Mar 17, 2015 · 22 minutes

St Patrick’s Day, a glum and murky occasion.

The Irish are nothing in America now, which is why they’re fit to be patronized once a year. They’re not much, at the moment, on the home island either. I suppose you can’t blame the Dublin-suburb junior execs swarming over the planet; when Ireland joined the EU, the doomstruck islanders found themselves, for the first time in centuries, ruled by people who actually liked them, goofy but generous postwar Teutons. You can’t grumble too much at the young Dubliners for groveling to Brussels, but you can’t warm up much to the current incarnation of Irish either, with their secondhand motivational clichés.

It’s a necessary stage, I get that. It had to change. I read an interview with a Maasai woman once (there’s more between Irish and Africans than anyone likes to admit) who grieved for the loss of the old ways but then shrugged and said, “Still…No one now would agree to suffer as our mothers suffered.” It was always the women who bore the brunt. Which is why I have to fast-forward through the Mrs. Doyle scenes of Father Ted, and waste many an hour on stupid dreams about a time machine, a suitcase nuke, and a one-way trip to London, 1850.

It’s just not practical, all that baggage. Somebody told me once, “The past is past,” and though I nodded, I never got that idea. How can the past be past? That makes no sense to me, never has.

What they really mean is, “The past can’t be fixed.” Now that, I get. But “can’t be fixed” is not the same as “past.” May as well be, maybe, but not actually the same.

It’s one of those things you have to “accept and move on” from (another phrase I’ve never understood). As Flann said long ago, “The poverty of the Gaeltacht was too poor; the wetness of the Gaeltacht was too wet; and the Gaelicism of the Gaeltacht was too Gaelic.”

The older stereotype, the Irish rebel/tough guy who always loses gallantly, was, with a few glorious exceptions, a sentimentalizing of sheer proletarian misery. Gangs of New York was bad enough as fiction; if it had been a documentary on the nightmare lives of Irish in NYC during the Civil War, Cameron Diaz would have had to have her nose broken a few times, lose a few teeth, and be groped in an alley for pennies. Leonardo diCaprio…I don’t think you could put him in it at all. You could beat his face in with big boots all day and he still wouldn’t have the brutalized, swollen pain you see on the faces of actual Irish nineteenth-century poor.

All you want to do with that kind of authenticity, if you’re not completely insane, is get away from it. And the Irish in America did escape, through an accident of pigmentation. In Ireland, bigotry had nothing to do with skin-color; in fact, the current British “Ginger” joke is a weird little echo of the hatred felt for the red-haired, fluorescent-skinned aboriginals.

But in America, the economics of cotton planting made Africans the more significant, “visible” and persecutable, minority, victims of choice for a predominantly pale-skinned polity. So, to their own surprise, the Irish were allowed to pass, after a few miserable generations as America’s lumpenproletariat, into the blur of middle-class America. And when they did, all the horrors that came before were dissolved in America’s huge shark stomach, one of those shark bellies of urban legend that when opened contains only a trace of what fed the animal—a boot, a bone, a set of keys to a tenement apartment in Jersey City. America has digested the Irish so thoroughly it thinks they’re cute, if a little slow.

Time was, they weren’t cute at all. They swarmed ashore from a home island that was more like Andersonville POW camp than anything from the Irish Spring commercials. It was a death camp, and it did a very good job. Ireland in 1845 was as densely populated as Java is now, with the same pattern of intense rural settlement and a population of nine million. By 1900 the population of Ireland was about three million. Nassau Senior, the leading British political economist at the time of the Famine, worried that it “…would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.” Moving right along, we have Lord Trevelyan, who called the Famine “…a judgment of God upon an indolent people,” which “we must not ameliorate overmuch”—do I have to dig up those other quotes, and get that pain in the left arm again? Read Amartya Sen if you have a taste for this stuff. I can only do it in short bursts, holding my breath.

I don’t want to talk about it; no one did, then or now. Tennyson accepted an invitation to a vampire buddy’s Irish country house in the middle of the Famine, stipulating that he not hear one word about “Irish distress,” and insisting that the shades be pulled all the way down in the carriage he took from one Dracula castle to another. He managed not to see a single corpse.

It was a peculiar kind of genocide, quiet and still, no “violence.” It’s one thing to survive a death camp that has the decency to look and act like Hell; it’s another, and maybe worse experience to crawl out of a “free market” genocide like the Irish one, blamed alternately on botany, economics, and genetic inferiority. Nobody was shooting the Irish; the market had spoken, and it wanted them dead; or the superiority of the Saxon races had spoken, and doomed them; or the potato had betrayed them (though there were no mass deaths among Continental potato-reliant peasantries).

It was, it seemed, their own fault, a blameless crime. Arthur Clough, one of the few British literary figures to show anything other than loathing for the creatures being starved out on that other island, wrote in his “Latest Decalogue,”

Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive,

Officiously to keep alive. Survivors of a genocide as crazy as that one were….damaged. And there were survivors, just as Nassau Senior feared there would be. Some of the doomed peasants were bundled onto the cheapest hulks that could float and dumped on the east coast of the US. They hit the docks in a state that would now be called extreme PTSD compounded by absolute destitution, and total inexperience with commercial, urban life. It was, in fact, illegal for Irish people to compete in most manufacturing and mercantile enterprises, so coming ashore like shipwreck victims in a country whose real slogan has always been “The business of America is business” was not a recipe for sitcom assimilation.

It seemed, to the nervous Yankee elite of New York City, like an invasion of zombies, fast zombies of the 28 Days Later variety. Monsters. This loathing endured longer, and was voiced by more respectable figures, than you might suppose:

“The average Catholic Irishman of the first generation, as represented in the [New York State] Assembly … [is a] low, venal, corrupt, and unintelligent brute.”
That was Teddy Roosevelt in 1885.

It was the standard view, made worse by the fact that these pariahs were also Papists. Now that the Church, like the Irish, has been dissolved in America’s uncanny, all-devouring yet saccharine gastric acid, it’s hard to realize how violently most upper-class Yankees hated Papists in the nineteenth century.

So yes, let’s move on—in short, things were not good, this wasn’t Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in period costume. This was a swarm of terrified, crazed, illiterate, despised urban pariahs. They did what you’d expect; the men drank and begged and stole and murdered, the women sold their bodies (Remember “Maggie, A Girl of the Streets”? That’s why her name’s Maggie) and scrubbed floors for pennies, ten or twelve hours a day. How did they cope with it?

Well, it’s like the old joke: Traveler asks a peasant in some godforsaken province, “How do you live?” Peasant: “Sir, we die.”

The stats are unbelievable, and would shut the mouths of America’s current crop of skin-color (as opposed to European-style tribal/sectarian) racists, if those morons could read. Here are some samples of what the Famine Irish got up to when they hit the streets of NYC:

55% of those arrested NYC in the 1850′s were Irish-born

35% of the prostitutes arrested in NYC in 1858 were Irish-born.

70% of all admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish

85% of foreign-born admissions to Bellevue Hospital (NYC’s public hospital) in the 1850s were Irish

63% of foreign-born admissions to the NYC Alms House (Poor House) 1849-1858 were Irish

56% of all prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born

74% of foreign-born prison NYC Prison commitments in 1858 were Irish-born

70% of persons convicted of disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859,  were Irish-born

74% of persons convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct NYC Courts of Special Sessions, 1859, were Irish-born All that horror bubbled over a few times, sometimes shamefully, as in the Draft Riots of 1863. Like a lot of populist rage, it started well enough, with resentment of buyable draft exemptions, but turned about as bad as it gets, with mobs of drunken Irish pigs chasing down African-Americans and beating them to death. Misery doesn’t ennoble, and oppression doesn’t fucking teach any-fucking-body any-fucking-thing.

But it happens that, in all the blind misery of Irish history, the Irish in America did something truly worth commemorating: They mobbed the right people. Lay in wait for them, and beat the living shit out of them, so effectively that the bastards never dared show their faces again.

People don’t realize how rare that is. The mob never gets the right target. A mob is harder to steer than an old Plymouth with the power-steering fluid drained. It always ends up beating someone to death with a brick because they look defenseless, vaguely resemble some imagined enemy, or just happen to come around the corner as the looted booze is peaking.

Except for these few glorious days, when Irish mobs in New York City swarmed exactly the right people, the people who had it coming and then some.

There were several of these days, in different years but all on the same date: The Twelfth of July.

Either you know what I mean when I say “the twelfth of July” or you don’t. It’s a metonymic date, container-for-contained, in Irish context, as as usual in that context what the container contains is horror.

In 1690, James II, the runt of the Stuart litter, having been booted out of England for being a filthy Papist, fled to Ireland, where, on July 1st, or 11th, 1690, he made a last, failed stand and got rolled over by a Protestant army led by the extremely creepy but tactically proficient William of Orange. The battle was named after the nearest river, in European (and Confederate) tradition, becoming famous as “The Battle of the Boyne.”

The battle itself was nothing much; what the victors really relished, and cherish in memory to the present day, was the aftermath, the revenge attacks they inflicted on the Irish peasants who’d rallied to their Papist king: rape, the bayonet, villages torched, men dancing in the air courtesy of the portable gallows which the Protestant raiding parties carried with them.

The Twelfth of July was chosen as the commemoration date, and is commonly called simply “The Twelfth,” for the same reason Elvis is just Elvis; because it’s that big in the Ulster Protestant world, a mix of Christmas and Thanksgiving, with a big dose of Saturday night at an extreme BDSM club.

This bizarre sectarian celebration centered on parades by marching bands which played music at, rather than to, the Papist wretches in the ghettoes. These parades always marched through Papist neighborhoods, sometimes marching around and around them while the inmates cowered inside. They still do it, oddly enough, so you can see the ritual on video. As a musical performance, these fat old wads of malice blaring their brass section at a close Papist church aren’t much, but as a case against the human species, they’re quite persuasive. Here, for instance, you can watch an Orange band play “The Famine Song,” a jolly little number, outside a Papist church:


The Twelfth would always end with murders, lots of murders. If any Papists/Irish were fool enough to be outside, fine; if not, a few likely victims would be winkled out of their huts or tenements and battered with bricks until they went to the afterlife to be shown the error of their creed.

Quite a holiday, in other words. All with police approval—nay, participation. A kind of mass lynching, on a scheduled date. And a history lesson, aimed at any Taig thinking uppish thoughts.

So suppose you survived an artificial famine, gained the privilege of carrying a hod of bricks in New York City for 70 or 80 hours a week, and found that your tormentors from the home island had followed you to this dubious refuge and were planning to bring the noble traditions of The Twelfth to the streets of Manhattan.

Why, you’d be peeved. And the Irish working class of New York were, indeed, very peeved. And for once, for once in this miserable history, they did something about it, they took it out on the right hides.

The Twelfth offered a taste of sectarian fighting in NYC even before the Famine brought those traumatized hordes of Papist peasants to Manhattan. In 1824, the Orange Order tried to stage a triumphal march through the Papist slums in Greenwich Village (I gather the place has changed some in the intervening 191 years) and ran into a counter-mob of proletarian-and-lumpen Irish who jumped it with whatever was at hand. And a good time was had by all, because like I said, it’s not every day, or even every decade, that you get to face up to real enemies on anything like even terms, and for people with lives as grim as these, it must have been pure joy to meet fist to fist and brick to brick.

Nobody died; this was, after all, just an appetizer, and there wasn’t the bitterness of the Famine to bring things quite to the point of murder. But the Yankee authorities set the pattern for dealing with these ritual battles: A hundred Papists were thrown in jail, vs. nobody from the Orange Order.

Still, the Order—often described as “Europe’s oldest fascist organization”—must have taken home a few broken heads, because it was a good long while before any other Ulster triumphalist felt the need to bring the joys of the Twelfth back. It wasn’t until 1870, when service in the Civil War had given Papist Irish a feeling of confidence, that the Nativist anxiety rose to the point that Orange/Protestant Yankees felt the need to play bad music at Papist slums in order to teach the upstarts a lesson. The Irish in New York were the labor movement, and anxiety at labor power combined with the old fear of Popery to produce the feeling that these people needed to be reminded of their place.

On July 12, 1870, the first battle of Manhattan took place. (Like all good Civil-War era battles, this one had a sequel…extra credit if you can guess the date of that one.) The Orange parade headed uptown (if I’m using the term correctly; what I mean is northward, but I’m not going to pretend to know NYC geography very well) through Hell’s Kitchen. Now, Hell’s Kitchen…it wasn’t a cutesy cooking show back then. It earned that name every miserable day of its violent, starved, drunken life. Midtown Manhattan, that chunk of it, was one of the rottenest ghettoes of the world, crowded with desperate Papist Irish rejects.

So of course the Orange parade had to march through, trombones blaring the victory of one seventeenth-century oligarch over another equally worthless crowned head.

Battle was joined in updated urban manner: Bricks, sticks, and clumps of horseshit were exchanged between the marchers and the residents. It must have affected the music, having to stoop to throw back chunks of brick or wood at the harassing irregulars shadowing the march, but then the Orange Order has never been accused of art for art’s sake in its views on the social utility of melody. What they wanted was enough organized noise to wake and, with luck, terrify every Mick in Hell’s Kitchen.

The Orange marchers had the best of it at first; in that era, middle-class people were physically bigger and stronger than the poor, and aided as well by the utter lack of any 20th-century qualms about their dominance. So one-on-one, the average Orange marcher was probably superior to the starvelings who swarmed out of the slums. Les Miserables settled for throwing les briques, les stiques, le fumier, while screaming obscenities in the time-honored fashion.

But then the parade suffered the fate of all ill-planned campaigns: Un-scouted terrain produced an un-anticipated enemy force. As the parade tooted and screamed and bashed its way to lovely, shaded Elm Park on 92nd Street, the harassing Papist skirmishers made contact with a body of 300 Irish laborers, actual workers who could afford to eat every day and made their living with their hands. They massed in the path of the Orangemen and charged through the leafy lanes of those immemorial elms the poets love to blather about. Soon the air was bright with chunks of brick, a flash of red amid the lanes of green. How beauteous must those groves have been, bespangled with the blood of Orangemen!

Eight people died before the cops pulled the Irish navies off the battered Orangemen. A respectable number. Not as good as nine would have been, but better than a mere seven. I can’t find a sectarian breakdown on the dead, to my profound and partisan disappointment, but we’ll take the sunny view and assume that most, if not all of them were of the Orange persuasion. Guess I’m just one of Nature’s optimists. Besides, the very fact that the authorities played down the KIA’s affiliation suggests that it was the Pariahs who won this first round. The Ultermen manques were also Touches, as Thurber’s decapitee would say.

Everyone was hoping for a sequel. Was one Bull Run enough? Hardly. Was one slaughter at Murfreesboro sufficient? Certainly not. And neither was one July Twelfth adequate to settle turf rights to the streets of Manhattan, 1871.

There was a classic NYC ethno-political clusterfuck as the weather warmed up and the thought of a bigger, better, bloodier Twelfth loomed in the spring of 1871. It was a scary time; the Commune grabbed Paris in May, scaring the Hell out of everyone with enough money to wear a decent hat. The last thing sane bourgeois Manhattanites wanted was a reason for proletarian Irish Papists with nothing to lose and good throwing arms to start massing in midtown in the middle of a hot summer. So the city authorities tried banning the 1871 reprise of the Orange Parade on the reasonable enough grounds that it might be a threat to public order.

Which must have confused the Hell out of all concerned: “Well duh! That’s, like, the whole idea!”

Luckily, hotter heads prevailed. All the Protestant/Yankee ascendancy were outraged by the appeasement of the Irish troublemakers. Thomas Nast, famous cartoonist—real bigot, too—ran cartoons of Papist Irish with the telltale prognathous jaw and clay pipe running roughshod over clean-limbed Anglo-Saxon Americans.

So it was, as they say, on.

July 12, 1871: A Day that Will Live in Mobbery.

This was the big one. The city provided 1500 armed police to protect the Orangemen, but everybody knew this wasn’t amateur hour, so the Feds stepped in with five full regiments, 5000 regular troops, to protect the cops. So the Orange Order had as its “armed wing,” to use an apt Thatcherism, almost 7000 military and paramilitary troops on its side before for the Irish even threw their first stone. Hardly sporting, but then these affairs are rarely organized in the spirit of sporting comradeship one could wish.

The march kicked off from the Orange HQ at Eighth Avenue and 29th Street, heading downtown this time, with the soldiers and cops shielding the marchers. The Irish workers who’d anticipated something more like the traditional “fair field and no favor” booed, and tried their best to express themselves with rocks and other missiles thrown over the heads of the cops and soldiers, into the thick of the Orangemen.

The troops and police fired a volley right into the Papist ranks. A few of the Irish had pistols, and allegedly returned fire. Or not; when cops shoot as many people as they did that day, there always has to be incoming fire from the victims, even if it has to be invented. What is clear is that the Orangemen were totally outclassed as irregular troops on this second round; the battle very quickly became one between the Irish and the supposedly neutral troops. (Add a few hippie accoutrements and you could be talking about Belfast 1969.)

The cops used clubs; the soldiers used bayonets and live fire. It would have been completely one-sided, except for the complex urban terrain. One great thing about stinking Hell’s Kitchen tenements: They’re great for throwing stuff from. Long before Burroughs’s line, “The only flower I’d ever give a cop is one in a pot, from the third floor,” inventive Celtic-American gardeners were showering New York’s finest with the fruits of their window boxes, ceramics included. Along with chamber pots (no plumbing in those stinking slums), boots, fire irons, and anything else capable of making an impression on a mercenary skull. The troops fired up into the windows, killing more spectators than slingers, and the Orangemen cowered behind them. One assumes the music had served its purpose and stopped, which if you’ve heard Orangemen play their instruments, was a small mercy.

Projectiles raining down, bullets zipping up--the 3D battlefield, long before its time! But what Civil-War battle would be complete without cavalry? The mounted police rode their mounts right into the crowd—very effective against massed civilians in many a massacre around the globe—and opened a path for the troops and the utterly useless Orangemen they were protecting.

Here’s where you New Yorkers—and God knows, I don’t want to contradict you Manhattan-pedants on street layout—can fill in the blanks. For some reason, as the “Parade” (hardly seems the right term for this traveling Hades) continued south to 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, it hit a patch of pro-Orange/Yankee support. I assume that this was a more prosperous neighborhood, full of native-born chauvinists.

Ever wonder why Whitman—a Manhattan Yankee if there ever was one—begins his book-length equational first-person singular sentence with

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death. Bastard is declaring himself a Nativist, that’s what. For all I know, Walt was in there mixing it up on 23rd Street on the Twelfth of July, 1871, using some of his native atoms to toss a few other native molecules of brick in the direction of the Irish. These were lively times.

Of course Whitman’s next line, not coincidentally, was

Creeds and schools in abeyance…
but who knows? Maybe he just meant “Hold the flying bricks til I finish cursing American poetry with this horrible dead-end soi-disant ‘free verse’ crap.”

. . . The reprieve from friendly crowds around 23rd Street inspired the Orangemen and their cop friends so much that they decided to keep marching South. But once again, they marched into trouble when they hit the red-light district around 14th Street. You know, you can get justifiably annoyed with the ol’ lumpenproletariat—harder to organize than cats on MDA and so on—but God love’em, when somebody else is willing to take the main infantry role, those whores and pimps can throw a mean chamber pot. They showered the cops and Orangemen so generously that the Yankee ascendancy, now covered in working-class turds, bleeding from head wounds inflicted by brick shards, and frankly terrified by the way the Irish just kept coming despite multiple rifle volleys fired at point-blank range, dispersed and fled.

Parade over. The Irish won.

You can’t go by casualties in these things. 60 Irish civilians were killed by the army and cops, as opposed to three men in uniform. That’s about the norm for irregular war, and in no way does it suggest that the guerrillas lost.

The next move, of course, is the funeral. The dead had a big sendoff, a huge epideictic show of strength by the Papist mob, and took the opportunity to hang the governor of NY in effigy.

But the real test came on July 12, 1872. There was a huge non-event that day, and every July 12 ever after, on the streets of New York. The Orange Parade was called off on account of chickenshitness.

It was, as I said, one of the few times in human history that a mob got the right people. And made its point, and made it stick. Of course they had to pay a disproportionate price, but their whole wretched lives were a disproportionate price, and part of driving home the “disproportionate” part of that equation is being willing to die, and to kill, when they shove it in your fucking face a little too blatantly and often. In a way, July 12, 1871 was almost like the comic-opera overture for the verdict pronounced by Padraig Pearse, the beautiful and horrible sentence that defined 20th century warfare: “Victory will go, not to those who can inflict the most, but to those who can endure the most.”

John Dolan writes for Pando as The War Nerd.