Thursday, January 19, 2006

Real, and Reel, Life in 'Hell's Kitchen'

Would you quietly accept a sentence of 20 to 40 years in state prison for an armed robbery committed by your brother?

"Fuh-ged-about-it," I can hear my fellow New Yorkers say.

But Tommy Irwin, one of my late grandmother's first cousins apparently did, and served at least several years before his brother John alerted authorities that he, not Tom, was the perpetrator. Why did John, a longshoreman with the nickname "Yerkie," hesitate? Why did Tom remain silent? Was Tom truly innocent? What was the cost of their silence to themselves, their wives and three young children.

Before Tom's 1927 arrest, according to a July 30, 1931 article in The New York Times, the two married brothers shared a cold-water flat at 511 West 43rd Street, in Manhattan's once hardscrabble, largely Irish neighborhood known as "Hell's Kitchen."

I thought of this affair, as I do from time to time, as my Dad and I recently screened the DVD version of Michael Curtiz' drama "Angels With Dirty Faces," featuring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien as "Rocky" Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, two once close friends who, like Tommy and John Irwin, grew up in "Hell's Kitchen" nearly 100 years ago. After dabbling in petty crimes such as stealing coal, young Rocky and Jerry, at Rocky's prompting, tried a more profitable racket, stealing fountain pens from a locked boxcar in a local rail yard.

Interrupted by two cops, the teens fled. Jerry made it over a fence that stopped Rocky. A patrolman pulled Sullivan down. A short while later, Jerry visited Rocky in the lockup, and told his pal he wanted to surrender in the crime, suggesting things might go easier for Rocky if his accomplice stepped forward. Rocky told his chum, though, not to be "a sucker" and just walk away, that Rocky would do the same thing if the situation was reversed.

After serving a stint in reform school, Rocky embarked on a life of easy money, serving a 3-year term in prison -- the cost of doing "business" -- while entrusting his profits to his lawyer and partner-in-crime Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart). Upon release, Rocky returns to his old neighborhood, as he muscles his way back into Prohibition's speakeasy scene. In the process, he becomes a dubious role model for a local gang of impressionable kids, portrayed by the irrepressible Dead End Kids. These kids have taken over the hideout of the preceding generation of local toughs, which included Rocky and Jerry. As Rocky grew hardened in various penal settings, his friend Jerry joined the priesthood and now serves the local parish as pastor and counselor for the local kids, striving to save them from the kind of life epitomized by Sullivan's. We'll have more to say on the film, and its many Irish facets, in future postings.

In 1931, meanwhile, in real life (as distinct from reel life), in a court room in White Plains, N.Y., John Irwin stood in front of a judge and asked that he replace his brother Tom in the stir, confessing that it was he, and not his older brother, who committed the hold-up that garnered his brother a 20-40-year sentence in New York's Sing Sing Prison. The Times article headlined the story: "Brother Pleads Guilt to Free Jailed 'Twin'." The newspaper reported that State Supreme Court Justice Graham Witschief noted he had no jurisdiction to act on John's request that his brother go free, but urged Tom's lawyer, Moses W. Sachs, to move to set aside Tom's conviction on the basis of newly discovered evidence.

The Irwin brothers were grandchildren of Irish immigrants Bill and Margaret Dinnin Irwin, as was my grandmother, Susan Condon Regan, seen left, about 1920. My father related to me what he knew of their story decades earlier. His father, Raymond V. Regan, had brought my Dad, then a boy, to a wake in Hell's Kitchen for an Irwin relative. My father recalled seeing a man, in shackles and an ill-fitting suit, with a burly detective on each arm, brought in to pay his respects. Inquiring, my Dad was told the man was Tommy Irwin. My Dad thought he later overheard snippets of conversation between the adults in their modest Richmond Hill home that Tommy was serving a sentence for a "rape," though his brother John had done the crime. The extended family, including my grandparents, were not pleased at Yerkie's apparent reticence to free his brother.

My Dad's father encountered Yerkie working in a newsstand near Penn Station. Was this sighting before Yerkie's appeal to the courts? We don't know. The trail is cold, for now.

Please share your stories of searching for the "black sheep" in your family trees, either here in the blog or in the WGT Forum. And stay tuned for more developments in the search for the why's and wherefores of this decades-old family drama. -- Ger

EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE: The New York Irish History Round Table will be hosting presenting author Barnet Schecter ("The Battle for New York : The City at the Heart of the American Revolution") for an April 1 presentation on New York City's Draft Riots. The venue: McNally Amphitheatre, in Fordham University Law School, 140 West 62nd St., Manhattan. Schecter's book, "The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America" (Walker & Co., 2005) was published Dec. 27, and has already garnered some high praise from Amazon visitors. … New York-based tin whistle maestro Bill Ochs is hosting a workshop Saturday, led by Cathal McConnell, the renowned whistle and flute player from Boys of the Lough, for intermediate and advanced musicians. Venue: Marymount Manhattan College, 221 East 71st St., 3p-6p, The fee is $35. Contact Ochs to reserve a place, at You can read an announcement from Ochs in the Chiff & Fipple blog.

'COCK AND BULL': "Tristram Shandy," Tipperary-born novelist and Anglican clergyman Laurence Sterne's most famous work, will be coming to screens in the UK on Friday, and to US theaters in limited release Jan. 27. Well, sort of. The 2005 film, titled "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," takes off on Sterne's bawdy, comic, multistructured novel, which made him famous throughout Europe. The pic is helmed by Lancashire native Michael Winterbottom, and stars Manchester (UK)-born actor Steve Coogan as Shandy. Sterne, by the way, was born in Clonmel in 1713, the son of a British army ensign, and died in London in 1768, sez Check out's info on 'Tristram Shandy': The Movie, along with entry.


Pat Hickey said...

Outstanding First Offering, Ger, My Man!

From da grate Sout'Side A Chicaga, I tip my flat hat. Hell's Kitchen's Chicago doppleganger is Canaryville - the neighborhood immediately south of Mayor Daley's Bridgeport - roughly from the tracks on the east to Halsted on the west and from 39th St. to 47th Street.

Canaryville was the home to Ragen's Colts - a social at-letik club - notorious for its slogan 'hit me and hit ten tounsan'' The Parish is St. Gabriel's at 45th & Union and was the center for the Chicago labor movement despite what the old Lefty Studs Terkle likes to believe. This is the real Back-A-Da Yards. My Mom's family, Da Donahues, was dragged up, as the saying goes, here in Canaryville.

I plan to make my first offering to this Blog in the next few weeks and Canaryville will be the subject. In the mean time I will do my homework while scaring up a few more bucks for Leo High School ( many Sons of Leo are Canaryvillains who were proud to boast - " I'm from the Vill and I got more cousins than than Armor's got pigs. See?).

They say that the difference between a lad from Bridgeport and Canaryville can be found in the truth that a Bridgeporter will remove the dishes from the sink before micturating in it. So they say.

Great WORK, Ger and love to all the good folks in God's Astoria!

Pat 'I ain't no tough guy; I got my Church clothes on' Hickey

Gerry Regan and Joe Gannon said...

Thanks for sharing these insights about our bredren in Chi-Town, Padraic.

Anonymous said...

Greatings, ,


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