The Irish Coppers

The casts of Copper (left) and Blue Bloods (right).
The casts of Copper (left) and Blue Bloods (right).

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
October / November 2012

The evolution of the Irish-American policeman – in real life and on screen.

In the classic 1954 Looney Tunes cartoon entitled “Bugs and Thugs,” everybody’s favorite animated rabbit gets himself caught up with Rocky and Mugsy, a couple of bank robbers who flee the scene of the crime and head off to a rural safe house. Soon enough, Bugs Bunny fakes the sound of a police siren and affects an Irish brogue.
“OK, Clancy!” Bugs yells. “Take the boys and surround the house!”

There is nothing unusual about the brogue or, for that matter, the lumbering Irish cop who later shows up. That’s the point. In real life, the police departments in New York and other major cities were so dominated by the Irish that countless radio shows, sitcoms and movies reflected this.

One year after “Bugs and Thugs,” in the classic Honeymooners episode entitled “Funny Money,” ne’er-do-well bus driver Ralph Kramden (played by Irish-American legend Jackie Gleason) discovers a suitcase full of counterfeit cash. A knock on the door stirs fear that crooks have come calling in search of the money. However, it’s just “Officer Garrity,” a cop seeking donations for a police charity.

From Looney Tunes to The Honey-mooners, from Car 54, Where Are You? to Cagney and Lacey, the Irish cop has long been a TV staple.

These days, police departments may no longer be dominated by the Irish.  However, two shows airing this fall, Blue Bloods and Copper, actually manage to chronicle the entire 150-year evolution of Irish law enforcement, as cops moved from local beats to top brass, from the grimy lanes of the famine-scarred Five Points in Manhattan, to tidy homes in the outer boroughs of New York City.

Irish Cops: Then and Now
On Sunday evenings, BBC America is currently airing Copper, a 10-episode series about Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston Jones), an Irish immigrant detective and one of the first to join the emerging police force  in New York in 1864.

Then, starting on September 28, CBS will kick off the third season of its highly-rated drama Blue Bloods. Featuring Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg and Bridget Moynahan, Blue Bloods chronicles the trials and tribulations of a large Irish-American family, including patriarch Frank Reagan (Selleck), who plays New York City’s police chief, Frank’s father (Len Carlou), a former top cop  and the three Reagan children (two cops and a prosecutor).

Irish-American talent on Blue Bloods includes actors Bridget Moynahan and Donnie Wahlberg (older brother of Mark Wahlberg), as well as writers Thomas Kelly and Brian Burns, brother of filmmaker Ed Burns, whose father – fittingly – was an Irish-born New York City cop.

Viewing both of these shows paints a vivid portrait of Irish-American life. They highlight the journey from the horrors of the Famine to the complexities of 21st-century crime fighting and family dynamics.

And for all of the decades that separate the two shows (not to mention the exaggerations and dramatic license necessary to create compelling drama), Blue Bloods and Copper share common themes. It is also interesting to note that the modern-day Blue Bloods can tell us key things about the past, while the historical Copper reveals much about the present.

“One of the fascinating things about working on Copper,” executive producer and director Barry Levinson has said,“is realizing that the issues our characters faced in America at that time are very much the same today. The friction between the haves, who live Uptown with all this wealth and privilege, and the have-nots, living in extreme poverty, was staggering.”

Given the pervasive stereotype of the Irish cop on TV, it’s interesting to note that it was far from easy for an Irishman to land a job as a cop when the New York City Police Department was created.

No Irish Need Apply
Back in 1842, “a city council committee issued a report decrying the level of crime and the apparent level of ineffectuality of the official efforts to combat it,” write James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto in their excellent 2001 book NYPD: A City and Its Police.

“Thousands that are arrested go unpunished and the defenseless and the beautiful are ravished and murdered in the daytime and no trace of the criminal is found,” declared the breathless city council report.

Two years later, New York governor William Seward created a unified force of 800 men, who would be appointed to their job by local aldermen. The problem for the Irish was that James Harper (of the famous publishing family) had just become mayor of New York City, running as a candidate for the infamous anti-Irish, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party.

“The Know-Nothings preferred to have [police officers] named by the mayor, since ward control, in parts of the city, meant giving immigrants lots of input,” according to Reppetto and Lardner.

In other words, no Irish need apply.

Joining the Force
Galway native Barney McGinniskin is generally acknowledged to be the first Irish-born cop in a major U.S. city. He was hired to police the mean streets of Boston in 1851, but he lost his job three years later when nativist Know Nothings took control of the Massachusetts state legislature and cleared precincts of many Irish Catholics.

Try as the nativists might, however, they could not fight the radical changes under way in  Boston, New York and cities across the country.  So many Irish immigrants escaping the Famine meant that, eventually, they would come to dominate local politics, and police departments.

In fact, when the infamous New York City Draft Riots arose in 1863, though many scholars have identified the rioters as heavily Irish, it is less well known that many of the police who put the riots down were also Irish.

Reppetto and Lardner estimate that as early as the Draft Riots, half of the NYPD was already Catholic, the vast majority of them Irish.

Author Richard Zacks estimates that by the end of the 19th century, nearly 70 percent of the New York police force was Irish-born or first generation.

The NYPD Emerald Society – the nation’s first – was formed in 1953, and even into the late 1960s well over 40 percent of the New York police force remained Irish. When Boston’s Emerald Society formed in 1973, half the city’s police force signed up.

Policing the Draft Riots
The Draft Riots, the July 1863 violent, racially charged protests by lower-class New York men against the Civil War draft, play a key role in the first episodes of Copper. The series is set in the infamous Five Points neighborhood, which was also the setting of Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film of Irish immigration, Gangs of New York.

In the opening scene of Copper’s first episode, Corcoran gathers at a crime scene with other Irish cops, including the corrupt Padraic Byrnes (David Keeley), as well as Corcoran’s partner and friend, Francis McGuire, played by Dublin-born actor Kevin Ryan.

Much is made of tensions between the Irish and African Americans in 1860s New York, but the show also emphasizes moments of cooperation between the groups.

Corcoran relies on the efforts of a black doctor named Matthew Freeman.  Freeman’s wife, however, remains traumatized by the Draft Riots, which left several of her relatives dead, and has prompted the doctor to move out of the Five Points.

Thus far, Copper has taken great pains to show the struggles of the Irish in New York on both sides of the law.  Suffice it to say, there is a level of realism here that would not have been seen back when Irish cops were in The Honeymooners or Looney Tunes. A similarly silly look at Irish cops hit TV screens in 1961, when Fred Gwynne (best known as Herman Munster) starred as Officer Francis Muldoon in Car 54, Where Are You?, a sitcom set in a fictional Bronx precinct.

The 1970s ushered in a more diverse era. Sitcoms like The Odd Couple and Barney Miller offered up big-city cops who were not Irish. Meanwhile, cop shows from S.W.A.T. and C.H.I.P.s to Barnaby Jones were more about action than ethnicity, though one officer in the show Adam 12 was named Pete Malloy.

From Cagney to NYPD Blue
The Irish cop was reborn – in a groundbreaking way – in 1981, when CBS began airing Cagney and Lacey, a show about two ambitious female detectives in a Manhattan precinct. Sharon Gless portrayed Christine Cagney, a second-generation cop who often butted heads with her Irish cop father. The show dramatically confronted the pressures of “the job,” alcoholism, family tensions and more, making it one of the more interesting depictions of Irish-American life on television.

Subsequent long-running cop shows from the 1990s, such as NYPD Blue (David Caruso played John Kelly) and Third Watch (featuring Skipp Sudduth as John “Sully” Sullivan), brought new depth to the Irish TV cop, and that trend has continued into the 2000s. Most prominently, Dominic West (who attended Trinity College Dublin) memorably portrayed troubled Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, which featured The Pogues’ song “Body of an American” when cops gathered to bury one of their own. Dean Winters, meanwhile, played Johnny Gavin, cop brother (and occasional sparring partner) to firefighter Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) on Rescue Me.

September 11
Leary has long said he was inspired to create Rescue Me, in part, because he wanted to explore how firefighters and cops cope with the trauma of their grueling jobs in general, and the horrors of 9/11 in particular. More than any TV show ever could, 9/11 revealed the 21st-century FDNY and NYPD to the rest of America and the entire world. Some viewers may well have been surprised at just how Irish New York’s first responders remained, even in the 21st-century. The sheer volume of Irish names, particularly among the FDNY’s fallen 343, is as shocking as it is heartbreaking.

And no story that came out of this tragedy was more poignant than Moira Smith’s, a police officer and mother who was last seen escorting victims out of the burning towers.

More broadly, an image that will always remain in the national consciousness is that of the police and fire department pipe-and-drum bands performing at every somber wake and memorial service held in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Then there was firefighter Mike Moran, shouting at Osama bin Laden to kiss his “royal Irish” backside at Madison Square Garden, managing to inject some much-needed levity during a terrible time.

This glimpse into blue collar enclaves in Staten Island and Brooklyn and Queens suggested there was still plenty of drama, color and even humor to be found in the world of the Irish-American police officer.

Top Cops
In 1992, Raymond W. Kelly became New York City’s police commissioner.  He was just the latest in a long line of Irish-American top cops, going all the way back to John Alexander Kennedy in 1860. The 1920s and 1930s saw commissioners named Whalen, Mulrooney, Bolan and O’Ryan. In fact, from 1900 – 1983, four men named Murphy served as New York’s top cop, and of the 32 men who held the post during that time, only half-a-dozen or so had non-Irish names.

Ray Kelly, in many ways, embodies the long journey of the Irish, from street cops to top brass. But he was also first nominated to the post in 1992 by Mayor David Dinkins, an African American, illustrating that times had indeed changed. Kelly again was named top cop by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2001.

Blue Bloods patriarch Frank Reagan seems modeled, in part, on Ray Kelly.  Like Kelly, Reagan is a decorated war veteran, whose son also served in the military.

Blue Bloods also shares common themes with Copper. Corcoran, for example, is also a veteran, of the Civil War.

Both shows also make family a central theme. In Copper, Corcoran is driven to find out about his vanished wife and murdered daughter. Frank Reagan also suffered a tragic loss in Blue Bloods. He is a widower whose son, Joseph, was killed in the line of duty.  His remaining children Danny (Donnie Wahlberg, a detective), Erin (Bridget Moynahan, a prosecutor) and Jaime (a Harvard grad and new cop) often work together, and always find time to talk things over at the dinner table.

Overall, both Copper and Blue Bloods teach us valuable things about Irish America. During our current time of tension over religion, the show reminds us that Irish Catholics were often despised, and thus, that this is not a new problem. As for Blue Bloods, at a time when many believe the Irish have vanished into the great American melting pot, the show reminds us that they remain a strong presence in big-city uniformed civil service.

One Response to “The Irish Coppers”

  1. Mary Lee Cunningham-Giblin says:

    Please help, the show “Copper” was canceled by BBC America despite it’s critical acclaim! There are so many fans who are very upset about this and are trying to get the show put back on the air; it was unceremoniously and abruptly canceled last week after the last episode of only its second season without any resolution of its storylines. I am an avid reader of Irish America magazine, and this was an excellent article that I remember reading when it first came out. Can you help by writing an article about the attempts by fans to get the show back on the air? We have started a campaign by writing petitions and posting on Facebook and Twitter under “Save Copper” and “Bring Back Copper” and our supporters grow by the day. I’ve been told the producers of the show are watching our campaign, so any influence you could bring by writing an article about this would be so greatly appreciated and would help our attempts to preserve this wonderful show about Irish America’s past! Thank you in advance for reading this!

    Lee Giblin

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