An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians
By Paul Moses (NYU Press, 2015)
Al Capone, Mother Cabrini, Mayor Jimmy Walker, and Tammany boss “Big Tim” Sullivan are among the characters who fascinate in An Unlikely Union, Paul Moses’ lively account of Irish-Italian relations in New York City. Moses persuasively argues that the Irish’s earlier arrival in New York gave them the edge—in the church, workforce, politics, law enforcement, entertainment, and even the underworld—in the Irish-Italian rivalry from the late 19th century to World War II.
Competition for the same jobs at the century’s end intensified the groups’ rivalry. In 1883, Moses notes, 75 percent of construction workers were Irish. By 1893 75 percent were Italian. These changing dynamics precipitated race riots, in which combatants threw picks, crowbars, bricks, and shovels at each other.
But, Moses contends, condemning communism and supporting the Vietnam War united the Italians and Irish in “a conservative Catholic worldview.” By the 1960s people didn’t speak of the Italian or Irish vote, but simply the white Catholic vote.
Catholic insularity is a downside of Irish-Italian unity, and Moses fails to explore many of insularity’s implications and consequences. Nonetheless, An Unlikely Union will charm readers. The seasoned former Newsday editor’s shrewd understanding of the complexities of Italian-Irish relationships illuminates his outstanding research.
Readers will discover much in An Unlikely Union that’s news to them and will be intrigued by what they find on each absorbing page. After reading about the police detectives, union leaders, nuns, and mobsters at the center of ancient Irish-Italian conflicts, readers will be left to ponder their own family histories.
This review appeared in the December 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 12, page 41).