For Marine Park resident and Brooklyn College journalism professor Paul Moses, the story of the bitter rivalry between New York’s Irish and Italian immigrants is personal. His wife is Irish and Moses identifies strongly with his Italian roots. And as Moses told me, there was a time when that kind of marriage would have been very strange.
It’s been close to a century since these two groups feuded for political, economic, and religious clout in New York City. But the legacy of their battles and eventual reconciliation is woven into the character of many neighborhoods, particularly in southern Brooklyn.
Moses’ new book, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians, explores the long, colorful history of these two immigrant groups as they strove for acceptance in American society, first as rivals and then as allies. The book is published by New York University Press and officially releases on Tuesday, July 7. (Though it was made available for early purchase at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.)
This is Moses’ second book. His first, The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, details the encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt during the Crusades. Moses is also a former editor at Newsday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and my former professor at Brooklyn College.
Below is an interview between Moses and myself, in which we talk about the inspiration for his new book, how the union between Irish and Italian immigrants helped shaped neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn, and what their story can tell us about the new wave of Catholic immigrants settling in New York today.
Sheepshead Bites: What inspired you to write this book?
Paul Moses: The inspiration came from my own family life. I’m half Italian. My wife Maureen, her ancestry is Irish. And I got to thinking about how, at one time, that would have been considered unusual. And as I researched, I could see that the rivalry between the Irish and the Italians was even more intense than I had realized. And so I began to see the arc of a story there. How did we get from that place where the Irish and Italians were rivals to the place where they were marrying each other on a very large scale here in Brooklyn and Manhattan, in the suburbs, and in other major cities like Boston and Chicago.
There’s been a lot written about Irish and Italian immigrants in New York City. What part of that story did you feel was missing and needed to be told?
There’s a lot written about the Irish or the Italians. But nobody has really explored their relationship. In fact, I found out there are very few books out there on any relationships between ethnic groups. I think there are other ethnic groups that would be interesting to study too. But I think the Irish and the Italians are the ones that I know the best. So that’s really what this book does. It’s the history of their relationship and how it went from being rather stormy to having two groups that closely identify with each other.
Was this a book that you wanted to write for a long time, or was there a specific moment when you realized this was what your next book was going to be about?
I was finishing up my previous book, which is called The Saint and the Sultan. It tells the story of an encounter during the crusades between Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt. And the basic point of it is that even though Christians and Muslims were at war with each other, Francis and the Sultan managed to meet with each other peacefully and respectfully. It was a story about peacemaking. At that point, as I was writing this story about peacemaking in medieval times, I just looked at my own household and realized there was a story about peacemaking between the Irish and Italians.
What were some of the important milestones in those two groups reconciling?
One thing I noticed was Italians voted for an Irish-born candidate for mayor in 1941, Bill O’Dwyer, over one of their own, Fiorello LaGuardia. So I considered that to be somewhat of a milestone. LaGuardia had swept the Italian vote in the previous two elections. So that was a sign of the change that was coming.
During the war years, I think Italians began achieving real acceptance in American society. They really had to prove their patriotism because the United States was at war with Italy. And they did prove their patriotism. After the war, people began moving out of the old ethnic communities into residential communities like Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park and elsewhere in southern Brooklyn. They moved to Queens and eventually Staten Island and suburbs on Long Island. And as they moved into these neighborhoods, they began to see each other as friends and not as members of some rival ethnic group.
How did the stories described in your book shape neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay and Bensonhurst, or other neighborhoods in the outer boroughs?
I think neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay, Bensonhurst, and across southern Brooklyn, and also the Brownstone areas in Brooklyn, are very much part of this story. Because they are places where the Irish and Italians did mix together. Sometimes uneasily at first and later becoming close to one another. I’m sure there are many people across southern Brooklyn, and many families like my own, that have both Irish and Italian ancestry, mixed often with Jewish ancestry. So our neighborhoods are part of this story. And in fact, they are places where people left the old ethnic neighborhoods like Little Italy to move further out when the subways were built. They are places where people learned to mix more easily than maybe was the case in the old days in Lower Manhattan.
And now, of course, they are being reshaped by new immigration that adds a lot to our community. Just as the previous migrations helped to shape our great city.
In a review about your book in Commonweal, it talked about how labor issues were particularly divisive among these two groups, but eventually labor was something that seemed to draw them closer together.
Within labor, that was a long struggle. The Irish were already well established in their labor unions when the Italians began to arrive in large numbers in the 1880s. And the Italians were willing to work for less money and for longer hours. And of course, employers liked that and played the Italians and Irish against each other.
The Italians were used as strikebreakers. And so there were very bad feelings between Irish and Italian laborers. There were frequent street fights. And it took a while before the labor movement began to realize that they would be better off bringing in the Italians as members than having them be strikebreakers.
But that process took a long time. Even within unions, there were tensions between Irish locals and Italian locals. You would see that very often on the waterfront. Irish locals remained strong on the Manhattan waterfront and Italian locals were strong on the Brooklyn waterfront. So that rivalry continued for quite a while.
Today, there is a new immigrant story taking place in America and New York, with so many Catholics from Latin America immigrating to the United States. What are some of the similarities you see between what’s happening today and the stories you discovered while writing this book?
Well, when I read about Donald Trump’s comments about Mexicans, he was saying the same things about Mexicans that people once said about the Italian immigrants. And so I do see a lot of similarities between what’s happening now and what happened then. The different groups are following the same path towards acceptance.
And recently, when two police officers were shot in that terrible tragedy, one of them Asian American and the other Latino, a lot of remarks were made that they are not Irish and Italian, they are Latino and Chinese. And it’s a sign of ethnic change in the police department. And indeed, I think that shooting was kind of a landmark in the life of the city because just as Italians once had to struggle to be accepted into the Irish-dominated NYPD, now these groups are making their presence felt in the NYPD and in the city at large. So I see events like that all the time that make me think about what I’ve written about the Irish and Italians.
Your book also talks about the struggle between the Irish and Italians for acceptance within New York’s Catholic Church. Do you think that’s taking place today with the arrival of Catholics from Latin America?
I think that some Latinos may identify with the struggle of the Italians to gain acceptance within the Catholic Church in New York. I think that may be the case. The Italians had very different ways of worshiping than the Irish, who were in charge. And Italians were very angry when they felt they were getting second-class treatment. For example, they were required to hold their services in church basements rather than the main church. And those clashes lasted for a long time. There were powerful Italian church leaders in Italy who tried to intervene in New York to help the Italian immigrants. And for Latinos, even though their numbers are so large within the church, I think it’s also been a bit of a struggle in the United States to get their due share of bishops and other leadership positions. So I think there are parallels but I’m hoping that [my book] contributes to the discussion about Latinos in the American Catholic Church.