An Unlikely Union: a Lecture by Paul Moses
April 26, 2016
Author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians, delivers lecture at SJC Long Island.
Since the beginning of time, periods of conflict and unrest have existed between groups of people from diverse backgrounds. Case in point: Irish and Italian immigrants in New York City during the late 1800s.
Thousands of Irish immigrants in the 1840s relocated to New York City when their homeland was ravished by a potato famine. After settling in to New York, they worked for labor contractors, building railroads, canals, roads, sewers and other construction projects, making huge contributions to the city’s infrastructure.
“After the Irish established themselves as capable labor workers, Italian immigrants began leaving Italy for New York, offering to work longer hours for less money than the Irish workers,” said Paul Moses, author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians, during a recent lecture at SJC Long Island. “Feeling that their livelihood was at threat, hostility grew between the groups.”
The hostility was felt in many aspects of their lives and affected the way the groups were perceived by others in New York City.
“When the Italians arrived, they were extremely poor and because of their superstitious beliefs, the Irish found them to be very strange. Having been instantly stereotyped for their different habits, the Italians became quick targets for discrimination by the New York City Police Department.”
“When the Italians arrived, they were extremely poor and because of their superstitious beliefs, the Irish found them to be very strange,” Moses said during the April 7 lecture in the Shea Conference Room of O’Connor Hall. “Having been instantly stereotyped for their different habits, the Italians became quick targets for discrimination by the New York City Police Department.”
For many years, the Italians remained easy targets for the NYPD, which was riddled with corruption and extortion at the time.
Moses detailed the story of Joseph Petrosino, an Italian immigrant who became a detective and pioneer in the fight against organized crime. Hailed as a hero for his dedication to the NYPD, Petrosino in 1909 was murdered while preparing for a top-secret mission.
“His funeral was conducted in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral,” said Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the former city editor of Newsday, where he was the lead writer for a team that won journalism’s coveted Pulitzer Prize. “It was attended by more than 200,000 people, including both Irish and Italians. This event was a turning point and a catalyst for change that brought the city closer.
Over time, Irish and Italians learned to live together. As their children began to attend the same schools, families began to mingle and eventually attended the same churches. Their children were growing up together and adopting to each other’s cultures. Then, after returning home from World War II, Irish and Italians began meeting at veterans’ events and church functions. It was then that the groups first started marrying one another and producing Irish-Italian children.
Even today, you will hear some echoes of history and the decades of unrest. Mostly, it is on the back burner, but the dislike for one another is still depicted in films such as 2015’s Academy Award Nominee, Brooklyn.
Moses’ book, The Saint and the Sultan, won the 2010 Catholic Press Association award for best history book.