Probably the one subject I know better than anyone on earth is the history of Irish-Italian warfare in New York. It began at the turn of the century, when the Irish construction workers tried to get two dollars a day. As the Irish produce more traitors than any race on earth—Liam O’Flaherty, who wrote The Informer, always said, “It really wasn’t a novel; to create Gypo Nolan all I had to do was look to my left and right and take my pick”—it was a contractor named Crimmins who brought over two boatloads of men from Sicily who were contracted to work at a dollar a day.
It never stopped from then on. The Irish tried to shut the Italians out of the building trades, and they lost and could lose more as they go on. The Irish tried to keep the Italians off the docks, and now the Irish are left with empty piers on the West Side and whatever work is left in the city is in Brooklyn, and controlled by Italians. In the police department, the Irish tried to hold it all, and today all the big jobs are still held by Irish, but Italians are the largest group in the department. I don’t have to tell you how long that one has to go.
In politics, the Irish—who came here with English as their language—felt they were doing tremendously while competing against people who spoke another language. Invincibility was lost when three Jews on the East Side learned to put a sentence together. The Irish were then left with the Italians still under them. Italians who could be mimicked and maneuvered. A couple of years ago, the Irish made a strong comeback, with Hugh Carey as governor and Patrick Moynihan as senator in a state where the major voting bloc is Italian.
Then, on the Republican side, Alfonse D’Amato became senator. Then Mario Cuomo was governor. Suddenly, the Irish were left with Patrick Moynihan, senator, and a strong breeze coming through the window at night sends him rolling over in bed.
And today on Fifth Avenue, during the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, there will be an official dismembering of the Irish as political powers—secular and, if the cardinal and his Irish underlings do not watch out, in religious politics, too.
It is all because of Michael J. Flannery, now in his eighty-second year. A year ago, an attempt was made to shift the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade to a Sunday. At that moment, many people with Irish names suddenly realized that the only thing they had to connect them to their past was being taken from them. The parade was put back to March 17. The parade committee, which had stayed away from politics in the past, named as honorary grand marshal Bobby Sands, who had starved to death during a hunger strike in a British prison.
It was inevitable that someone like Michael Flannery would wind up as grand marshal of this year’s parade. A short while before the vote was to be taken, Flannery was in the midst of another election. He had been indicted for trying to buy a cannon from the FBI and send it to the IRA in Northern Ireland. Flannery called his cannon “the big animal.” Flannery’s defense was that he had been led by federal agents to believe that he was working with the CIA on the purchase. The jury took a vote and Flannery won. There was no question that he would be the choice of the parade committee.
It meant nothing. Nearly all the people who watch the parade and most of the marchers in the parade know very little about the IRA and even what the trouble is in Northern Ireland. Whether Flannery was grand marshal or not, the parade would have the same meaning: a traditional, colorful walk up Fifth Avenue, in honor of being Irish.
And then everybody went insane. The government of Ireland withdrew its endorsement of the parade. Carey, out of office, dying for publicity, jumped in and said he would not march. Moynihan said the same thing. And Cardinal Cooke pulled out his schools. The Pentagon, because of Moynihan, said it was not allowing West Point or any army bands to appear.
The Italians were happy to fill in. At a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New Jersey, with Flannery as grand marshal, Governor Kean did not appear. Nor did former Governor Brendan Byrne. But Representative Peter Rodino, whose family comes from San Valentino, near Naples, did march. So did Representative James Florio.
In New York today, Governor Cuomo marches.
His roots are outside Naples. Alongside him will be Major General Vito Castellano of the National Guard.
“Maybe the Pentagon is against the march. Vito is a general whose checks are signed in Albany. If Cuomo marches, Vito marches,” somebody in Albany explained.
Marching with them will be D’Amato, Lieutenant Governor Al DelBello, and Representatives Mario Biaggi and Geraldine Zaccaro-Ferraro and on down the line.
Flannery means nothing to them. For they seem sensible enough to know that anyone who marches in a parade is there for the parade and not the politics of the grand marshal. The political statement is made by some fool who stays away seeking publicity. “I marched in a Columbus Day Parade where Frank Sinatra was the grand marshal,” one of the Italian politicians was saying yesterday. “What’s a Flannery compared to a Sinatra?”
The Catholic schools of the New York Archdiocese are not being allowed to march. However, the bishop of Brooklyn, Francis Mugavero, will allow his schools to march. He also will allow the Irish to applaud him for this.
So today, in the sun and the music and the crowds, if you notice the Italians walking with a little more assurance in an Irish parade, understand that it is for a good reason. They are winning, perhaps forever, too, and they are doing it right in front of you on Fifth Avenue.
“The Italians are top dog this year,” old Mike Flannery said to Paul O’Dwyer last night.