New York looms large in the history of the Irish. For the Irish-American -- particularly the 19th century Irish-American -- New York City was, in almost every way possible, the gateway city of America. Vast, foreign, dangerous, the city consumed migrants and emigrants alike. Decade after decade the people changed, but the essential human story -- of struggle, chaos, loss, endurance, triumph and wild beauty -- did not. (And, has not.)
But the story of emigration to New York in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s is very much an Irish story and very much a story about famine, poverty and war. New York in the ‘40s and ‘50s was a city teetering constantly at the edge of chaos. It was also quickly becoming one of the great cities of the world: An economic engine that drew the Famine refugees of Ireland, but also drew merchants and farmers, widows and young girls, from the backwoods of New England. All seeking opportunity. Most, in one way or another, would be both shocked and disappointed.
Crime was rife in the big city. So was prostitution, graft, political corruption, disease and fire. It was the cauldron that would shape American politics as the nation exploded -- both in war and in population. It was also the place where Irish-Americans would, at their best and their worst, come in to their own. Irish-American politicians would help set the metaphorical fires that would send the United States careening through the rest of the century -- undeniably a country with a destiny, but often also a country with no clear course. Irish-American firemen would help fight the very real fires that consumed city blocks in a wall of fire and threatened to turn America’s urban dream into a pile of ash. It was a city where there would often be no clear line between idealism and corruption, a century when patriotism and opportunism would play an equal role building the Empire City of a still young nation.
(Right: The Five Points.)
Personal confession time. I love historical novels. Love the idea of reading about another place and time. Love the idea of a different era being fleshed out, alive on a page instead of a dreary set of facts and figures. Somewhere along the way I managed to get a degree in American History without really trying -- long story -- so I’ve read my fair share of both the dreary and the divine. (Sadly there is quite a bit of a crossover in dreariness in both academic history and historical fiction.)
Along the way I’ve read more than a few historical novels set in New York, and I’ve noticed that most share a familiar story line: The city as a potential paradise until the layers are painfully peeled away and Gotham is revealed in all its damaged glory. There is another thread that runs though the Irish-American narrative, though, a sadder thread; in that story, Ireland is the paradise forever lost and America is Gotham and it doesn’t matter if it is the East River or the Sacramento, Manhattan or Frisco, there will be no homecoming.
I’m an American, though, American-born of American-born parents. A grandchild of the meltingpot, New York is more my spiritual homeland than Ireland is. I love historical novels set in New York for the same reason that I love Edward Steichen’s photographs -- the silver tinted snowy beauty of Central Park in winter, and the set determination of the babuschkas marching out of steerage. Because it is there, just barely, that I can see a reflection of the city my grandfather knew but rarely talked about. The city of tenements and dreams, hot summers, horses dying in the streets, men dying in the streets, for that matter, the multi-story barns, the hundred languages, the German butchers, the Bohemian bakers, the Italian masons, the Syrian grocers, the Jewish tailors, the Irish pick-and-shovel men. The city as it was before it was stormed -- but not quite conquered -- by the disaffected children of suburbia desperately seeking urban “authenticity.” (A fair enough exchange, perhaps, as the grandchildren of those 19th century emigrants moved on to Tuckahoe and Napa, Long Island and Denver, Westchester and Houston, seeking space and green grass and a better life for their children.)
It is probably inevitable then that I would like messy stories about a messy city, violent stories about a violent era. But of all the historical novels I’ve read set in old New York there are only two, Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker, and The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye, that loom large on my personal bookshelf.
Both are, at heart American stories, but they are also Irish-American stories.
For readers who like to try and keep their historical novels in some sort of chronological order, The Gods of Gotham would have to come first. A dark crime novel -- no spoilers here, but this is a dark story about a dark era, if it was televised it would be on late night cable, with a warning -- this is very much a morality play. The main character is a struggling everyman. Orphaned young in a house-fire, he is brought up by his alcoholic older brother whose near suicidal exploits as a volunteer firefighter almost overshadow his self-serving and corrupt activities as a minor cog in the machine politics of the New York Democrats, who is “gifted” (machine politics are a wonderful thing) a job as a New York City policeman and ends up desperately trying to do the right thing in a city where everyone is trying to escape the ghosts of the past, everyone is chasing a fast buck and everyone has an axe to grind.
In some ways shockingly modern -- The Gods of Gotham is a classic police procedural of a mystery, the irony, of course, is it that it is set in the very year when modern “policing” began in America -- this is oddly enough an almost precious book, all the tiny details, even the slang -- there is a glossary of defunct slang included with the book -- is part and parcel of a specific era; the first years of the Irish Famine with New York teetering on the edge of a population explosion. Tammany Hall in the ascendant, the Knickerbockers retreating to their drawing rooms.
Set almost 20 years later, Paradise Alley tells the story of an Irish-American community that is beginning to mature, but also at the edge of being torn apart by the Civil War and the effort to become “American.” A novel rather than a mystery, this is a story with no answer, and no clear moral compass. It is a story of a time, and a brutal series of events -- the infamous Civil War draft riots -- that marked the city and the nation permanently (the N.Y.P.D. in particular would be forever changed by the riots), but is also the story of a wild group of individuals who each in her, or his, own way embody part of the story of the Irish-American experience. There is the ambitious young Irish girl who flees impoverished rural Ireland for the hard domestic labor of an Irish housemaid in Manhattan. Devoutly Catholic, desperate for opportunity --almost any opportunity -- it is hard not to root for her as she tries to fight her way into the respectable confines of the lace-curtain Irish. There is the wild young Irish “b’hoy” she marries, a volunteer fireman, a Democrat, a street tough, a devout family man. There is her brother, the only one of her siblings to survive the Famine, a man who takes out his anger on the women he loves, on the men who cross his path, on the world in general. And there is, always, the city. Not a city on a hill, but a city burning like a phoenix out of the swamps. Part dream and part nightmare.