canyons of Manhattan to the terrifying noise of massed pipe bands, and you get a sense of the green bedrock on which the city and the state are built on. The Irish Power Structure in all its terrible might and magnificence.
For an Irish person seeing it for the first time, as I did in ’98, it’s a truly awe-inspiring, confusing and mind-blowing experience.
Forget the kids on the back of truck-trailers with various agricultural and kitchen appliances you might remember from your youth in Ireland. New York’s Paddy’s Day Parade is Catholic, Militant Eireann at its most epic, a glimpse of what a Holy Roman-Irish Empire might have looked like. And a window into Oliver Cromwell’s worst nightmare.
It’s not 21st century Ireland (NY's Mayor will march this year for the first time in 20 years after the final lifting of the long-running ban on "The Gays"). Hell, it’s not even 20th century Ireland. It’s the fevered dream of late 19th century immigrants, clawing and fighting their way up the ladder, to grab the power held by old Manhattan aristocrats, Nativists and WASPS.
One day, their children would run this city. And on that day, they would march down and 5th avenue to shout it to the world. Urbi et Orbi, To The City And The World as the Pope might say. If he ever bothered to actually turn up to the thing.
It is also the final echo of more violent times in the city – when Green and Orange clashed on the streets of Manhattan as one Irish clan sought to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne and the final victory of Protestantism and another used clubs, bricks, bottles and stones to stop them.
It all started in the 1860s, as Irish emigrants poured into New York, Irish regiments fought the War Between the States (on both sides) and Irish gangs ruled the Five Points and beyond.
The Irish were the original gangsters of New York. Before the villages of Southern Italy and the Tsarist ghettoes began to pour forth their tired, poor and huddled masses, Irish immigrants in New York ran much of the criminal enterprise of the early-to-mid -nineteenth century in America’s most populous city. The exotically named Irish gangs of New York included the Whyos, the Dead Rabbits (who marched through the notorious Five Points carrying pikes adorned with skewered rabbits), the Shirt Tails, Gorillas, Plug Uglies, The Parlour Mob and the Kerrytonians. In districts like the notorious Hell’s Kitchen, huddled around the Hudson River Docks on the West Side of Manhattan, the Irish (together with gangs that grew out of German immigrant communities) represented a constant threat to civil order in the city.
In the infamous Draft Riots of July 1863, Irish mobs rampaged through Manhattan in what started out as a protest against the draft imposed on behalf of the Union Army, then fighting the South in the Civil War. By the time some sort of order had been imposed after three days of mayhem, upwards of 2,000 people had been killed and 8,000 wounded. It had degenerated into a racial pogrom with mobs attacking African-American men, women and children in the streets. One Irish mob burnt down an orphanage for black children on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, (fortunately, the 233 children inside had a miraculous escape). The Army was forced to use artillery and fixed bayonets to clear the streets.
The New York Orange Riots of 1870 and 1871 were a purely Irish affair, nationalist Catholics against Irish Protestant Orangemen who had tried to march up Eight Avenue in New York to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. In 1870 the parade descended into violence that left eight dead. As a result, the New York City authorities moved to ban the 1871 parade, but were accused by a coalition of powerful interest groups, including Wall Street businessmen, the Protestant Church and a number of newspaper barons, of giving in to the growing power of the radical Irish Catholics. There were claims that the Papist Irish, together with their priests and bishops, were planning to emulate the radical Paris Commune takeover of the French capital, which had been put down just two months before. The parade went ahead in July 1871; pitched battles between Catholics and Protestants, city police, the National Guard and State Militia (including cavalry units) raged up and down Eighth and Fifth Avenues and at least fifty people were killed. When the fighting was over, there were huge funeral processions through the Irish Catholic stronghold of Brooklyn, where the Governor was burned in effigy and sympathetic newspapers carried inflammatory headlines about the ‘The Slaughter on Eight Avenue’.
The riots meant the end for the Irish protestant William Meagher Tweed, the infamous ‘Boss Tweed’ of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine which effectively controlled the city and the State. Tammany Hall, also known as the Society Of St Tammany was the New York political organisation behind the Democratic Party in the City and State, with its headquarters in the original Tammany Hall on East 14th Street in Manhattan from 1830. It had started out as a political society for “native” Americans but with the arrival of the Irish, who quickly seized control, it became strongly identified with the control and exercise of political power, patronage and graft on behalf of the Democratic party and the proud Sons of Erin in New York. It also became a byword for political corruption.
Tweed had been allowed to control the reins of power by the leading citizens of the city because of his supposed ability to maintain stability. As one leading protestant minister pointed out immediately after the Orange Riots, Tweed had ‘failed to keep the Irish in line’.
The Irish of New York would go on refusing to be kept in line. Their inexorable rise to control the levers of power continued long after Boss Tweed began pushing up daisies. And the annual march down 5th avenue is an echo and a reminder of those turbulent times.
* If you want to know more about the Irish Gangs of New York - have a look at my book - Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem - The Blackest Hearted Villains from Irish History - published by O'Brien Press and on amazon/kindle etc. Be the first kid on your block to own it.