Copper, which has just become BBC America’s biggest hit show ever, is set in the Irish heart of New York City in 1865 and it has just returned for a second season. Set on the brink of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the story explores the shifting political landscape that ties the mostly lawless Irish immigrants to the wider nation. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the show runner Thomas Kelly and to its breakout new Irish star Kevin Ryan.
Lethal gangs, race wars, drugs and prostitutes. The daily life of New York in the mid 19-century can sound an awful lot like a New York gangster rap song of the 21-century.
In fact, watching BBC America’s hit show Copper is a stark reminder that sex, drugs and what once passed for rock and roll really haven’t changed all that much since our great, great grandparents time.
Each week Copper takes us through the lawless Irish neighborhood of the Five Points, courtesy of a massive fully recreated set built in Canada (where the show is filmed) featuring early New York City in all of its gaudy glory. Having arrived here destitute on the coffin ships from famine-ravaged island, the Irish understood the struggle on America’s mean streets was the struggle to simply survive.
The story of how the Irish clawed their way out of poverty and political powerlessness to become one of the most influential ethnic groups in America is a crackingly good tale, of course, which is why Copper makes for such compulsive viewing.
Executive producer and show runner Thomas Kelly (best known as the writer on the Irish American drama series The Black Donnelly’s and Blue Bloods) is the perfect choice to oversee the series. The Irish American author, who’s father hails from County Cavan, is the author of three critically acclaimed novels and is widely considered the best urban novelist of his generation.
Kelly knows Manhattan’s history and unique character like the back of his hand, he’s the perfect choice to guide the show. It helps that he has worked in New York a journalist for so long, with his byline appearing in Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New York Post and New York Daily News. But his main qualification for running Copper is his enthusiasm for the material.
“It’s not a show I created but it’s the kind of show I would have created,” Kelly tells the Irish Voice. “It worked out nicely. The history of the time I know well and I’m passionate about. In my last book I wrote about the grandchildren of this generation, in other books I’ve written about the great-great children of these characters, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
The cast, which includes breakout new Irish star Kevin Ryan, is terrific as are the writers and even the remarkably faithful set (the show is filmed in Canada) tells half the tail. “I didn’t have to do much research, I walked into it ready to go,” Kelly laughs.
As the only genuinely Irish actor on set, it’s particularly interesting for Dublin born Ryan, 29, to see the Irish stronghold of the Five Points come to life. “When I read the script initially I was hooked on the first two pages,” he tells the Irish Voice. “It’s exciting to be the only Irish actor there. Now that the show’s exploring the famine and the civil war it’s another perspective, another new layer. In Ireland we learned about our relationship with the British during famine times but here it’s about the Americans and the Irish. It’s a whole different thing.”
Newcomers be warned, Copper is a very violent show. As Ryan puts it: “It’s so different from anything else on TV. We get to be crazy as shit.” Ryan plays the often hapless but well meaning Maguire, best friend to Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones).
Attempting to uphold the law in the Five Points, whilst wrestling you’re your own personal demons, is hard enough but when your daily grind eventually also includes the betrayal of your wife and your best friend you get an idea of how dramatically hard hitting Coppers actually is.
In the new season Tammany Hall’s outspoken General Brendan Donovan returns from the Civil War to restore his own special idea of law and order to the Sixth Ward, all the while remaining as corrupt as his own neighborhood. Acclaimed actor Donal Logue plays Donovan and the results are television gold dust, as he turns in one of the most perfectly realized performances in a television drama in years.
For Kelly, the story of the Irish in the Five Points hasn’t properly been told to date. “My first novel was about the Sandhogs, a heavily Irish union in New York,” he says. “I had thought the Irish story in America had already been told but doing that book I saw that it really hadn’t. It’s so big and there are so many different versions of it. The working class blue-collar side of that story had never been told except for the cops and robbers stuff. It felt like natural story to cover for me.”
At root in Copper is the question who’s going to run New York? Who will have power? What will the future look like? “It really was tribalistic back then,” explains Kelly. “In 1776 they wrote that all men were created equal. Except for you guys and you guys. But the insane radical notion of democracy is being fought out on the streets in this show 75 years later.”
In this season of Copper the fight takes us to Tammany Hall. The Irish were a huge part of that story. “In the last season we learned most of the characters were Irish but the famine was not mentioned! That’s incredible because the Five Points was the bastard creation of the potato famine. This year we address the Irish back-story more. As well as the issues that shaped and created this world.”
Tammany for all its sins was a force for amazing good in society, Kelly argues. “It was institution on a large scale level to deal with the needs wants and desires of impoverished immigrants. Most of our taken for granted social legislation originated in Tammany Hall. Whether it was eight hour work days or child labor laws.”
In particular Tammany used to fight and win for the underdog. Today the main parties either ignore or fight against the underdog, Kelly feels. Politics is now more of a money game than it ever was.
The questions that play out in Copper are still playing out on New York’s streets. “Manhattan is becoming unrecognizable,” says Kelly. “There’s no middle class left, there’s no working class. It’s a place where people of means are able to live a fun little life.”
So what were the Irish doing then that they’re not doing now? “Sticking together,” Kelly answers. “They had to. They didn’t want to,” he laughs. “Copper’s is a great bit of storytelling. For readers of the Irish Voice it will resonate since its basically telling the story of your readers.”
Three million people in the world are descended from one Irish High King