It’s about a movie.
Specifically, it’s about “The Gangs of New York,” a big-budget, big-star vehicle that has been in the works for years. Regular readers of New York’s gossip pages and movie magazines have been getting periodic updates on the progress of “Gangs” for nearly two years. Finally, the film is being released, with more hype than most presidential campaigns. I know Irish-American writers and historians who’ve been interviewed by newspapers in Texas, and by film crews from Russia. Everybody wants to know what it was really like in Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood, where the movie is set, and what the Irish were like in the 1840s through the Civil War.
If you read the newspapers at all, you probably know that “Gangs” is very much an Irish, or Irish-American, movie. The essential conflict in the film, according to early press notices, is between the Famine Irish immigrants trying to find a place in this strange new world, and the nativists determined to keep New York Protestant and native-born. And, in a fine bit of unpredictable casting, Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis plays a nativist thug, and Leonardo Di Caprio plays an Irish-American gang leader (and the son of a character played by Liam Neeson).
I can’t tell you whether the film is any good, whether it is reasonably accurate, or whether Leo is the second coming of Jimmy Cagney. While this may break the rules of windbag commentary, I take the position that I’m not qualified to address a movie’s merits or lack thereof until I’ve actually seen it.
I have, however, read the book that inspired the film. And it is little more than nativist propaganda, updated for readers in the late 1920s, when the book was published. And, wouldn’t you know it, because of the film, the book has been republished and, worse, it has attracted the attention of dreary Manhattan literary types chortling over the antics of characters named “Baboon Connolly.” Several famously hip authors got together for a group reading of “Gangs” in an equally chic nightspot a couple of weeks ago. Do you think anybody cringed over such passages as this one: “The respectable families abandoned their [neighborhoods] . . . and their places were taken, for the most part, by freed Negroes and low-class Irish, who had swarmed into New York on the first great wave of immigration . . . “?
My friend Danny Cassidy, a Brooklyn native who now runs the Irish Studies program at the New College of California in San Francisco, insists that “The Gangs of New York” — the book, not the movie — ought to be called “The Protocols of the Elders of Erin.” The reference, of course, is to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the slanderous, bigoted piece of hate literature circulated by anti-Semitic secret police in Czarist Russia. (Our dependable allies and good friends in Egypt, incidentally, are using “Protocols” as the basis for a 41-part television series, and a copy of “Protocols” is available in several languages on the Radio Islam website.)
Cassidy says “Gangs” does to the Irish what “Protocols” does to the Jews: It perpetuates gross, hateful stereotypes, and does so under the veneer of scholarship. “The book is a travesty, and is a distortion of history and the roles of the millions of Irish Famine immigrants who poured into New York City in the years after An Gorta Mor,” Cassidy said, using the Irish phrase for the Great Hunger. The Irish in “Gangs” are bloodthirsty savages and murderous bigots who live in sub-human conditions because they are, after all, sub-human. The Five Points neighborhood is portrayed as little more than a sewer, populated by vermin.
It’s hard to believe that the movie version of “Gangs” will offer the same kind of grotesque stereotypes. But that’s not to say that such stereotypes have gone the way of other kinds of racism and bigotry. In his book “Five Points” published just last year, writer Tyler Anbinder portrays the Irish of pre-Civil War New York as the Irish as hopelessly violent, anti-democratic and profoundly corrupt. Anbinder, said Cassidy, “accepts the reformist/nativist view of ‘the Irish problem.’ In that view . . . the maelstrom of ‘vice and depravity’ in the Five Points and ultraviolent white racism in the northeastern United States can all be laid at the webbed feet of the premodern 19th century Irish hordes.”
The literature of the Five Points is filled with imagery of Irish-American barbarians at war with each other, with African Americans and with the police. Rarely, if ever, is mention made of the suffering endured by the Irish of the 1840s, including the horror of the Famine. Some of that, Cassidy says, is the fault of Irish Americans themselves. He’s not blaming the victim. He’s simply pointing out that “post-1945, at least 50 percent of the blame falls on us for treating our history, culture and language like it was a Halloween party with dumb paper hats.”
Luckily for us, that’s beginning to change. Cassidy himself is at work on a fascinating project tracing the roots of American-English phrases and slang to Irish words and idioms. It’s a wonderful project, and one that will help Irish America’s newfound effort to reclaim its history from the likes of Herbert Asbury and his modern imitators.
The opinions expressed represent those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Irish Echo.