(Eamon Loingsigh is a New York City novelist who has written articles for Litkicks about Lautreamont, J. D. Salinger and Taylor Mead. His latest work is Light of the Diddicoy, and here’s how this novel came to be.)
First things first, I have no choice but to write. I am a writer. I write. I made a decision long ago that in my life I will either be a writer, or a failed writer.
My first two books, the novella An Affair of Concoctions and the poetry collection Love and Maladies, got me started, but I decided to gain a larger audience by utilizing my storytelling with a more popular topic.
I have noticed over the past few years the acceptance of genre writing as literature. There are many examples of this crossover, but maybe the most popular would be Cormac McCarthy’s dark Westerns. I am no super-fan of his work, but I was impressed that he moved the genre from the separated “Westerns” bookshelf to mainstream acceptability, with Harold Bloom even declaring McCarthy’s work “literature”.
In an age where the memoir has gained in popularity and the public longs for what David Shields calls a “reality hunger”, I felt I had to have a first person story of a stranger (that is, an immigrant) who is shocked by the brutality of the lifestyle on the Brooklyn waterfront and is forced to make hard decisions for the betterment of his and his family’s future during a time when rebellions break out amidst a world war, loyalties must be committed and where violence often goes unpunished.
With all of this in mind, I honed in on three main topics:
All popularly acceptable. And all a deeply ingrained part of my own familial background. The stage was set. Here we go.
Writing about my Brooklyn-Irish background comes easy. It is certainly a passion. Mixing in the gang element may pigeonhole me for life, but is a risk I am willing to take because of the powerful comparison I have always felt (I’m sure all Americans do too) between my family’s immigrant story and the folklore of America’s coming of age.
For as far back as anyone in my family can prove, we are almost exclusively Irish. This is almost unheard of in America these days. Many of my relatives came over during what we call the Great Hunger, commonly known as the “Potato Famine” of 1845-1852. The McNamees, Sullivans, Phelans, Clarkes, McLaughlins, O’Donnells, McGettigans and the Gallaghers all came over due mostly to Ireland’s greatest tragedy.
But the story of Light of the Diddicoy has more to do with my paternal great-grandparents, the Lynchs and the Kellys. Mainly, I suppose, because we know more about their immigrant experience in New York as they came over much later during the 1890s from County Clare.
Thomas Lynch (1876-1953), my great-grandfather, was born in a farming community called Coolmeen. He was most likely helped in getting a job and a room on West Street in Manhattan by a Hibernian club he eventually joined, lengthily called The County Claremen’s Evicted Tenants Protective and Industrial Association. He quickly got a job as a longshoreman on the Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen docks. At 6’4”, he was a daunting figure who also worked as a sandhog, digging and blasting tunnels for what would eventually become New York City’s subway system.
He then became a “tender” in the early 1900s, living behind a longshoremen’s saloon at 93 Barrow Street. By the 1910 census, he was “proprietor” of the same saloon, which he changed the name to Lynches Tavern at 463 Hudson Street, where Irish saloons dominated the first floors of Hudson Street tenements.
He also had a wife and two children in 1910. He met Honora Kelly at a County Clare ball in the city. Honora came from a very poor family in Kildysart. Because her family could not afford to care for her and her siblings, she was raised in an orphanage in Ennis, County Clare. Somehow, she made it to New York as a “housemaid.”
Eventually, they had six children and moved to Brooklyn while keeping their Greenwich Village saloon, but their lives and their struggle to survive has deeply informed Light of the Diddicoy.
At the saloon, Thomas Lynch was closely involved with the street gangs that were so prevalent along the West Manhattan docks of his time. This amalgamation and combination of gangsters, Tammany Hall ward heelers, heavy drinking longshoremen, convicts and rugged union men, including people like Owney “The Killer” Madden, “Silent” Charlie Murphy and Thomas “Tanner” Smith would have been regulars, if not bullies looking for him to pay “tribute” to their power in the form of street-level insurance.
He was also amidst the great fundraisers of New York City that sent money back for Ireland’s freedom from the 800-yearlong stranglehold of the British Empire. He knew and met people like the Fenian organizers O’Donovan Rossa and John Devoy, and the rebel turned Irish President Eamon de Valera who took part in the Easter Rising of 1916. Thomas Lynch was also the treasurer of the John Mitchel Club and a member of the Owen Roe Club, two very active fundraisers for Irish freedom and was known to “pass the hat” around to all visitors for the Irish effort.
All four of my grandparents were born in Brooklyn in the 1910s and early 1920s and spoke of a mythical place once called Irishtown which was located next to the Navy Yard in Vinegar Hill. It was also the area where the infamous Irish dock gang called “The White Hand” called its headquarters in a two-story shack/saloon at 25 Bridge Street. This longshoremen gang had a remarkable stretch of territory from the Navy Yard, under the two bridges, down the Columbia Street piers to Red Hook where the gang’s power over the Brooklyn waterfront’s heavily industrialized and confusing docks, piers, warehouses, factories, elevated tracks, freight tracks, trolleys, bridges, brownstones and wood-framed tenements were all shoved together in the old cobblestoned streets.
And for these reasons, and others, I feel that Light of the Diddicoy, written from the perspective of a 14 year-old immigrant from County Clare, is not just a gang story, or Irish genre, or a historical novel about New York City. It is something that is written in my own blood that is as close to me as any Jorge Luis Borges story of his Argentinian/Spanish ancestry or a Eugene O’Neill play about his own family.
The Great Tension
I, for one, was never taught a single thing about the Great Hunger in my American prep schooling. I was lucky though. My family educated and handed me the books on the topic from an early age. Not until college was there ever a mention in my formal schooling. I can remember specifically a violent and emotional argument between myself and an English student (a believer in the old British Empire) about the topic that had to be extinguished by the International Studies professor.
History does not always tell the truth, and for the story of the Irish, this is certainly true. To this very day, the tale of the Irish-American is overrun with stereotypes and misinformation. Of them all, from fairies, to leprechauns, across the board alcoholism, predisposition of poverty, cartoonish political corruption to the strange Americanized version of St. Patrick’s Day … the Great Hunger is the biggest, most misunderstood and emotionally taxing. For Light of the Diddicoy, it became the earth that the story grew from, even as it takes place seventy years afterward.
The Great Hunger is the ghost in the machine of this immigrant and gang lore. It is the strings that tugged on the destructive personality traits and violent nature of the real people of the time Light of the Diddicoy takes place. And it is, fictionally in the book, the symbol of the characters’ ingrained, haunted feeling of a terrific alienation that takes place along the infamously treacherous Brooklyn waterfront circa 1915 and 1916.
Recently, some great progress is only just beginning to sprout from the ashes of what many call, including myself, the “Irish Holocaust”. Tireless advocates, often pigeonholed as hateful Irish Republicans, have pushed for research and have begun to establish the fact that those survivors, both in Ireland and its diaspora, an entire generation, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while witnessing more than a million die of starvation and related disease. More than a million more flee on coffin ships out of pure desperation. Within this field has risen the ideas of some great studies, including that of Dr. Garrett O’Connor who seeks to broaden the term “Malignant Shame” to include the psychological damage created by political oppression and where “such a cultural process has been endemic in Ireland for many centuries.”
My own great-grandparents hadn’t even witnessed the Great Hunger, but they absolutely never spoke of it. This horrific sadness that had cast its great shadow over their West Ireland families was never referenced. It was not only a generational trait, but a source of great shame. And it was a driving factor in the loss of power over the accurate depiction of this great Irish historical event.
Of course, also at issue concerning this historical manipulation is the misinformation constantly blatting from British sources throughout the past 170 years and all the apologists wrapped up as political beneficiaries, both within the Irish university and historical system and abroad.
The Great Hunger is not an Irish Republican issue. It is not an issue for terrorists. It is a fact. And it is a fact that the great majority of Ireland still feels deeply hurt and disenfranchised by.
With this great historical, generation-sized event springs great literary tension. Symbolism being the most powerful device at a writer’s disposal, to still have what happened in Ireland in the 1840s described as a “famine”, when any educated human would see that within the country’s borders was, and has been proven, to have had more than enough food to feed those who perished or emigrated, is a gift. But it is a gift that weighs heavily on me, as it has weighed heavily on others.
The popular characterization of Brooklyn-Irish gangsters in 1916 as “diddicoys” (mixed-blooded Romani gypsies) points to their perceived disregard for law (which sent their ancestors starving into shallow graves and coffin ships), their status as outsiders who steal from the settled people, their strong code of silence, their love of fist-fighting and belief in the separated, ethnic Irish communal faction.
There is one final, utmost and symbolic point of comparison between the Irish gypsy population and the Irish-American gangs of the Brooklyn waterfront: that of being Irish in blood while immersed in the American culture. This struggle of the gangster obstinately sticking to his Irish background in a foreign land, is the struggle of all immigrants everywhere, but in this novel it is most notable in Dinny Meehan, the 26 year-old leader of the White Hand Gang.
When Meehan describes to the young narrator Liam Garrity what “honor” is, it has everything to do with the great alienation he and the Irish community in New York felt toward the incumbent Anglo-American society. And in this way, the gang, outcasts in 1916 New York even, were more like a gaggle of gypsies living on the periphery of civilization than gangsters. They were disaffected, “exiled” (as Padraig Pearse said). These are the mixed-blooded Irish Romani: the Diddicoy.
The Ethnic Lore
The Irish in Brooklyn during World War I — this is as quintessential a setting for a story of ethnic America as the setting of post-World War II for the symbolic Italian-American story.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather> covered many time frames and contained detailed flashbacks and layered story lines, but it mainly took place during and after World War II, long after the 1880s and 1890s when the New York Harbor had been filled with ships of huddled immigrants from the southern Italian states.
Puzo’s novel, another one that jumped the “genre” shelf for mass popularity, has come to define the immigration story of the Italian-American and an entire ethnic of peoples that struggled to find their way on the sidewalks of New York. It can even be argued The Godfather created the Italian-American mobster genre and the stereotype of the gaudily dressed, pinky-ringed wise guy whose tough, street-wise love is characterized by his communal ethnicity and old country culture.
It is, however, difficult to argue that the quintessential symbolic ethnic Irish-American story has not already been written. Great works have been completed, such as Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, Peter Quinn’s Banished Children of Eve and other masterpieces by the likes of Eugene O’Neill, James T. Farrell, Betty Smith, Edwin O’Connor, Thomas Fleming, William Kennedy, Pete Hamill, Mary Pat Kelly, Malachy McCourt, Alice McDermott, Kevin Baker, T. J. English, Michael Patrick McDonald, Colin Broderick and many more.
But the symbolism in Puzo’s fictional, ethnic communal Italian forcing his will on the New York streets with the immigrant milk still fresh on his lips, I believe, has not yet been fully explored in the Irish-American lore. Some may disagree, but no one can say an ethnic Irish-American story has been as popularly successful as was The Godfather, particularly after the Puzo/Coppolla film collaboration.
I tread lightly and respectfully in these waters, but I feel my way through them with my heart. It comes down to this for me: I have not yet had my Irish heart strings pulled as much as Puzo’s fictional, symbol-laden Italian story pulled on America’s strings.
Since the days of the Great Hunger in which the unskilled, uneducated Irish worked the docks and any other labor New York City needed to build itself into the world’s most important urban agglomerate, the Irish-American has all but assimilated into the American fold.
In the early 1960s, we reached the pinnacle when the grandson of an Irishman who came during The Great Hunger become president of the United States of America. But it was a long, long road filled with years of hard work, fighting against discrimination and a bit of “honest graft” from political establishments like Tammany Hall. Yet it would be a mistake to think that all or even most Irish-Americans believed in the American dream. Ingrained in them was a powerful code of silence created by their being occupied by foreigners, a fiercely communal culture that reached back even further in time than the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, a warrior ethic based on faction fighting, a religion, language and what was known as “Brehon” law that had been stifled and made illegal by their oppressors … These traits and many more formed the basis of a separated ethnic community of new Americans that still to this day face old discriminations (see Daniel Cassidy and his work on proving Gaelic Irish language’s influence on American English).
Like all peoples, the Irish in America believed in the survival of their families first and foremost. And under great duress, against most odds, they have now finally accepted, if not altered, American culture. In order to get there, though, they had to band together to fend for themselves and to fight against all those who hated them culturally, religiously, politically and generally.
The ethnically-bonded New York Irish-American street gang, similar to the Italian-American organized crime family, working as laborers on the heavily industrialized docks of the most important port in the world, is the symbol of that starting point.
Welcome to Light of the Diddicoy.
(For more about this novel, including an interview with the Irish Echo that appeared the same day as this article, check Eamon Loingsigh’s blog.)