Top positive review
40 people found this helpful
on August 23, 2006
When it comes to organized crime in the U.S., the talk is generally "Mafia this, Mafia that," and while La Cosa Nostra has certainly caused its share of mayhem, it's hardly fair to ignore the contribution other groups have made to the history of the American underworld. Tons of minority groups, white and otherwise--Blacks, Chinese, Russians, Armenians, Jews, and so on--have been involved in organized criminal activities to one degree or another, but as T.J. English points out in Paddy Whacked, the Irish have one distiction that can never be taken away: they got there first. English paints a vivid portrait of good old days that weren't always good, starting with the arrival of the first Irish immigrants after the potato famine of the 1840's and continuing through turbulent and violent times that saw the Irish emerge as a prominent force in the American criminal underworld as well as in American society as a whole. Paddy Whacked tells some highly unpleasant stories about Irish-American history, shedding light on inhuman poverty, ethnic and religious prejudice, violent gang wars, and large-scale political malfeasance, but that doesn't stop it from being mighty entertaining throughout, no matter what your background. If your view of the Irish is all shamrocks, leprechauns, and green beer on St. Patrick's day, this book should offer up some surprises, as much of what we associate with inner cities today (gangs, colors, drive-by shootings) had its roots at least partially in the Irish enclaves of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Starting out in Ireland, English places the history of the Irish-American gangster squarely in the larger context of Irish and American history, tracing the Irish Mob's roots all the way back to the anticolonial societies that sprung up to fight British rule in the Old Country. According to English, it was in these organizations that some of the most prominent features of the Irish gangster, and the Irish in general for that matter, were formed, from their intense togetherness to their emphasis on secrecy and mistrust of outsiders. That said, though, the focus of Paddy Whacked is still squarely on its bizarre and diverse group of outlaw protagonists and what their experiences have to show us about the history of the Irish in the U.S., from the blinding poverty of famine-era immigrants (in New Orleans, landowners used the Irish to work the worst jobs on their plantations because THEY CONSIDERED THEIR SLAVES TOO VALUABLE) to their eventual emergence as what English calls "generic white people" in the last few decades. The book describes in great detail how the Irish, starting out as a marginalized and ghettoized minority, managed to make themselves an institution in American life through constant struggle, even if many of them had to go way outside the law to get their piece of the pie. Much like American pop culture's two best-known Mafia sagas--the Godfather movies and The Sopranos--Paddy Whacked presents the story of the Irish Mob as the embodiment of the shadier side of capitalism in the U.S. Since the Irish were generally shut out of the mainstream of the American economy in their first few decades of the country, many of them had to turn to all sorts of vice--gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking, and later bootlegging and union scams--along with the creation of political machines in New York and other cities that brought with them massive amounts of corruption, in order to advance. Interestingly, although English depicts the Prohibition era as an unprecedented boom time for the Irish gangster, he also shows that time as the beginning of his end, as the Irish found themselves increasingly marginalized by a more organized (and arguably more vicious) Italian-Jewish syndicate that steadily took over the organized crime business in most cities, with ridiculous amounts of bloodshed emerging from all the inter-ethnic conflicts that resulted.
History lessons aside, the most entertaining aspect of Paddy Whacked is the way English manages to bring his subjects to life through in-depth personal profiles and detailed accounts of their criminal careers. Starting with the first impoverished street gangs in New York, the Irish Mob encompassed all sorts of characters, from early vice lords and crooked political bosses to prohibition-era rumrunners and hitmen to postwar labor racketeers to the bloodthirsty killers who left swaths of destruction in Boston and New York well into the 1980's. A lot of these guys emerge in English's telling as friendly enough types, many of them churchgoers who were generous and well-liked among their neighbors, but English doesn't soft-pedal the violence and ruthlessness that brought most of them to their positions in the first place, and he makes it clear that a few of them were just plain crazy or worse (Boston's own Whitey Bulger, especially, emerges pretty clearly as a sociopath, but if you read the previous Black Mass you already knew that). However, many of the characters English sketches in this book--bootleggers like Owney Madden, Legs Diamond, and Spike O'Donnell, early Chicago vice lord King Mike McDonald, crazed gunman Mad Dog Coll, Kansas City machine boss Tom Pendergast, and disgraced ex-New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, to name a few--still managed to embody all the psychoses, contradictions, and struggles that have marked the long and checkered but largely successful history of the Irish in the U.S. Ultimately, while English's book is concerned with the darker side of the Irish American experience, the history of the Irish Mob is still set against the backdrop of the eventual emergence of the Irish into mainstream society, even if there's still the occasional Whitey Bulger walking around to serve as a reminder that times weren't always good.