The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane, Doubleday, 720 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0385615341
There is a certain stable of popular fiction authors whose work often reads like a film treatment. Le Carre, John Grisham and Michael Crichton come to mind. You could throw in Maeve Binchy. Not to mention Dennis Lehane, two of whose books, Mystic River and Gone, Baby ,Gone, were made into successful Hollywood films. There are times too when The Given Day, Lehane’s latest, most ambitious effort reads more like screenplay than pure fiction, but for the most part it reads like what it is: a deeply researched historical novel.
Lehane’s work to date has tended to focus on hoodlums and tortured souls looking for redemption, characters drawn from what he gleaned by osmosis growing up and living in working class Boston, which is clannish and peculiar and was and still is the most Irish city in America. The Given Day is an attempt to put Lehane’s beloved home town into some sort of perspective, both in America and in a wider, mixed-up world. It is also, firmly, something of an Irish story, or at least an Irish-American one, a mirror of Ireland’s own tortured history, where there was no future, just the past happening over and over again.
People who are not from Boston are often surprised to learn that its population is less than 600,000. There are at least twenty more populous cities in America. But Boston, founded in 1630 by Puritans who fled England seeking the freedom to worship the way they wanted, has held a place in American history disproportionate to its size, mainly because of its age: it is one of the very oldest communities in America. Because of its relatively small size, it has never had the ethnic diversity of New York. But its immigration history, as well as its topography, was always something of a metaphor for the promise and peril of the American melting pot theory. It was the City on a Hill, as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, called it, using the biblical phrase. And the goal, the dream, was to climb that hill.
The Protestant Englishmen who settled Boston quickly established the same kind of hierarchical society they had professed to despise when they got on the Mayflower. The wealthiest of these so-called Brahmins settled on Beacon Hill, the pinnacle of the city on a hill. It took a couple of hundred years, but just as they had got their city ordered just so, the potato crop failed in Ireland and everything was turned upside down. The Irish started arriving by the boatload, dirty, diseased, uneducated, drunken, and perhaps worst of all to the sensibilities of those in the stately brownstones of Beacon Hill, Catholic. For you could wash them, give them medicine, provide a free and public education, but at the end of the day the Irish were still a bunch of hard-drinking Papists, taking their orders from some Italian in Rome.
There are some historians, including Kevin Whelan, one of Ireland’s foremost authorities on the Famine, who believe the virulent fungus known as phytopthora infestans actually came to Ireland aboard a ship that had sailed from Boston. So perhaps it was just fair play that so many fleeing that disaster actually settled in Boston. Like those English who saw the Famine as something providential, the act of a merciful God bent on saving the Irish from a miserable existence by killing them in their millions, many Boston Brahmins also regarded the Irish with little more esteem than they did the freed slaves in their midst.
Boston was the epicentre of the abolitionist movement in the United States. But for every William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, there were dozens of Brahmins who sat comfortably warm and rich in their smart brick homes, making a tidy profit indirectly from the slave trade. The Boston ruling classes of the latter half of the nineteenth century had an attitude toward African-Americans not unlike that of some working class Dubliners of more recent times when Nigerians started moving into Summerhill in droves: we don’t want you to live badly, but we don’t want you to live with us.
The sudden and overwhelming influx of Irish fleeing the potato blight of the 1840s transformed Boston, for better or worse, almost overnight. The first Catholic church for Irish immigrants, St. Stephen’s, was built in the North End. Bridges were built to the peninsula that would become South Boston, eventually the city’s most storied Irish enclave, producer of, as Sting put it, poets, priests and politicians – and a few gangsters to boot.
The Irish were forbidden from entering great universities like Harvard, so in the 1860s they built their own, Boston College, run by Jesuits. But most of those who arrived in Boston in the nineteenth century weren’t concerned with finding a university that would accept them. They were trying to survive. The Irish flooded into slums across the city, including the North End, before the Italians arrived toward the end of the nineteenth century, and Fort Hill in Roxbury, which in the latter half of the twentieth century became a mecca for the black middle class. Southie was the home of the Irish and the eastern Europeans.
By 1847 Boston was teeming with Famine refugees, and a quarantine station and hospital were established on Deer Island in the city harbour. Some five thousand Irish suffering from typhus, smallpox and cholera were sent there over the next three years, and about eight hundred of them died. While Boston had been the most generous American city to those fleeing the Famine, thanks to the religiously inspired enlightenment of some Brahmin figures (who also made up the backbone of the abolitionist movement), the refugees’ desperate physical condition when they got off the coffin ships was to produce a backlash. The Irish became the most scorned immigrant group in Yankee Protestant Boston, which was saying something. Thomas O’Connor, a Boston College historian and author of The Boston Irish, remarks that while in other cities the Irish were as new to the scene as most other residents and their numbers were such that they didn’t pose much of a threat to the established order, the situation in Boston was different and many viewed this sudden, large, uneducated mass of Irish as something of a pestilence.
“You have to remember,” O’Connor writes, “that Bostonians weren’t especially welcoming to immigrants in general, but at least the Irish who arrived in the 1820s and 1830s were healthy and strong enough to cut down the hills and fill in the coves.” As he puts it in his book, the Famine Irish “had the misfortune of coming to a city that was already more than 200 years old – positively ancient in terms of American cities – with a reputation that was awesome and a civic identity that was truly intimidating”. Not surprisingly, they sought strength in numbers, and by the end of the nineteenth century, with large families bursting from the city’s signature three-decker tenements, they began flexing the political muscle that would take down discriminatory signs and open doors to greater opportunity.
In 1884, Hugh O’Brien became the city’s first Irish-born mayor, and while the Yankees would occasionally take back City Hall – most significantly for Lehane’s purposes in the person of Andrew Peters, a deeply flawed individual who was mayor from 1918 to 1922 – the Irish had a virtual lock on the position until the current mayor, Thomas Menino, was able to beat an Irish-American named James Brett in 1993. It should be noted, however, that all of Menino’s political handlers are Irish, as is more than half the city council.
Given the opportunity, the Boston Irish flourished. Having first dominated politics, the children and grandchildren of immigrants moved into commerce. The Yankees tried to hold onto the business realm for themselves, but they were outbred and outmanoeuvred by succeeding generations of the Irish diaspora, who had the advantage of a university education and a street credibility drawn from their families. The Irish elbowed their way into the country clubs and downtown social clubs where a century before they had only been present as servants.
Despite O’Brien’s relatively early capture of the mayor’s office – just a generation after the Famine – and the bipartisan appeal across all ethnic and class divisions of Boston’s second Irish-born mayor, Patrick Collins, the Irish were still pretty much second-class citizens in Boston at the turn of the twentieth century, and well into it. There was, curiously, no real attempt by Boston Protestants to get the great unwashed Irish to “take the soup”. It wasn’t conversion the Brahmins were looking for so much as total avoidance. But the Irish were useful idiots. They could be coaxed into doing jobs the Brahmins detested, such as hard manual labour, and especially police work.
The stereotype of the Irish cop was born in Boston, where being on the force in the latter half of the nineteenth century meant you were mostly concerned with protecting Brahmin property and cracking immigrant heads, a good portion of them bearing familiar accents. Consequently, Boston policemen enjoyed little more status than the riff-raff they threw into paddywagons from Scollay Square to the South End. They were poorly paid, poorly trained and poorly thought of.
This is the world that Lehane’s protagonist, Danny Coughlin, inhabits. The son of a powerful Irish-born police captain, Danny is scarcely sentimental about the old country. Whenever his father calls him by his given name, Aiden, he sternly asserts that his name is Danny. He is an American who happens to have Irish parents. That doesn’t stop him from falling for the family’s Irish maid, Nora, who has a sordid past and whom Danny initially pushes away before his disgust with everything “normal” makes her more appealing.
World War I has just ended and there’s anarchy in the air, not to mention on the streets. Danny’s godfather, Eddie McKenna, a thuggish police lieutenant who has little time for such niceties as the constitution, enlists him to infiltrate the ragtag band of Bolsheviks, anarchists and trade unionists who are competing with each other and American postwar angst to create communism, destroy capitalism or merely found some unions capable of protecting workers. The establishment – business, government and law enforcement – make little or no distinction between these disparate movements, some sinister, some merely ludicrous. Comparisons with the eight disastrous years of Bush are inevitable and indeed appear to be among Lehane’s aims. The red scare of 1919-1921 was the equivalent of the Islamofascist scare of today.
Danny first infiltrates the fledgling Boston police union, whose demands for pay that would take them somewhere above the poverty line seem positively tame. It doesn’t take long for him to see he has been sent to spy on his brothers; his actual (blood) brother, Connor, is an ambitious prosecutor willing to do whatever his superiors require him to so that he can get ahead. Perhaps a little too conveniently, Connor takes up with Nora after Danny dumps her. The Coughlin boys apparently don’t get out much.
The book’s other main protagonist is Luther Laurence, an African-American who is too busy trying to survive murderous blacks and lynching-inclined whites to engage in the sort of soul-searching that preoccupies Danny Coughlin. Luther is introduced in a lengthy prologue in which Babe Ruth, the great baseball player who reinvented America’s national pastime by hitting prodigious home runs, and other professional players take on Luther in a pickup game while the white men’s train is being repaired in some godforsaken part of Ohio. Of course the black amateurs, who wouldn’t be allowed to play professional baseball until Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, are as good if not better than the white men who get paid to play the game. The whites cheat, the blacks acquiesce, knowing what’s good for them, and Babe Ruth leaves with a bad taste in his mouth. Ruth reappears throughout the book, an Everyman who became a star at a time when professional athletes were not accorded fame and fortune.
In fact before Ruth sent baseball on its way to becoming a billion-dollar industry, players were treated like indentured servants. When members of the Chicago White Sox took bribes to throw the 1919 World Series, one of their grievances against the club’s Irish owner, Charles Comiskey, was that they had to pay to clean their uniforms – also one of the complaints of Boston’s impoverished policemen in that same year. Ruth’s presence in Lehane’s narrative is a delight, if only for the scene in a Boston pub when Jack Reed, America’s most famous communist, Big Jim Larkin and the brooding, boozing playwright Eugene O’Neill try to enlist the Babe in their revolution. (Like all Boston Red Sox fans, Lehane sees the sale of Ruth to the hated New York Yankees as a telling image of money and greed. The deal gave birth to the so-called Curse of the Bambino, in which the Red Sox, who had regularly won the World Series before dumping Ruth, didn’t win it again for eighty-six years.)
It is certainly true that there were many people willing to use bombs to bring anarchy or revolution or both to the United States in this unsteady era. But, just as the Bush administration cynically linked the Saddam Hussein regime to the 9/11 attacks without any evidence, so the authorities of 1919 tried to blame the bomb-tossers for anything and everything that went wrong in the country.
Not coincidentally, in the year after Hugh O’Brien was elected as the city’s first Irish-born mayor, the Brahmins took away the mayor’s responsibility for the police department and installed a supposedly independent commissioner. While City Hall would still pay for the police, the mayor would no longer have direct control. Ostensibly an act of good government, the move was actually designed to prevent the suddenly politically powerful Irish from having their own armed wing. But they came to get a hold of the commissioner’s position too, and Stephen O’Meara wasn’t just Irish, he was respected, independent, conciliatory and good at what he did.
In Lehane’s hands, O’Meara becomes a sort of Michael Collins, the figure who would surely have avoided steered us away from disaster if only he had lived. O’Meara died, however, before he could address the policemen’s grievances and was replaced by the austere Edward Upton Curtis, a crusty Brahmin who believed that the Irish had a place, and it wasn’t at his table.
The cost of living rose seventy-six per cent between 1913 and 1919; police wages rose less than twenty per cent. Officers worked long shifts with few days off. The job was scarcely conducive to raising a family, either in terms of wages or the time that could be afforded to caring for children. The city’s police stations were rat-infested hellholes.
By 1919, nearly forty cities had unionised police forces. In Boston, however, Curtis specifically forbade officers to form a union. When they went ahead anyway, Mayor Peters created an independent commission, supposedly to head off a strike. He then refused to implement that commission’s recommendation that pay and benefits should be improved, even though four of Boston’s five newspapers endorsed them.
On September 9th, 1919, the police union voted by 1,132 votes to two to go on strike. If Curtis was unreasonable, at least he was decisive. The same could not be said of Peters. He dithered over calling out the state militia to protect the city in the absence of striking police officers. He wanted the governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, to do so –presumably so he could distance himself politically if things took a wrong turn. After Peters failed to act for several days, Coolidge did, in a manner that was to transform him from an obscure New England politician into one of national prominence.
The government initially brought in some short-term replacements, including members of the Harvard football team, who knew how to crack heads but little else. Chaos followed, as mobs looted stores and armed gangs took over broad swaths of the city. President Wilson called the walkout “a crime against civilisation”.
Coolidge insisted that the police had no right to strike. He hired 1,500 replacement officers from a pool of unemployed World War I veterans. The army men were happy to get the work and the public had little sympathy for the strikers, who were told to take a hike when they asked for their jobs back. The replacement workers got huge raises, a pension plan, and had their uniforms and equipment paid for: basically, they got everything the strikers had asked for before walking out.
When the labour leader Samuel Gompers criticised Coolidge for rewarding scabs with benefits properly due to officers who had worked in dire conditions for years, Coolidge attacked him, arguing that public safety workers did not have the right to strike and endanger the lives of ordinary citizens. The public sided in all this not with Gompers but with Coolidge, who emerged with a greatly enhanced public image and was nominated for vice-president in the following year. When Warring Harding died in office he assumed the presidency. “No doubt it was the police strike in Boston that brought me into national prominence,” he later said.
Like everything Lehane writes, The Given Day is going to be made into a film, in the capable hands of director Sam Raimi. Having devoted a chunk of his research and of his narrative to the lives of African-Americans in Tulsa, he thinks his next book might be a sequel to The Given Day about the race riots there in 1921 that left scores of blacks dead. Lehane seems bitten by the idea of using history, rather than just an imagination informed by Boston ne’er-do-wells he has met, to create characters.
The Boston police strike set the task of organised labour among police officers back a generation or more. The real organising of police departments didn’t take place until after World War II. But time has been kind to the Boston police union, which throughout the years, and to this day, has retained a largely Irish-American leadership. The union’s ranks are now comprised of approximately twenty-five per cent African-American officers, as the result of a court-ordered settlement. But the union truly represents ordinary cops without regard to their skin colour. The current union leader, Tommy Nee, could very well be Danny Coughlin. As a young officer he was tutored by one of the greatest street cops ever, Walter Fahey, the son of Irish immigrants and one of the founding members of the current incarnation of the police union, the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association.
When Nee graduated from the police academy, he recalls, all he wanted to do was arrest criminals. But the protocol is that you ride with veterans, old-timers, and learn the ropes. Fresh out of the academy, Nee drove to the District 11 station in Boston’s Dorchester section and picked up Walter Fahey.
“Where to?” Nee asked. “The Carney,” Fahey replied. “The Carney?” Nee said. “What for? “The sandwiches,” Fahey replied. At the end of each day, the Carney Hospital in Dorchester would throw out food it didn’t use. Walter Fahey would stop by in his police car and collect the uneaten sandwiches and bring them to a homeless shelter.
In The Given Day Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence become fast friends, which seems like a stretch for that time period. But Danny Coughlin is nothing if not iconoclastic. The relationship between most Irish and most blacks in Boston has been less chummy. No one opposed the use of busing to desegregate Boston’s public schools in the 1970s more vociferously, and in some cases violently, than the Irish of South Boston and Charlestown. They hurled both epithets and rocks and left the public schools, and to some extent the city itself. Whites still make up more than half Boston’s population, but only a little more than ten per cent of its public school population.
The desegregation of the city’s housing estates in the 1990s happened with far less hostility. The police enforced the law, and blacks moved into formerly all-white, mostly Irish housing estates in Southie and Charlestown. One of the more recent residents has been Barack Obama’s Kenyan aunt.Today, blacks and other minorities walk around Castle Island, Southie’s version of the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire, unimpeded and more than tolerated. The same goes for the Vietnamese men who fish off the McCorkle pier on the island, which was only a generation ago almost exclusively white.
Boston remains the only large city in America where the Irish are the largest ethnic group, about a quarter of the population, mostly congregated in Southie, Charlestown, West Roxbury, Brighton and parts of Dorchester. The suburbs that ring the city are in many cases the most strongly Irish-American enclaves in the country, with well over half the population claiming Irish ancestry. Not a few of them are police officers. While other cities that were initially swamped with Famine refugees saw the Irish assimilate and move up and out to exurbia, the Boston Irish have stuck close to the city even as they replaced the establishment that loathed them. In metropolitan Boston, they are the dominant ethnic group in politics and business.
Thomas O’Connor puts it well in The Boston Irish:
In this way, they can help preserve the kind of cultivated and responsive community John Winthrop envisioned in 1630, so that new immigrant peoples and their families can share the many advantages of the ‘City upon a Hill,’ where the Boston Irish prospered so well, accomplished so much, and endured for so long.
Still, everything evens out. Some twenty years ago, not long after Bruce Bolling became the first black president of Boston City Council, he used his office and power to punish a political rival, maintaining a tradition that stretched back nearly a century, when Irish ward bosses used their clout to exact revenge on anyone who challenged the machine.
Not long after his ascension, I sidled up to Bolling during a reception at the Parkman House, the mayor’s official residence at the top of Beacon Hill. The house was named for a Brahmin, but there hadn’t been a Yankee mayor since Peters, who had been replaced by James Michael Curley, the Charles Haughey of Boston politics, who helped the poor even as he helped himself, bursting with a sense of entitlement that justified taking cash from businessmen as supplemental income for a job that didn’t sleep. The house had been occupied by Irish mayors for some seventy years until Ray Flynn resigned to become the US ambassador to the Vatican, allowing Tom Menino to become the city’s first Italian-American mayor.
“Jesus, Bruce,” I said, draping my arm around his shoulder. “A brother finally becomes president, and what’s the first thing you do: whack somebody like you’re an Irish pol.” Bolling betrayed a smile and cocked his head toward me in mock incredulity. “Kevin,” he said, “in this town, we’re all Irish by osmosis.”
Kevin Cullen is a columnist with The Boston Globe. He is also an occasional contributor to The Irish Times.