California Literary Review

Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster by T.J. English


April 24th, 2007 at 3:59 am

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Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster
by T.J. English
Regan Books, 468 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Wrong ‘em, boyo

One of the great engines of American assimilation can be found in the urban gutter, where man’s insatiable demand for pursuits forbidden by the upper world provides opportunities for new ethnic groups to find wealth and protection in what can otherwise prove to be a cold, harsh culture. Another route for becoming American lies above ground in the field of local politics, where marginal groups can find their voice in numbers and political power. The genius of the Irish who emigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries was to fuse both political clout and criminal enterprise into vast, urban political machines that helped uplift the Irish and create a place for them at the table of American bounty.

T.J. English’s history of Irish criminals focuses in great degree on the hazy boundary between politics and crime among early Irish immigrants. Many of them were recruited into the city machines literally straight off the boat by political fixers who found them jobs, places to live and other essential favors in return for their vote. The trade-off horrified the Gilded Age’s good government advocates, but was inevitable given the animus against Roman Catholic Irish on the part of the nation’s Protestant majority.

English’s book literally covers the waterfront and brings to light portraits of Irish American political bosses and criminals who typified their people’s genius for politics and sheer hell-raising. It’s also a clever sociological survey of why so many Irish Americans of an earlier era kept a foot in both legitimate society and the underworld. In the end, the G.I. Bill and the fall of the great urban machines would push Irish Americans into the academy and the suburbs, completing their trek from unwanted lowest-of-the-low immigrants to legitimate middle-class Americans.

English also documents the end of the Irish-American criminal era. The rise of Italian-American-based organized crime doomed the unorganized Irish version of neighborhood hellions bound by almost tribal ties and enmities. Throughout much of the 20th Century, Irish gangsters became more and more the pawns of Italian-American organized crime, as the end of big city machines left them high and dry, without the means to completely assimilate.

This is where the story of the Irish-American gangster gets truly gritty and horrific. It’s no coincidence that ultra-violent Irish-American groups such as New York’s Westies came to life just as the Irish-American criminal underworld was collapsing. Trapped working for the Mafia as hit men and body disposal experts, the twilight of Irish-American gangsterism was a nightmarish one of corpses dissected in bathtubs and the parts later strewn into the East River.

English does an admirable job of resurrecting some of the most famous Irish-American gangsters: Jack “Legs” Diamond, Chicago’s Dean O’Banion and Owney Madden. These men left behind legacies to the broader American culture as the pattern for countless gangsters in Hollywood films and crime fiction, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. Irish-American actors like Jimmy Cagney could pal around with these hoodlums and learn to play them on screen with an authenticity that would be lacking in the soft-focused Mafia genre movies of the 1960s and 1970s.

The last man standing, at least as far as Irish-American criminals is concerned, is James “Whitey” Bulger, a vicious Boston mobster whose career in organized crime was aided and abetted by renegade FBI agents. The elderly Bulger is still perched atop the bureau’s Ten Most Wanted List and you can’t help but wonder if the entire history of Irish-American gangsterism will come to a close once Bulger dies or is caught.

English is on equally solid ground when examining the lives of the men who built and sustained the great urban political machines. John “Old Smoke” Morrissey typifies the kind of determination it took for the Irish to rise in the New World. Morrissey, the son of immigrants, took New York by storm in the middle of the 19th Century, first as a boxer, later as the man who developed Saratoga Springs into a bettor’s paradise.

Political leaders like Morrissey would follow a well-trodden path, usually from petty criminality and gang membership in their youth to city hall in adulthood. The best expression of Irish-American attitudes toward local politics can be found in a quote from Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast: “You can’t saw with a hammer.” Irish-American politics would always be ruthlessly pragmatic whether it came to providing jobs and housing for new immigrants or working hand-in-hand with the underworld to provide gambling, illegal liquor, loan sharking and other “services” to the huddled masses.

The ultimate fusion of Irish-American pol and criminal, at least in English’s account, is Joe Kennedy. Kennedy, a Wall Street whiz with a taste for bare-knuckle business dealings and double-dealing, comes across as a far larger than life character. Kennedy’s sons, according to English, would pay the ultimate price for their father’s complex dealings with the Mafia.

Paddy Whacked is a fun read for anyone who is interested in the history of crime in America. English sticks to a very straightforward narrative account of his subject, yet rounds it out with some careful comments about why Irish-American gangsterism would remain so intimate with the corridors of power for so long, yet remain parochial and neighborhood-based to the end. Crime was never just crime for these hard men. Instead, it served as spectacle and the glue that bound Irish immigrant communities together. And now that the Irish in America have moved on to the mainstream, the misdeeds of their forebears are becoming the stuff of legend.

  • Robert (Bob) Fitzpatrick

    Paddywhacks; I was written about in Mr. English’s book particularly referring to Mr. Brian Halloran’s demise at the hands of Whitey Bulger. Could you have Mr. ENGLISH correspond with me at my email address. There are some inconsistencies I want to chat with him about the book. Thanks, Bob Fitzpatrick FBI 65-87.

  • Ron Ross

    Dear Mr. English, I have read your book on the Westies, Sleepers and the book on Whitey Bulger called Black Mass.I have just ordered your book Paddy Whacked which should be here shortly. I am from Philadelphia and of Irish decent [grandparents were from Cork] and I just finished a book you might find interesting about the Irish mob in Philly.The book is called
    “Confessions of a Second Story Man
    Junior Kripplerbauer + the K+A Gang”
    They were the best thieves in the country.It all starts back in the 1950s, but I recall as a kid reading t
    about the big Pottsville heist in 1959 and how
    the bodies started falling not long afterwards. the author is Allen Hornblum, and the book company is Barricade Books.
    Thought You would be interested
    Thanks Ron Ross

  • Taylor Ahern

    Mr. English, I read the “Westies” and to say that I was impressed with that book and your spectacular writing syle would be this major understatement akin to saying that Jimmy Coonan was a good Irish lad! The compelling and riveting quality of your irresistible page-turner is beyond any repudiation, yet there is one burning question that I’ve always been dying to know (no pun intended!). You never actually list nor make this record of the entire body count attributable to the Westies from the early 70’s till the mid 80’s. Because from what I could gather from reading other non-fiction crime books on John Gotti, especially one titled “The Gambino Dynasty”, and other real life crime dramas where the Westies were periodically featured, the amount of violence that they were guilty of is horrendous! Yet with all due respect you really never gave this accurate depiction of all the acts of murder that all the key figures in that gang were guilty of, like Featherstone, McElroy, Ryan, Shannon, Commiskey (I believe you attributed 10-12 killings to him.) Jackie Coonan and most importantly his ruthless brother and boss, the unrepentant, sadistic Jimmy Coonan. I believe I read someplace that as a whole the gang carried out between 30 and 40 murders between 1972 and 1985, yet that was never completely verified. Also, who killed who and why has never been thoroughly published and detailed in any readily available sources. Mr. English, would you know of any sources of information that, although no where near as fascinating and well-written as your book, might delve into deeper detail with authenticated documents as to how many people were killed by that gang, the perpetrators of that particular murder and the various, complex motives involved? There must be answers somewhere. Though I must state this, that no amount of additional info could ever in any way diminish the gruesome and macabre legacy of that ferocious, psychotic gang whose reputation, believe it or not, is internationally known, mainly because of your outstanding, cutting-edge book (again, no pun intended!)! Mr. English, 30000 apologies for going on for way too long, though if you’ve made it this far thank you very, very much! Yours truly, Taylor “Irish” Ahern, Squantum Ma.

  • brennan

    For starters this isnt my real name. If anyone knew i was doing this i would be dead, but you ever considered looking at the westies gang in dublin.


  • anonymous

    why is it those southern types get all the credit, the nortern lads do more, get more and get no credit !

  • Olsen

    Mr. English,
    I thint The Westies would make one hell of a good movie!

  • Tony Robledo

    I just read The Westies and enjoyed the book cover to cover. I’m going to order Paddy Whacked.
    And oh by the way I’m Mexican. I enjoy reading true crime drama

  • Susan


    I know how the last 2 years played out in the lives of Shannon and Kelly before they turned themselves over. I know why they appeared suntaned and rested ..Like Paul Harvey says…”Now for the rest of the story”. Email me if you’d like..It was an interesting ride that’s for sure.

  • billyshootspatrick

    I’m fascinated by this topic and have read all Mr English’s books. As Hollywood is starting to leave the cliche Italian mafia stories behind its now turning to the Irish criminal fraternity. Theres plenty there. Corruption, duplicity and religion are all there. Im American with an Italian father and an Irish mother and I have to say this has been the source of much of my character. I hang about with most of my Italian family on my days off. As I’m a Policeman in NY I also fratenise with my Irish cop buddies. Its a fascinating mix. My Uncle who is from Belfast says the Irish could have wiped the floor with the Mafia but they were too busy selling each other out. Now that the troubles are over he says there are alot of itch trigger gangsters from Ireland ready to be incorporated into New Enterprises. This does not bode well for NY and other Irish American hoods.

  • irishcrimewriter

    Brendan: re Westie’s in Dublin – can you you email me. Thanks

  • Irish

    Tá sé seo i ndáiríre agus go léir deas ar fad. Sílim go bhfuil a lán de na fírinne a chuid leabhar. Táim go mór ar feadh tréimhse níos doimhne a fháil in ábhar nach bhfuil eile a dhéanamh. Tá mé cinnte go bhfuil an dagos agus na Gaeilge fós ag an ngníomhaíocht ar siúl. Sílim go bhfuil go hiontach, go bhfuil an méid a bhí bunaithe ar an tír seo.

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