In the current issue of New York magazine, a wide range of heavy hitters weigh in on what the cover calls “New York’s Greatest-Ever Everything.” As in, New York City’s greatest book, mayor, TV show, athlete and more.
Trouble is, there is a decided shortage of Irish names among both the greatest as well as those choosing the greatest.
So, as the Irish have always done, we’ll do for ourselves when no one else is interested. What follows is a highly subjective attempt to come up with “Irish New York’s Greatest-Ever Anything.”
MAYOR: Laois-born William Grace was the first Irish Catholic mayor of New York City, elected in 1880, and in the century that followed over half a dozen mayors had Irish roots.
They are a colorful bunch, from party boy Jimmy Walker (who fled New York with his mistress before he could be sacked in the wake of a scandal) to John O’Brien, who served exactly one year in office.
Grace was also a hugely successful businessman (and sent massive donations to Ireland in the 1870s), so his status as a trailblazer makes it hard for him not to be seen as New York’s greatest Irish mayor. He was anti-Tammany, but we won't hold that against him!
GANGSTER: The line between crime and politics was often fine for the New York Irish, and this is another tough category, with the likes of Owney “the Killer” Madden and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll competing with more recent thugs such as the Westies’ Jimmy Cooney.
My vote goes to “the Gentleman Gangster,” Mickey Spillane, the West Sider who married into the fabled McManus political clan and went to war with Cooney in the late 1960s.
BOOK: New York’s greatest Irish book could be the toughest category yet, with Peter Quinn’s Banished Children of Eve doing battle with Jimmy Breslin’s Table Money and Pete Hamill’s Forever.
Then there’s National Book Award winner Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Another little book called Angela’s Ashes also had a number of Brooklyn scenes.
I’ll go with something slightly different here and pick Eugene O’Neill’s play Iceman Cometh. It is written by an Irish artist of the highest order, and depicts how the Irish fit in (or didn’t) with the rest of New York’s crazy melting pot.
ATHLETE: While the likes of Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill can claim some Irish ancestry, this category calls for hefty Hibernian roots. It comes down to the great Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford and voluble tennis star John McEnroe.
Honorable mention goes to 19th century boxer “Old Smoke” John Morrissey who, in his spare time, was a political leader who orchestrated the death of anti-Irish leader Bill “the Butcher” Poole.
BAR: There are the old stalwarts like McSorley’s, literary dives like the old Rocky Sullivan’s, and quirky joints like Café Sine. My vote goes to the Village’s the Lion’s Head, which was not technically an Irish joint, but took to heart the old the Brendan Behan maxim that a great bar is a place “for drinkers with writing problems.”
MOVIE: This is a tough category, as there are dozens of solid movies (State of Grace, Brothers McMullen) but not many brilliant stand-outs. But when you crunch all the numbers, based simply on the big names and history and the best scenes (as opposed to some of the laughably bad ones), the best New York Irish movie could be Gangs of New York.
TV STAR: A battle of heavyweights between All in the Family’s Carroll O’Connor and The Honeymooners’ Jackie Gleason. You really can’t lose with this one, but in the end I’ll take Gleason for the sheer tenement tackiness of The Honeymooners.
UNION LEADER: Mike Quill. ‘Nuff said.
YEAR: It must have been somewhat lofty when, in 1928, a son of the Lower East Side, Al Smith, was nominated as the first Catholic presidential candidate. The Irish hadn’t come all the way, and they were going to be slapped when Smith not only lost big, but faced burning crosses and other nastiness from the KKK on the campaign trail.
Still, they had come far, and, for awhile, it must have been surreal to see Smith, with his cigar and Tammany ties and thick Noo Yawk accent, running for the highest office in the land.
Let the debate begin!