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Enough already with the Irish mob

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A friend of mine came up to me the other day and mentioned that a new movie called Kill the Irishman, was about to open.

“How many of these Boston Irish mob movies are they going to make?” he added.
I pointed out that Kill the Irishman, which opened this week and stars Val Kilmer and Christopher Walken, is actually set in Cleveland.

But his point was well taken.

Now comes word that the legends behind Goodfellas – Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese – are going to team up once again for a movie based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses. The book tells the life story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a hired killer who supposedly whacked notorious union leader Jimmy Hoffa.

For the record, to “paint houses” is mob speak for someone who is willing to kill for money.

The working title of the Frank Sheeran movie? The Irishman.

Which means, the same week Kill the Irishman opened up, we have the announcement that another movie called The Irishman is about to be made.

Oh, and you might also be reading these days about a gritty little Brooklyn movie playing in theaters called White Irish Drinkers.

This, of course, comes on top of films such as The Town, which came on top of films such as Gangs of New York and State of Grace and even the aforementioned Goodfellas, which makes much of DeNiro’s character, Jimmy Conway, being Irish.

I think we can safely say there might now be more Irish crime films than actual Irish criminals out there.

This must be what Italian Americans feel like every time yet another B-level mafia caper comes rolling out of some film studio.

Look, there is no more fascinating story than the history of the Irish American gangster, as author T.J. English has made clear in his authoritative history of this criminal specimen.

The Irish were never quite the top dogs of the underworld in any given city, yet they were always right there fighting for their unseemly slice of the pie.

In addition, they managed to blur the lines between crime and politics impressively, not to mention bloodily.

But what is this current fascination with the Irish American underworld? It is true, as the guys in The Westies liked to say, that because they were Irish they needed to prove they were crazier. That never gets tired on screen.

Danny Greene, the Cleveland legend who is the subject of Kill the Irishman, was many things. But he was most definitely crazy.

Still, it seems there is something deeper going on here, and it seems particularly relevant right around St. Patrick’s Day.

This is the time of year when everyone has their green-tinted glasses on, and we see the Irish as charming folk who wear Aran sweaters and strum harps and whistle Irish Spring tunes.

But there also seems to be an understanding that there is more to the Irish American story than Aran sweaters and Guinness. There seems to be an endless craving for the dark side of these supposedly charming people.

And it comes at a time when the Irish in America are as successful as they’ve ever been – perhaps even to the point of feeling as if they are beginning to blend into the more bland American landscape, as newer ethnic groups command attention.

Let’s face it, a lot of Irish folk love these crime films as much as anybody. Is this some way for Irish Americans to maintain their ethnicity?

Maybe that’s reading too much into it. It is interesting, though, that just as Frank McCourt tapped into a deep well of Irish sadness in the 1990s -- when Irish
Americans were prosperous and there was peace in Northern Ireland -- so it seems these armies of old-school Irish criminals have come along at a time when there is anxiety about it means to be an Irish American in 21st century America.

One thing it means? Watching movies about Irish criminals. Kill the Irishman?
It seems tempting, at least in the movie version of the typical Irish criminal. It would be nice to tell some quieter Irish American stories.

But don’t hold your breath. I think some of us still need to prove how crazy we really are.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)

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