By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2005
T.J. English didn’t quite know what to expect when he went up to Boston earlier this year to promote his eye-opening new book, Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster.
“Boston is the one place where this story is still a contemporary story, because of South Boston and the way Irish-American culture has been preserved in South Boston like no place else,” said English.
Boston, of course, is Whitey Bulger’s old stomping grounds. The man who remains one of the FBI’s most wanted has been on the run for years. But more than a handful of his old soldiers and associates remain in and around Boston. Then there is the perception that Irish Boston remains hostile to any and all outsiders, particularly those who are taking notes or have written books that name names.
Prior to English’s trip up to Boston, the Boston Herald ran a lengthy excerpt from Paddy Whacked, further drumming up interest in the book. And perhaps stirring up resentment against this writer who has yet again revisited Irish Boston’s dark side.
But, English explains, that was not the case. “There was no resentment or resistance at all,” he said of the readings he gave in Boston, at which attendance was twice as large as in New Orleans, Chicago, New York and other cities.
English believes Irish Bostonians are undergoing a process that Irish-Americans all across the U.S. are dealing with. They are finally beginning to look at the dark side of their history in the U.S., but with much less guilt or shame than before.
“What [people in Boston] seized upon and appreciated was that their own history was being placed in context,” said English. “I think what I wanted to do with the book was draw a line from the Famine right up to Whitey Bulger.”
Bulger is just one of a wild, criminal cast of characters English explores in Paddy Whacked.
There’s Kansas City’s Tom Pendergast, described alternately as a dictator and dogooder, who helped Harry Truman rise up the political ranks.
There’s Mickey Spillane, the “gentleman gangster” of New York’s West Side who reminded some of the Tom Hanks character in Road to Perdition and who was mysteriously killed.
There’s Vincent Coll, who more than earned his nickname “Mad Dog.”
And there’s Danny Greene, who used union ties and explosives to carve out a criminal niche for himself in the not-particularly-Irish city of Cleveland.
English’s great accomplishment in the book, however, is that he is able to show how these deviant characters are all, in some way, the products of a specifically Irish-American experience first forged amidst the horror of the Famine in the hostile large cities of America.
Given this extraordinary cast of characters, English finds it difficult to believe that his book is the first comprehensive look at the Irish-American underworld.
Asked why it took so long for someone to write about this topic, English says: “I don’t have a clear answer for that question.”
He does, however, believe that Irish-Americans have tended to look back at some of this material with shame, and so chose to ignore it.
“I think right now Irish-Americans are in the process of rewriting their history. For a time it was like we were all royalty or descended from the Kennedys,” said English.
There are other factors. Once The Godfather came along and the Italian Mafia dominated popular culture, it became convenient to simply ignore the Irish gangster.
In recent years, however, there has been a wave of material about Irish gangsters. First came the massive interest in Bulger and his Boston crew, following his sensational trial and escape. Next year, the Showtime cable network is planning a series entitled Brotherhood, based on Bulger, as well as his high-powered politician brother.
Then there were Hollywood movies such as Road to Perdition, as well as Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Elizabeth Gaffney’s recent novel Metropolis takes readers on a guided tour of the New York underworld, including a close look at the infamous Irish Whyo gang. Finally, in the coming months keep an eye out for a hotly anticipated memoir by John “Red” Shea called Rat Bastards: The True Story of the South Boston Irish Mob by the Only Insider Who Never Informed.
If this is a trend, T.J. English was onto it a decade and a half ago.
He was one of ten children raised in an Irish Catholic family in Tacoma, Washington. His ancestors came to the U.S. during the Famine and settled in the hardscrabble, heavily Irish town of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Each subsequent generation drifted westward.
“So, of course, the first thing I did when I was 21 was come to New York City,” says English with a laugh.
When he was not driving a taxi he was writing for this magazine, as well as its sister publication, The Irish Voice.
It was there that English began covering the notorious trial that centered around Mickey Featherstone and the Irish Westies gang, which operated out of Manhattan’s West Side.
English just knew that between the colorful Irish characters, their Mafia connections, and their ultra violent operations, there was a great book in this story.
The Westies was published in 1990 and became a best-seller and New York Times notable book.
Later, English published Born to Kill: America’s Most Notorious Vietnamese Gang and the Changing Face of Organized Crime, which was nominated for an Edgar Award.
English says Paddy Whacked is a logical outgrowth of his first book.
“In some ways it grew out of The Westies…that piqued my interest to see if there were similar histories in other cities,” he said.
But, he added, interest in the Irish-American outlaw is something he’s had his whole life.
“The whole [Jimmy] Cagney persona, as Irish-American males, is something I think we all grew up with. I watched these movies as a kid and always had a visual image of the persona, in my head, of the Irish-American gangster.”
However, once he dove into this new project, English had one major worry. Namely, what if there was nothing really connecting the Irish gangsters who populated cities as different as New York, Cleveland, Kansas City and San Francisco?
“I was concerned about that,” he admits. “What if this happened to be a book about a bunch of criminals who just happened to have Irish names?”
After all, he adds, there was no Mafia structure which forced Irish criminals to work together in some loose way, the way Italian Americans were forced to.
Shortly after he began researching Paddy Whacked, however, English discovered important similarities.
“The similarities were so striking. The Irish — starting with the generation of Famine immigrants — in all the areas in the U.S. had devised these social systems that were remarkably similar.”
English is referring to the predominance of the Irish political machine in many cities, and the close ties they often had with criminals.
“There was this structural similarity to the way the Irish underworld ran.”
Another commonality that clearly emerges is that, following the ascendance of the Italian American mob in the 1890s and 1900s, Irish-American criminals were forced to learn how to operate on the periphery. Despite that, the Westies and the Boston Irish mob were still alive, kicking and killing right up until the 1980s and 1990s.
But, English admits, things have changed, as his recent enthusiastic reception in Boston indicates.
Then, of course, there is the current debate about the future of Manhattan’s West Side, where a new pro football stadium and convention center may or may not be built.
“I have to chuckle as I watch this,” said English. “It’s the same stuff they were saying about the [Jacob] Javits Center when it was built…. There are a lot of unsolved homicides which could be tied to who was going to control what union, or who was going to get what cement contract.”
As for the current West Side debate, English said, “you’re not going to see bodies floating up from the river — that aspect has died out.”
But he does believe that enough illegal activity still permeates the West Side that a kind of crime tax of sorts will have to be factored into the project.
What’s next for T.J. English? Well, he may be departing from the gang wars if not the Irishmen. He is putting together a book proposal for a biography of legendary New York Irish comic George Carlin. English notes that Carlin rejected much of his Irish Catholic upbringing, but adds that such a fierce rejection merely suggests just how important it must have been to Carlin’s identity.
Inevitably, English must be asked what it’s like to write about the Irish with a name such as his.
“It’s a fairly common Tipperary name,” he notes.
Does he get ribbed about it?
“Oh, my whole life,” he says with a laugh. But still, Boston comes through for English.
“There are two places called Tom English’s Cafe in Boston. Everywhere else people ask me if I’m really Irish. In Boston, all they do is ask me if I’m related to the people who own the cafe.” ♦