On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York

By McLeod, Hugh | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview
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On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York


McLeod, Hugh, The Catholic Historical Review


On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York. By James T Fisher. [Cushwa Center Studies of Catholicism in Twentieth-Century America.] (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 2009Pp. xiv, 370. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-801-44804-1.)

The now classic Kazan-Schulberg film On the Waterfront (1954) depicted a brutal world, already familiar from testimony to the Senate's Crime Committee. More unexpectedly, the hero was a "labor priest," Father Pete Barry. In this deeply researched and compellingly narrated book James T Fisher tells the true story behind the famous movie. The priest was based on the charismatic Jesuit Father "Pete" Corridan of the Xavier Labor School, who had been running a long campaign against humiliating hiring practices, corrupt union officials, and the connections of both businessmen and labor leaders with criminals on Manhattan's West Side piers. Corridan faced an uphill battle, and the book has no happy ending, as he was ultimately defeated. Fisher has three main objectives. First, and this is perhaps his most original achievement, he aims to provide a complete picture of the interlocking worlds of businessmen, labor leaders, politicians, priests, and gangsters who, in their different ways, exercised great power over life in the waterfront districts on either side of the Hudson River from the later nineteenth century up to the 1950s. These five forms of power are represented here by the stevedoring millionaire, William J. "Mr. Big" McCormack;"King Joe" Ryan, life president of the International Longshoremen's Association; Frank Hague, mayor of Jersey City for thirty years; Monsignor John J. "Taxi Jack" O'Donnell, chaplain to the port; and John "Cockeye" Dunn, who was finally brought to the electric chair for the last of an alleged thirty-two murders. All these men were Catholics of Irish descent, most had risen from poverty, and most were intimately acquainted with one another. Each in his own way contributed to the formidable strength of the status quo; and, above all, this regime, in spite of its many evils, was accepted by a large proportion of their fellow Irish Catholics living and working on the waterfront.

Fisher's second aim is to provide a sympathetic, though not uncritical, account of Corridan's crusade.

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