by Dr. Laura Kelley
Street-fighting man, bare-knuckles, and hard-fisted: Why do the Irish like to fight? Is there more to this reputation than just a penchant for street brawls? To understand better the reputation and apparent propensity for fighting among the Irish of New Orleans, let’s first return briefly to Ireland.
Irish society, particularly in the 18th century, witnessed a rise in agrarian violence as well as faction fighting. Secret societies, such as the White Boys, formed throughout Ireland to attack perceived injustices. These organizations developed initially as a defense against attacks by the British on the traditional rights of the native population, mainly the enclosure of common lands and in protest against tithes, taxes and conacre rents. Usually, a threat of violence was issued first, normally by anonymous letter; noncompliance with the stated demands would result in actual violence.
Rather than fighting for social justice, however, faction fighting was a type of public violence best described as ritualized expressions of “recreational” violence in the form of semi-organized pitched battles occurring usually at fairs and religious celebrations. Like secret societies, faction fights also had their own set of rules, sometimes referred to as Shillelagh Law. Brawling for the sheer fun of it, opposing participants agreed on equal numbers; and aside from the traditional shillelagh, no other weapons were allowed.
Shillelagh, a cudgel with a large knob on the end, was also part of the faction fights and today
many refer to the use of this stick as Irish Marital Arts. (Photo courtesy of ShopIrish.com)
These faction fights frequently resulted from decades, even generations-old feuds. Some were serious in nature, others more to show off fighting talent and kin support.
“Off go the hats and the coats,
the fight begins,
Some strike the heads,
while others strike the shins.
The winching codgels around their fore heads play
They need no leaders to begin the fray
Where e'ere the brave O'Donoghues engage”
Faction fights were common in Ireland until the mass emigration during the Great Famine disrupted this tradition. The Catholic Church openly condemned faction fights, and in the latter half of the 19th century, much of the agrarian unrest and associated secret societies focused on acquiring broad legal rights for tenant farmers and general land reform in Ireland. Irish immigrants brought this tradition of fighting and resolving conflicts outside the law with them to New Orleans.
The earliest record in the local newspapers is a faction fight between canal workers. This particular fight, however, bore none of the traditional recreational aspects; rather, it appears that economics were the reason. One group of canal workers, labeled “Corkians” by news accounts attacked another group of canal workers, identified as “United Irishmen”. The Corkians accused the United Irishmen of underbidding them for a canal job south of the city. Unlike at traditional faction fights, “guns, pistols, swords, and other weapons” were used and resulted in three dead and numerous injured. The fight started Friday night “down the coast” and continued Saturday night with the police finally arresting 23 of the men. However, fighting resumed once again on Sunday. One newspaper noted that “It is really somewhat alarming that these men, disregarding the rights of their fellow-men, should thus put a whole community into commotion.” As in Ireland, the law was ignored and the Irish took matters into their own hands.
There were times, like during the famous clash between Deaf Burke and Mr. O’Rourke, when a simple bout would turn into vengeance and descend into mayhem. In May 1837, handbills were posted around the city announcing a boxing match between Deaf Burke and O’Rourke for 1:00 pm on Bayou Road. A few rounds were fought with no opponent gaining on the other. Then, according to some reports, during a round, Deaf Burke struck O’Rourke’s second. This was taken as a signal for a “general skrimmage (sic)” to begin. The O’Rourke party “handed Burke and his friends with fists and sticks, made of anything but dough or molasses” and soon Deaf Burke took to his heels. He was pursued by the O’Rourke’s men with “shelalahs (sic), dray-pins, whips, and what not.” Burke managed to escape when a friend handed him a horse; however, the friend ended up getting badly beaten by the pursuing crowd. Following this melee, O’Rourke’s friends “bore him about our streets in triumph” while consuming large quantities of liquor. What had started as a well publicized boxing match had descended into a “wild spirit of anarchy” as several more fights broke out across town that day.
The following day the newspaper opined that “As to any two or more men going to the outskirts of our city and enjoying a social knock-down, we have no objection. They may pummel one another to their heart’s content, and we would never lift our hands or voices to interfere; but when their friends in the public streets of our city, enact such scenes of violence and riot as committed on Friday, we wish to see them well and severely punished.”
Such fights that turned into riots were far more common among the Irish in New Orleans during the pre-famine era. The arrival of large numbers of Irish immigrants in a short period of time changed the dynamics of the Hibernian community in the city after 1845. The rough work shanties with their cheap liquor and belligerent clientele slowly became a thing of the past as the Irish put down roots in the Crescent City.
However, one would be quite wrong to assume that the Irish gave up their beloved tradition of drinking or fighting entirely! Quite to the contrary: Irish men, and also sometimes Irish women, were being arrested in New Orleans for drunkenness and assault; somewhat less frequently, however, for riots and mass mayhem.
When these Irish men - and some women - were being arrested is quite telling. The paddy wagon – no surprise here - was full every March 18th with the recorder’s office noting, for example, in 1840, that “Owen Reiley, Wm. Reiley, Thomas Preston, …..were all found drunk. Some were lying quietly down, and others were cutting up “rusties” and sundry didoes. All paid jail fees and were discharged.” (rusties or a didoesin 19th century slang referred to being mischievous or playing the fool but with the implication that such behavior could also turn nasty and rough.)
Picayune April 2, 1845
“Give me a bitt, Bridget,” said Dan—“I jist met Rory Rafferty. I didn’t see him afore since I had the pleasure of brakin’ his head for him at the fair of Kicowan, whin Malcahys and the O’Dowds had the big fight. Give me a bitt I say. Rory is now in a farrin counthry, bekays he landed but yistherday, and as I’m a citizen can’t I boast that I’m ‘In me own, me native land.’ Gve me a bitt, for faix I want to trate him dacint.”
Court records show that the traditional fights between rival factions still continued among the Famine Irish. In 1850, for example, after the arrest of members of the McMahons and the Monaghans, the Recorder’s office noted that a “Bitter hostility appears to exist between those rival clans. One of the Monaghans, armed with a “slung shot,” . . . attacked a McMahon, Arthur is his Christian appellation, verily, as the McMahon affirms, with the intent to kill him.”
While the Irish were spread throughout the city, many lived in an area called the Irish Channel. With its reputation as a rough and violent community, it created a further division between those that lived in the Chanel and those who did not.
Mistrust of newspaper reports about life in the Irish Channel was common among people in the neighborhood. In a letter to the editor published in the New Orleans Item on Sept 7 1913, a Mr C. A. Coogan condemned the paper for its misleading depiction of events in the neighborhood as well as its tendency to emphasize gang related activity in the Channel. Coogan writes “I feel that you are doing a gross injustice to us (resident of the Irish Channel) by publishing headlines that read “ The Irish on a Warpath”, “Peace in the Irish Channel” and “Irish Mafia.” Coogan continued that the “boys from our park, most of whom are of Irish decent, (sic) are as fine a lot of boys as there are in the city.” However, for the rest of New Orleans, reading such jargon reinforced in their minds an image of roaming gangs of Irish thugs- regardless how much the residents themselves protested this prejudice.
Outsiders frequently mistook common street brawls in the Channel for gang violence. According to one resident of the Channel, “At the corner of Rousseau and St Mary was what was known as “The Bucket of Blood” so many fights there.” These fights, however, were much like a boxing matches, with appointed referees and often large crowds of spectators . The winner of the fight was also deemed the winner of the dispute, and the issue was considered resolved. Local neighborhood doctors treated any injuries suffered by either opponent in the brawls. Sometimes the fights became social events with accompanying story-lines that made the drama of the occasion even more gripping to those who were watching it. Over time, the street brawls gained so much popularity that boxing promoters came looking for potential prizefighters they could train for a professional career. The heydays of Irish New Orleans boxing were about to start.
Already at the turn of the 19th century, it had become increasingly popular to watch street fights promoted at such places as the Gayoso Club, where local boxing promoter Johnny Galway, a proud Irish Channel man, helped to recruit for and advertise fights. He was responsible for bringing many street brawlers to the Gayoso Club from where fights would be broadcast to a large audience. The Ivy Johnson versus Joe Hoagg bout at the club, for example, was advertised in the Times Picayune as an event that had carried over from a street brawl in the Channel.
It was here, in the world of boxing, that the Irish of New Orleans found a home. For these men, boxing was an arena where they could prove themselves tough, courageous and worthy of respect. It also helped that the Irish dominated the sport of boxing across North America. Even early in the Gilded Age, Irish names were already dictating the sport. The famous John L Sullivan came to train in New Orleans before his match against heavyweight champion Paddy Ryan in 1882. Sullivan won the bare-knuckle fight in a 9th round knock out and held the title for ten years. And a generation later, the great Jack Dempsey became the sport’s most famous proponent.
Dempsey also made a few appearances in New Orleans, and droves of people came to watch. When he came to town for his bout with a Russian boxer, it was publicized widely in the paper with such headlines as “Russian to Meet Irish Boxer.” Boxing became such a staple of Irish Channel life that organizations were created to promote fights as well train residents of the Channel in the hope of finding the next John Sullivan or Jack Dempsey. The boxing scene in New Orleans was well organized, and fights were promoted heavily. The Times Picayune ran a weekly boxing column entitled Mack’s Melange, which espoused the Irish as the best fighters, and the city was able to attract the largest names in the sport. The Gayoso Club and the Dauphine Theatre played host to these events as did American Athletic and Olympic Athletic Clubs.
Right: John Fitzpatrick, mayor of New Orleans from 1892-1896 was a big proponent of boxing and personally refereed several important matches including the John L. Sullivan v. Paddy Ryan Heavy Weight Champion fight in 1882 as well as the Jake Kilrain v. John L. Sullivan one in 1889.
Heroes like Martin Burke, one of the most celebrated Irish boxing champions in New Orleans, were idolized among the residents of the Channel. For them, Burke brought hope to the community with the message that they all stood a fighting chance. Martin Burke became a symbol of Irish Pride for the Channel and boxing a uniting factor for male residents of this old Irish neighborhood.
The sport of boxing epitomized the lives of Irish men in the city of New Orleans. For them, no sport proved a better test of manly courage, strength and toughness than boxing. Boxing outside of the Irish Channel began to grow around the turn of the 20th century as the Irish Channel Athletic Club and several other organizations expanded their scope of the sport in the city of New Orleans. Boxing had become an indispensable part of Irish culture and had a major impact on the city well beyond the boundaries of the Irish Channel.
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