The Irish Mob is one of the oldest organized crime groups in the United States, in existence since the early 19th century. Originating in Irish American street gangs of the 19th century—depicted in Herbert Asbury's 1928 book The Gangs of New York—the Irish Mob has appeared in most major American cities, including Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans.
Outside of Ireland itself, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom also have histories of Irish gang activities.
In the United States
Boston has a well-chronicled history of Irish mob activity, particularly in the heavily Irish-American neighborhoods like Somerville, Charlestown, South Boston ("Southie"), Dorchester and Roxbury where the earliest Irish gangsters arose during Prohibition. Frank Wallace of the Gustin Gang dominated Boston's underworld until his death in 1931, when he was ambushed by Italian gangsters in the North End. Numerous gang wars between rival Irish gangs during the early and mid 20th century would contribute to their decline.
The Winter Hill Gang
The Winter Hill Gang, a loose confederation of Boston-area organized crime figures, was one of the most successful organized crime groups in American history. It controlled the Boston underworld from the early 1960s until the mid 1990s. It derives its name from the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville, Massachusetts, north of Boston, and was founded by first boss James "Buddy" McLean.
While Winter Hill Gang members were alleged to have been involved with most typical organized crime related activities, they are perhaps best known for fixing horse races in the northeastern United States. Twenty-one members and associates, including Howie Winter and his right-hand man and bookkeeper, Salvatore Sperlinga, were indicted by federal prosecutors in 1979. The gang was then taken over by James J. "Whitey" Bulger and hitman Stephen Flemmi, both of whom were of Irish heritage.
Irish Mob War
The Irish Mob War is the name given to conflicts throughout the 1960s between the two dominant Irish-American organized crime gangs in Massachusetts: the Charlestown Mob in Boston, led by brothers Bernard and Edward "Punchy" McLaughlin, and the Winter Hill Gang of Somerville (just north of Boston) headed by James "Buddy" McLean. It is widely believed that the war began when George McLaughlin tried to pick up the girlfriend of Winter Hill associate Alex "Bobo" Petricone, also known as actor Alex Rocco. McLaughlin was then beaten and hospitalized by two other Winter Hill members. Afterward, Bernie McLaughlin went to Buddy McLean for an explanation. When McLean refused to give up his associates, Bernie swore revenge but was soon killed by McLean in Charlestown City Square.
The war resulted in the eradication of the Charlestown Mob with its leaders, Bernie and Edward McLaughlin, and Stevie and Connie Hughes all having been killed. George McLaughlin, the one who started the war, was the only one who survived by being sent to prison. McLean was also killed, by Charlestown's Hughes brothers, and leadership of The Winter Hill Gang was taken by his right hand man, Howie Winter. The remnants of the Charlestown Mob were then absorbed into the Winter Hill Gang, who were then able to become the dominant non-mafia gang in the New England area.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the FBI's Boston office was largely infiltrated through corrupt federal agent John J. Connolly, by which Whitey Bulger was able to use his status as a government informant against his rivals (the extent of which would not be revealed until the mid to late 1990s). This scandal was the basis for the book Black Mass and served as the inspiration for the fictional film The Departed.
Irish-American street gangs such as the Dead Rabbits and Whyos dominated New York's underworld for well over a century before facing competition from other, primarily recently arrived Italian and Jewish gangs, during the 1880s and 1890s. Although gang leaders such as Paul Kelly of the Five Points Gang would rise to prominence during the early 1900s, gangs such as the Hudson Dusters and the Gopher Gang would remain formidable rivals during the period.
In the early 1900s, with Italian criminal organizations, such as the Morello crime family, encroaching on the waterfront, various Irish gangs united to form the White Hand Gang. Although initially successful in keeping their Italian rivals at bay, unstable leadership and infighting would prove their downfall. The murders of Dinny Meehan, Bill Lovett, and Richard Lonergan led to the gang's disappearance by 1925, and the waterfront was taken over by Italian mobsters Vincent Mangano, Albert Anastasia, and Joe Adonis.
During the early years of Prohibition, "Big" Bill Dwyer emerged among many in New York's underworld as a leading bootlegger. However, following his arrest and trial for violation of the Volsted Act during 1925 and 1926, Dwyer's former partners were split between Owney "The Killer" Madden, a former leader of the Gopher Gang, and Frank Costello against Jack "Legs" Diamond, "Little" Augie Pisano, Charles "Vannie" Higgins and renegade mobster Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll.
The Westies are an Irish American gang hailing from Hell's Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan, New York City.
The most prominent members have included Eddie McGrath, James Coonan, Mickey Featherstone, and Edward "Eddie The Butcher" Cummiskey. Coonan was imprisoned in 1986 under the RICO act, along with multiple charges of murder. Coonan had let his wife, Edna, become involved in his affairs, and she too was imprisoned. Mickey Featherstone became an informant after his arrest in the early 1980s.
Michael Spillane vs. James Coonan
A power struggle between two factions for control of the Westies lasted from 1966 until 1977. Michael Spillane's position as boss of Hell's Kitchen was challenged by James Coonan, an up and coming gangster. There was a long history between Spillane and Coonan involving an affair between Spillane and Coonan's mother. It is said that Coonan started the war by shooting up an apartment with Spillane in it. Coonan then started kidnapping Spillane's associates, holding them for ransom or executing them.
In the 1970s, with Spillane's organization already weakened by years of warfare with Coonan, a war started to brew between Spillane and the Genovese crime family over control of a construction site in Hell's Kitchen. The Genovese family moved quickly, murdering Spillane's top three lieutenants in 1976. This prompted Coonan to attempt a complete takeover of the Spillane organization by forming an alliance with Roy DeMeo of the Gambino crime family. The Genovese family decided that the Westies were too violent and well led to go to war with and thus mediated a truce via the Gambinos. The Westies were left in control of Hell's Kitchen (paying 10% of their profits to the Gambinos), and the Genovese family were left in control of the construction site they wanted, paying part of the profits to the Westies.
Daniel "Danny" O'Leary fought with Maxie Hoff over control of Philadelphia's bootlegging throughout Prohibition.
Post-World War II
In the years following World War II, the Northeast Philly Mob, also known as The K&A Gang, was the dominant Irish gang in the city's underworld. A multi-generational organized crime group made up of predominantly Irish and Irish American gangsters, the Philly Mob originated from a youth street gang based around the intersections of Kensington and Allegheny, which grew in power as local hoods and blue collar Irish Americans seeking extra income joined its ranks. In time, the group expanded and grew more organized, establishing lucrative markets in gambling, loan sharking, and burglary.
The group shifted gears in the 1980s and expanded into neighborhoods beyond Kensington. It was during this time that Italian Mafioso Ray Martorano and over 36 others were indicted for their alleged involvement in a large methamphetamine ring.
The successors of Michael Cassius McDonald's criminal empire of the previous century, the Irish-American criminal organizations in Chicago were at their peak during Prohibition, specializing in bootlegging and highjacking. However, they would soon be rivaled by Jewish and Italian mobsters, particularly Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit.
The organizations existing before Prohibition - including the North Side Gang, which included Dion O'Banion, George "Bugs" Moran, and Louis "Two-Gun" Alterie; the Southside O'Donnell Brothers (led by Myles O'Donnell); the Westside O'Donnell's; Ragen's Colts; the Valley Gang; Roger Touhy; Frank McErlane; James "Big Jim" O'Leary; and Terry "Machine Gun" Druggan - all were in competition with Capone for control of the bootlegging market.
Other areas in the United States
- George Horace "Kid" McCoy held the Jefferson County and Shelby County, Alabama underworld under his control in the 1920s and 30s until Donald "Little Man" Popwell had McCoy killed on December 24, 1938 at a Christmas Party in Bessemer, Alabama.
- In Birmingham, Alabama, Carlton C. "The General" Russell was named boss of the Celtics in Alabama by the New Orleans Commission. Not long after "The General" ordered a hit on Georgia's Celtic Boss, Roy Sirus. The murder is currently a cold case file in the Fulton County Sheriff's files. A Grand Jury failed to take action in the case (2002).
- In Savannah, Georgia, Johnny Bouhan, an attorney, held significant influence over county and city government until the late 1960s. He was loosely allied with the Dixie Mafia but a falling-out after Bouhan's death led to the arson of his law firm, Bouhan, Williams, and Levy. This was widely believed to be a retaliation for the law firm filing suit against a Toombs County, Georgia judge who was a leader in the Dixie Mafia.
Elsewhere in the world
- The West End Gang, a primarily Irish criminal enterprise, is one of the three organizations that makes up Montreal's "Consortium," making it one of the most influential criminal organizations in Canada.
- In Australia, Melbourne has a long history of Irish organized crime stemming from the poor Irish Catholic working classes. Many Melbourne trade unions have been infiltrated or brought under the mob's control. Originating from waterfront workers in the Melbourne docklands after World War II, they controlled a large part of the drug trade until the old Painters and Dockers Union was disbanded in 1984. Since the late 1990s, the Moran family is one of the more powerful Irish crime families in Melbourne and allegedly played a significant role in the 1998-2006 Melbourne gangland killings.
- The Clerkenwell crime syndicate, most often known as the Adams Family or the A-team by the British press, is alleged to be one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the United Kingdom if not in fact the strongest .
- The Noonan family is a criminal group in Manchester headed by Dominic Noonan.
Irish mob in popular culture
Irish mobsters appeared as characters in the early "gangster" films of the 1930s and film noir of the 1940s. These roles are often identified with actors such as James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Frank McHugh, Ralph Bellamy, Spencer Tracy, Lynne Overman, and Frank Morgan (although Bellamy and Overman were not of Irish descent), as well as stars including Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.
Underworld (1927), Prohibition gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) befriends a down and out former district attorney "Rolls Royce" Wensel (Clive Brook). However, as he is helped back on his feet, the two begin fighting over the gun moll known as Feathers McCoy (Evelyn Brent).
The Racket (1928), Chicago police Captain James McQuigg (Thomas Meighan) matches wits with bootlegger Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim), their rivalry threatens to uncover the secret mastermind behind "The Organization," the criminal syndicate running Chicago.
The Public Enemy (1931), played by James Cagney in his film debut, Tom Powers is a Prohibition bootlegger whose older brother Michael (Donald Cook) attempts to reform the gangster while he fights his way to the top of the underworld.
Scarface (1932), Tony Camonte (a fictional version of Al Capone) fights several Irish gangs in Chicago. One of the gang leaders is played by Boris Karloff.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), after former mob boss Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) returns to Hell's Kitchen, former childhood friend, Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) tries to save him from himself.
On the Waterfront (1954), after witnessing the murder of a fellow longshoreman, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) must choose sides between his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) and mobbed up union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) against crusading priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint).
St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), Roger Corman's retelling of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre stars Jason Robards as Al Capone, Ralph Meeker as Bugs Moran, and appearances by George Segal and Jack Nicholson.
Prime Cut (1972), Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin), an enforcer for the Chicago Irish mob, is sent to Kansas to collect a debt from Mary Ann (Gene Hackman) the owner of a slaughterhouse.
The Sting (1973), grifters Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) attempt to swindle Irish mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is a gunrunner for the Boston Irish mob. Facing harsh prison time, he becomes an informant for the ATF. When the mob finds out he is an informant, they send his friend Dillon (Peter Boyle) to kill him.
Miller's Crossing (1990), Irish gangster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) tries to prevent a gang war between Irish boss Liam "Leo" O'Bannion (Albert Finney) and Italian boss Johnny Casper (Jon Polito).
State of Grace (1990), undercover officer Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) returns to Hell's Kitchen to infiltrate The Westies which include childhood friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman) and neighborhood boss Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris).
Last Man Standing (1996), gunman John Smith (Bruce Willis) becomes involved in a gang war between Irish gangster Doyle (David Patrick Kelly) and Italian mobster Fredo Strozzi (Ned Eisenberg) in the small town of Jericho, Texas.
The General (1998), Real life story of Irishman, Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) who rose from petty criminal to lead of one of Dublin's most powerful crime gangs before being murdered in 1994.
Monument Ave. (1998), in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a charismatic mob enforcer (Denis Leary) must decide whether to abide by the neighborhood code of silence when his boss (Colm Meaney) begins murdering members of his family.
Southie (1998), Film about Danny Quinn (Donnie Wahlberg) who returns to South Boston and gets stuck between his friends, who are supported by one Irish gang, and his family, who are members of another.
Hardball (2001), Keanu Reeves plays a man in-debt to violent Irish-American bookies in a Chicago enclave.
Made (2001), the Westies are featured, by name, in this film about two Los Angeles transplants dabbling in the criminal underworld of New York City.
Gangs of New York (2002), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, this movie showcases the criminal underworld of the Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan, in the 1860s.
Ash Wednesday (2002), Edward Burns wrote, directed, and starred in this movie about Irish gangsters in Hell's Kitchen.
Road to Perdition (2002), based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) finds himself on the run from former boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) after his son witnesses a gangland slaying.
Death to Smoochy (2002), the Irish mob is painted as being in control of a children's TV network and eventually builds an alliance with a formerly idealistic performer (Edward Norton).
Dirty Deeds (2002), set in 1969, Irish-Australian gangsters, led by Barry Ryan, who run slot machines in Sydney, Australia, find themselves pitted against rival Sydney gangsters and the Mafia for control of underworld gambling.
A History of Violence (2005), film featuring Irish-American gangsters from Philadelphia.
The Departed (2006), film about two moles, one a cop in Boston's Irish mob, the other a mobster in the Massachusetts State Police.
What Doesn't Kill You (2008), based on the life of director Brian Goodman, featuring two childhood friends who join a South Boston Irish-American gang.
Perrier's Bounty (2009), a black comedy crime thriller involving the Dublin Irish mob, featuring Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson.
The Town (2010), a crime drama involving a gang of Irish-American bank robbers in Charlestown, Boston.
Kill the Irishman (2010), set in Cleveland during the 1970s, is a biopic of Danny Greene, an Irish-American mob boss and FBI informant, who warred for several years against Cleveland crime family boss James T. Licavoli (Paul Sorvino).
Cogan's Trade (2012), an upcoming film, based on the George V. Higgins book, about Irish-American gangsters plotting to rob a high-stakes card game managed by the Mafia of Boston.
Brotherhood (2006), set in Providence, Rhode Island and revolving around the alliance between two Irish-American brothers. Michael Caffee, played by Jason Isaacs, is an aspiring mob boss and Tommy Cafee is one of the state's most powerful politicians. It developed a cult following during its three seasons on Showtime.
The Black Donnellys (2007), a canceled crime drama on NBC that follows four young Irish brothers in New York s Hell's Kitchen and their involvement in organized crime.
The Chicago Code (2011), set in Chicago, undercover police investigate corruption involving the Irish Mob.
Paddy Whacked: The Irish Mob (2006), a documentary tracing the rise and fall of the Irish mob, including an alleged involvement in the John F. Kennedy assassination.
Underbelly (2008), Australian drama series based on the Melbourne gangland killings. It stars Gerard Kennedy as Graham Kinniburgh and Kevin Harrington as Lewis Moran.
Boardwalk Empire (2010), an HBO series set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City and featuring gangsters of various ethnicities, including Irish-American gangsters.
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