Those We Lost
By Irish America Staff
December / January 2016
1938 – 2015
Sergeant Joseph Coffey, the legendary New York City detective who took on the mob and worked on some of the city’s most high-profile cases, including Son of Sam, died at home in Levittown, New York, in late September. He was 77.
Coffey decided on a career with the police at an early age when mobsters shot at his father after he resisted their attempt to influence the truck-driving union to which he belonged. “He vowed that he would catch these guys, lock them up, and that’s how he started,” his widow, Susan, told 1010 WINS, a New York City radio station.
Coffey commanded a mob-busting N.Y.P.D. unit that solved over 80 mob murders and sent hundreds of mafia men to prison. Among his most famous exploits was his multiple arrests of John J. Gotti, the boss of the Gambino crime family. Coffey also investigated the Son of Sam serial killer, David Berkowitz, who killed six and wounded seven, and confessed to Coffey that the neighbor’s dog had ordered him to carry out the murders.
Coffey “was one of the greatest detectives in the NYPD ever,” said Jerry Schmetterer, author of The Coffey Files, a book detailing Coffey’s work at the head of his mob-busting unit.
Coffey also cracked a case involving N.Y.C. mobsters, the Vatican Bank, and the archbishop who was the bank’s president. He investigated the 1978 Lufthansa heist, in which a bounty worth $3.2 million today was stolen from JFK Airport. He also was assigned to guard boxer Joe Frazier and famously danced with first lady Nancy Reagan at a reception at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan while on assignment to protect her.
Coffey is survived by his second wife, Susan, a sister, Patsy Lynch, six grandchildren, and three children, Kathleen, Steven, and Joseph Jr., from his first marriage to Patricia Flynn, who died in 1993.
– R. Bryan Willits
1929 – 2015
Brian Friel, the venerated and award-winning Irish dramatist, author, and director, died on October 2 at his Co. Donegal home after battling a long illness. He was 86 years old and is survived by his wife, Anne Morrison, and their children, Sally, Judy, Mary, and David. He was predeceased by his daughter Patricia, who died in 2012.
Friel was born in 1929 in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, and spent much of his early life in Derry, where he attended St. Columb’s College, along with the poet Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume and
fellow St. Columb’s alum and friend of Friel said he “was a genius who lived, breathed and walked amongst us. His loss will be felt terribly by his family and his fans.”
“He had a unique ability to transform the local to the global and bring the past to the present which enthralled people the world over. He is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Irish playwrights of all time.”
Friel’s manifold accomplishments include the founding of Field Day Theater Company in Derry with actor Stephen Rea, whose first production premiered Friel’s Translations in 1980 at the Guildhall in Derry. His 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa
received three Tony Awards including Best Play and was later turned into a film starring Meryl Streep.
Irish President Michael D. Higgins said, “To have had the privilege of knowing Brian Friel as a friend was an immense gift. He was a man of powerful
intellect, great courage and generosity. These were talents that he delivered with great humor, grit and compassion.”
Friel is often referred to as the “Irish Chekhov,” a designation deserved not only due to his translations of Chekhov’s work, but also because both writers focused their attention on rural life and on characters who cling to the past. Much of Friel’s work is set in the fictional halcyon town of Ballybeg, (anglicized Irish for “small town”), where it was not uncommon to find characters caught up in the confusion and uncertainties of modernity and change.
“It was a joy to say his words and to feel secure in the hands of a master craftsman,” actor Liam Neeson said. “I hope he and Heaney are having a ‘wee one’ together now and sharing a giggle.”
– R. Bryan Willits
John “Jack” Irwin
1931 – 2015
John “Jack” Irwin, a first-generation Irish American and a major figure in the New York world of Hibernian activism, passed away on October 18 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was born in Brooklyn, but grew up in the strong Irish and Irish American community of Sunnyside, Queens.
Irwin was a childhood actor for television and Broadway, and his resulting public-speaking ability served him well during his years advocating for immigration reform and as a longtime member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. When the Irish Immigration Reform Movement began campaigning for visas for undocumented workers in the 1980s, Irwin was a key liaison between the A.O.H. and the I.I.R.M. In 1988, he officially pledged the order’s support for the I.I.R.M.’s aims. He was involved to such an extent in Irish American affairs that Michael O’Reilly, then Committee President of the Rockville Center St. Patrick’s Day Parade said, “There is probably no one active in Long Island’s Irish American community who is not familiar with Jack Irwin.”
Irwin fought in the Korean War and worked for Merrill Lynch for 38 years, including serving as vice president. In addition to his political activism, Irwin was a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre and an Oceanside member of the Knights of Columbus.
He is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, four children, and several grandchildren.
– Julia Brodsky