First Word: The Hands That Built America
“Oh my love, it’s a long way we’ve come.”
– U2, “The Hands That Built America”
I’m glad I read Pete Hamill’s book Forever before I saw the movie Gangs of New York. While I enjoyed the movie, the real story of the Five Points and the beginnings of New York City, which really was the foundation of what America was to become, is far more interesting.
Hamill in his extraordinary novel takes in several hundred years of New York City history and a good chunk of Irish and African American history as well, and anyone who has seen Gangs should now read this tome of some 600 pages.
The real story is that the Draft Riots never erupted in the Five Points because Tweed and other politicians kept it out. Tweed actually tried to raise money so that the poor could buy themselves out of Lincoln’s draft law, which allowed rich men out of service by paying $300. And Bill the Butcher is based on a character who was dead years before the Draft Riots and whose territory was not in the Five Points anyway.
Hamill points all this out in a column he wrote for the Daily News. At the time of our interview (see page 34) he still hadn’t seen Gangs of New York. But in a December 18 review he wrote: “In spite of all the horrors of life in the Five Points, the movie seems to me to be a bum rap. The story of the gangs, and the 1863 Draft Riots, has been presented on film as a kind of baroque slasher movie, dripping with blood, glittery with knives and axes. The real story is a better one.”
The real story is indeed a far, far better one. Unfortunately, movies seem to be the entertainment of choice in the 21st century, and the danger is in not knowing what is and what is not historically correct.
While Gangs of New York has been nominated for five Golden Globes and seems a shoo-in as an Academy nominee — the movie Bloody Sunday, though it won awards at Cannes and Sundance and New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell designated it his number one movie pick of the year, is not an Oscar contender. Unfortunately, a little-known rule disallows it because it was shown on British television. Conspiracy theorists suspect a plot. Irish movies of a political nature such as Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son about the 1981 Hunger Strike, seem to disappear very quickly from public theaters. Let’s hope the same fate doesn’t befall Bloody Sunday.
No movie more deserves an Oscar. At the very least, all involved should get one of those Profile in Courage awards, which the Kennedy Library gives out annually. Paul Greengrass, the director, is a Brit who is not afraid to speak the truth about what happened on that terrible day in Derry in 1972 when 13 people were shot dead, and scores of civil rights marchers were injured, one so badly that he later died from his wounds.
Actor Jimmy Nesbitt, who is a Protestant (see interview page 58), took on the lead role even though the movie goes against the grain of his community. Nesbitt had the courage of his convictions and followed through. As did all of those involved in the making of the movie. Including Don Mullan whose book provided the background for the movie, the families of victims who took part in the movie, and the former British soldiers who signed on as actors. As Paul Greengrass said, “If Bloody Sunday can be a pebble in the wall of peace, we’ll feel that we’ve achieved something.”
We cannot let this movie slip away from the theaters. At the very least it’s a recognition of what both communities went through in Northern Ireland, and why a return to violence is not an option. As the movie closes, U2 sing the plaintive words: “How long must we sing this song?” from their song “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Hopefully, no more.
Now, a nomination for soundtrack for Gangs of New York I certainly wouldn’t oppose. It’s outstanding. Again, U2 is included. The movie, and U2’s “Hands That Built America,” also cause one to reflect on how far the Irish have come since their early days in New York:
“Oh my love, it’s a long way we’ve come.
From the freckled hills, to the steel and glass canyons.
From the stony fields, to hanging steel from the sky.
From digging in our pockets, for a reason not to say goodbye.
These are the hands that built America.
Last saw your face, in a water colour sky.
As sea birds argue, a long goodbye.
I took your kiss, on the spray of the new land star.
You gotta live with your dreams, don’t make them so hard,
And these are the hands that built America.
Of all of the promises, is this one we could keep?
Of all of the dreams, is this one still out of reach?
It’s early fall, there’s a cloud on the New York sky line.
Innocence, dragged across a yellow line.
These are the hands that built America.
As Hamill wrote: “The story of the way the Five Points was created, turned into degraded horror, and then was erased is a New York tale worth telling. Those who survived it, and moved on, were brave, tough people.”
Mortas Cine. ♦