Grandfather And I, Part 1

By: Martin Griffin 

I am among those who grew up in the old traditional extended family that was once very common among many ethnicities, American and Irish-Americans not excepted. In my family's case the relative with whom we lived was our maternal grandfather who we began to live with us after the death of our grandmother.  

Grandpa’s branch of our family tree immigrated from the "old country" at the height of "An Gorta Mor" more commonly known as the "Great Hunger” or Irish potato famine which began in 1845; (though there had been minimal, localized outbreaks elsewhere, both in Ireland and continental Europe itself).                                                                  

The severe potato blight occurrence of 1845 and the next half-decade or so would prove to be catastrophic for the Irish nation as a whole. It is estimated that through the crop failure coupled with the exportation by the British of most of the remaining food of every type produced in fertile Ireland, one million Irish Men, Women and Children perished of starvation and related disease. Their corpses were increasingly found in the fields and Irish lanes with swollen bellies and green mouths after desperately trying to eat grass to survive.  

The exportation of the other foodstuffs whilst people needlessly starved, allowing the Irish sea ports to remain open to exporters were not the only acts that led to genocide against the Irish nation in mass. Elevation of the economic concept of Laissez Faire political economy above the concept of the sanctity of human life is as much the cause of the horror of Irelands suffering as is the natural disaster of Phytophthora Infestans (The Blight’s scientific name) itself. 

The Laissez Faire economic theory was one that posited that the least government intervention in economic affairs the better prospects of overall national economic health or success. While there has probably never been an actual instance of a complete government “hands off” policy regarding business affairs even during the best of times (taxes are interventions) a catastrophic event of the Irish Potato Famine scope is certainly no time to enforce unproven speculative doctrinaire theories.  

The theory as applied limited the amount and type of aid the British government would render. Their belief was that if they provided free or cut-rate food that action would affect the food markets worldwide or at least the British market share and be bad for business. They felt that supply and demand should make up for any deficiency. Their theoretical and calculative error killed over a million people whose kin and descendents are still awaiting an honest accounting and apology. 

The Ottoman (old Turkish) Sultan Abdulmecid pledged 10,000 ponds sterling in relief. Queen Victoria request of the Sultan that he limit his generosity to 1000 pounds sterling to meet the amount she herself intended limiting her generosity to. The Sultan complied with Queen Vickie’s wish be he also covertly sent three food laden ships to the distressed Irish people. Among the other nations who showed their humane generosity was the North American Choctaw Native American tribe who donated $710.00 US Dollars. 

 An additional estimated two million souls who had somehow maintained the physical strength and wherewithal to survive began the mass exodus known as the Irish Diaspora, (Diaspóra na nGael, in Irish/Gaelic). Many of these people were sent ships passage by relatives already abroad -- particularly those in the US and Canada -- or were the fortunate recipients of a family's pawned and pooled resources as well as the painful decision that the chosen individual was not only best fitted for the trans-Atlantic trek but for the ardors of starting a new life abroad. These arduous tasks would include attempting to provide the means for the next in line to board ship and cross the Atlantic Ocean. 

Although numbers have always been debated most experts agree that Ireland, through starvation unto death, and/or immigration lost approximately between one fifth and one quarter of its pre-famine population; one in four, or, one in five, never rebounding to pre-famine population levels. The same situation in today’s America would mean 60 to 75 million people dead, or having fled for a chance to survive. 

But, it's not the tribulations of grandfather's forebears experience with the famine or immigration that is the focus of this treatise. This essay focuses on his Irish-American life. An existence in the poor Irish ghettoes, the daily grind of how Catholic, Irish-Americans survived their everyday journey through the American experience. A little background is required. 

Grandpa's folks who like many disembarked from their ship on Manhattan's piers, were likely to have run into an agent for a rooming houses or tenement flats, or a Tammany Sachem making promises, and often enough a street hustler whose only available room was the space in his pocket where he stashed the cash fleeced from his previous sheep.  

Others if they were especially fortunate had an awaiting family member whom they never had met, or if they had it was often so long ago that combined with the newly arrived persons state of dependency the whole ordeal was stressful in the extreme.   

In the mid nineteenth century an increasingly ‘popular’, primarily Protestant political party, the “Know Nothings” who originally called themselves the Native American Party then finally settled on the name the American Party were founded as a response to the growing influx of Irish and other Catholics who they believed were agents of the Pope dedicated to the undermining of American democracy for reasons only explicable by paranoia. 

The Know Nothings attempted to introduce legislation that would have denied naturalized citizenship to Irish and also German Catholic immigrants. They attempted to pass laws that would have instituted waiting periods of up to twenty-one years to become citizens. They desired to limit teaching positions to Protestants and wanted the sects Bible to be read daily as part of the public school curricula.  

Know Nothing actions weren’t limited to legislation, at times they expressed their biases violently by attacking Irish and German Catholic enclaves with deadly results. A Know Nothing pogrom in Kentucky in August of 1855 left more than 120 Irish and German Catholics dead many others injured and massive property destruction. 

Most of Grandpa's family settled in New York City's Greenwich Village, an area that has always had something of an eclectic bohemian atmosphere; though it was potentially as perilous as any New York City neighborhood to be caught alone and unknown in at certain times, like after dark. Like other areas it had its own gangs jealous of their turf, with many representatives housed in the New York's state of the art penitentiaries.  

Another far smaller branch of our tree has been said to have settled in the rural Hudson River area of West Point; where it is also reported that some of the family were caretakers for the United States Military Academy abutting the Hudson River. I have been unable to verify this independently of family lore but I expect to find out definitively sooner or later. 

Grandpa grew up in Greenwich Village, a young boy whose father died during his infancy. His mother increasingly succumbed to an illness that was probably the tuberculosis that was endemic in most of the tenement filled immigrant and ethnic ghettos 

In order to meet the challenges of being a young man with a deceased father and an increasingly disabled mother grandpa was forced at a tender age to find employment. First working as a helper on a horse drawn ice-vending wagon, to eventually being assigned his own route driving early model trucks. 

Granddad and Grandmother at about age seven-teen or so decided a wedding was within their plans. Whether this was out of necessity or not remains a family secret that I suppose Grandpa felt either comfortable or necessary taking to the grave with him. 

Grandpa would father a total of nine children good Catholic that he was, only seven would survive due to the extremely high infant mortality rate in cities across the country. One thing I always found of great interest was how open people were in discussing such a painful subject. It was apparently so prevalent that while it was painful in the extreme to the families it was something that visited them all. 

The neighborhood was an extremely important entity for Irish immigrants newly arrived to America. It took the place of the villages that they had left behind. In Ireland even within the village there was the “Faction” which could be centered on extended families or people with common interests. In a nation deprived of weapons by the colonizer, strength in numbers was an important concept to be adhered to. The Shillelagh was the chosen weapon other than fists and feet favored in storied “Faction Fights”. 

Part of that phenomenon it seems comes from the fact that in New York as in many other large cities people settled into neighborhoods where their fellow countrymen were prevalent, usually the only areas available or welcoming them. This led to something of a continuation of the culture left behind, but in something of an adulterated American fashion. 

 In Ireland the villages were often made up of groups of related families or clans who in times of social unrest or other necessity formed factions with the larger extended families of cousins, and in-laws with their extended clans, etcetera. 

 In coming to America where they were left to live in the tenement filled impoverished ghettos with their fellows, the neighborhood took the place of the village and in a loose fashion the neighbors took the place of if not the clan than at least the faction. People became fiercely devoted to their turf.  

This metamorphosis of the clan into the faction is an important Irish - Irish American phenomenon though not theirs alone. The faction was an adaptation of the clan which was further adapted especially in large American cities into the neighborhood gang, which was representative of many of the neighborhoods families who usually had a brother, cousin or a friend or two who belonged. This continued in traditional urban Irish American neighborhoods for some until the time of JFK's Presidency.  

There was a period from around 1890 until after Prohibition when Irish Americans were assimilating into mainstream American culture. During this period there was the beginning of the organized labor movement which found itself in need of the muscle provided by strong fighting men to both defend itself from employer hired goon squads masquerading as operatives for private detective agencies – most notoriously Pinkerton -- and also to maintain their turf against other organizers. 

The Irish American politician, labor leader and racketeer had not only a cultural affinity for one another, often doing business from the same pubs or taverns, but had an actual need for the services provided by each to each. 

As T. J. English points out, in his book “Paddy Whacked” the other immigrant inhabitants of poor urban neighborhoods, often Italian, German and Jewish, were represented by the English speaking local Irish American politician neighbor who was not averse to doing business with their gangster and other elements on the same basis as he did with his Irish constituents. 

A big part of the history of American Politics was the machine and in New York the Tammany machine, and a large part of that machine was the Irish American politician and his access to and control of the political patronage spoils system, most of the local politicos were connected to the local gang.

There were ethnic, financial and cultural prods to making the system not only viable but necessary. 

My maternal grandfather (my paternal grandfather was slain at age 26 in the 1930's his story will form an essay on another side of the Irish American experience) told me stories of how during the great depression when an Irish-American man residing on Manhattan's West side like he then did, needed employment and did not know the local Tammany Ward Captain personally would seek out the local racketeer (who was well known and could be found in most pubs) to ask the local Tammany ward heeler to get that man onto a payroll somewhere whether in the private or the public sector. 

When the service was rendered the beneficiary was expected not only to vote for the Tammany candidates, but to do their utmost to convince all their kin and friends to do likewise and also to do some canvassing, handing out fliers, providing election day services, -- sometimes of a special nature such as taking Bowery “hobo’s” for hair cuts and shaves so they could return to polling places where they had already cast ballots in the name of deceased constituents -- so they could vote again unrecognized. These Bowery denizens would usually be paid in drink or funds to buy drink for their services. In earlier days -- pre civil service system -- cops got their jobs through the Tammany system and wouldn’t think to interfere with any irregularities they noticed on Election Day. 

Given the circumstances of the depression and its resultant dearth of jobs  the  newly employed were only too glad to help out. During that period there were many public works projects my, maternal Grandfather was able to obtain employment first as a dynamiters helper blasting roads through New York State's Catskill Mountains with the WPA, (Works Projects Administration) next as a mail handler in Manhattan’s West Side Morgan Annex Postal facility as a porter then mail handler, and finally in the Brooklyn Navy yard. All these positions were originated by neighborhood connections between the street guys and the Tammany politicians. 

I can recall as a boy bringing the mail into the house for my construction union Vice President, father who often received letters at home from prisons where neighborhood guys – with Irish surnames -- eligible for parole needed the prospect of a job to be released on parole and were always grateful when my father sent the appropriate letters to the proper officials, something he always did. A job was also usually provided for the parolee.  

There was a continuing culture, though an increasingly bastardized one in poor and working class Irish American neighborhoods, that lasted many generations. Many families were able to disengage from the need for the ersatz faction by the 2nd or 3rd generation although in the case of those families who remained as long as they needed or chose to, they retained the traditions and mores that had guided the earlier generations as can be witnessed by the Irish of Manhattans West Side’s “Hells Kitchen” and Boston's "Southie" neighborhoods. 

Both sides of my own family form several generations “Hells Kitchen” residents. The last of my kin to enter this country from Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century, got off the boat there and stayed there until after my own birth in the late 1950s; and some even until the late 1970s or so which by that time had seen an area completely transformed by gentrification due to the proximity to Manhattan’s prime real estate and business districts. The area was also the heart of Broadway’s theatre district that for generations was also racketeer influenced. 

T.J English in “Paddy Whacked” touches on the basics of these subjects primarily from the vantage of the Irish-American gangster and his political contacts while delving into the conditions and culture that supported them by the Irish American people still struggling for full assimilation into the American mainstream.  

Grandpa’s final job after the disruptions of the depression, the second world war, and the raising of his seven children was as a night watchman in a unionized building on midtown Manhattan’s east side. As I married at an early age our long history of nightly talks over grandpa’s tea ended; by that time we had covered every subject from: The depression, Prohibition, torpedo juice drinkers who went blind in the war time Brooklyn Navy Yard, Babe Ruth, The New York Baseball Giants (his team) and Yankees (my Team), Jack Dempsey, Joe Lewis and gangsters like Owney “killer” Madden. Soon the rest of my siblings rapidly grew and flew the nest so grandpa went to live with his youngest son. 

Grandpa was an honest law abiding man all his days, he attended the Saturday evening Mass as he worked Sundays, and always took the Sacrament. He had to survive as a man without a particular trade except his varied driving experiences. The world in which he lived, was a place where there was much violence and crime that was not always easy to avoid. Being a resident of an ethnic area while at times being beneficial also had some basic rules, like what you did and never did see or hear.  

 Loving the quiet and relatively -- for him – well paying job he enjoyed working for then New York real estate king pin, Harry Helmsley, of Empire Sate Building renown, grandpa never took an unscheduled evening off, even when the weather was terrible. 

 Choosing to work on the night that would be known as the ‘blizzard of February 1976”, grandpa finished his shift at 11:30 pm, trudged home through the high, drifting snow, made it to the apartment he shared with his youngest son where the always waiting, post work hot cup of tea waited, shared his goodnights with his son, took a sip or two of hot tea, and died quietly of a massive heart attack. He was two months from his scheduled retirement at age sixty-five. 

The next in this series of essays on my forefathers will detail the other side of the early Irish, Irish American experience in America, part is how bias forced men into occupations that while instantly increasing their families quality of life and offering upward mobility, did so at the cost of drastically reducing their life span. 

Another part is the type of lifestyle that James Cagney movies celebrated and were so popular as entertainment; but subjected those to whom the stories were real to death, sadness, poverty, orphanages reformatories, prisons and very often to a vicious familial cycle of emulation.


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