Tale of a crusader who took on the Irish criminal sharks 'On the Waterfront'

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: On the Irish Waterfront: the Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New YorkBy James T Fisher Cornell University Press 372pp, $29.95

IMMORTALISED IN the 1954 Elia Kazan film On the Waterfront, the true story of that part of the port of New York which lies on either side of the Hudson River from Manhattan’s west side to Hudson County, New Jersey – aka the Irish waterfront – might beggar Hollywood itself.

Consider, for openers, an organised criminal network in cahoots with a corrupt union and blessed with key contacts among respectable business, government, and Church figures, that oversaw an estimated $50 million in annual revenue from patronage, kickbacks, and loansharking. Toss in at least 100 unsolved murders in the first half of the 20th century, along with icepick assaults, grenades tossed into rival union offices, and a waterfront casino run out of a refitted boxcar, and you get a sense of the colourful scale of Fordham University historian James T Fisher’s study.

At the heart of Fisher’s story is Fr John “Pete” Corridan, son of Kerry emigrants and a Jesuit labour priest with an MA in economics, who decided in 1945 to make the violence-plagued Irish-American docks of the west side his apostolate. Described by novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, on whom the athletic priest made a deep impression, as a “tall, semi-bald, fast-talking, chain-smoking realist”, Corridan took on the challenge of a “Catholic-educated” workforce who “chase a buck as if Christ didn’t exist”, and how “Christ on a certain pier” would know “He is expected to be deaf, dumb and blind if He expects to work.”

Featuring alongside Corridan are a trio of waterfront players with real-life monickers straight out of crime noir: “King” Joe Ryan, president for life of the corrupt International Longshoresmen Association (ILA), and “The Boss” Frank Hague, a crooked mayor (1917-1947) of Jersey City, whose “expensive tailor-made suit, pearl-stick pin and costly tie” and palatial home were, as per one of his associates (and à la our own Charlie Haughey) “only the signs of a local boy who had made good”. The third player, with “The King” in his pocket and a good friend of “The Boss”, was “Mr Big”, a publicity-shunning, charity-donating, church-going businessman by name of William J McCormack, whose interests in gravel, concrete, and municipal contracts gave him commercial dominance of the ports.

Having built the New York port in the early 1800s, the Irish were, by the end of the first World War, outnumbered by Italo-Americans everywhere on the piers except the west side. But it took the Pulitzer Prize-winning series Crime on the Waterfrontby New York Sunreporter Mike Johnson in 1948-1949, with Fr Corridan as his chief source, to kick-start the process that wrested control of the docks from the corrupt ILA to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Film rights to Johnson’s journalism were acquired by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who conceived On the Waterfrontupon meeting Fr Corridan, parts of whose sermons Schulberg scripted for Karl Malden who played Corridan in the film. Fisher does not rehash the controversy of Schulberg’s and Kazan’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee, focusing instead on Corridan, a hugely gifted, yet quixotic, loner who subsequently battled with alcoholism, only to experience a spiritual renewal as chaplain in a Brooklyn hospital for the indigent mentally ill.

Corridan’s was a radical reading of the Gospels, at considerable distance from the Irish Catholicism of the waterfront or – given the recent Murphy and Ryan reports – that of the Irish Church. Whatever about Terry Molloy, Marlon Brando’s iconic ex-boxer Waterfrontcharacter, this real-life Jesuit was every inch a true contender.

Fisher’s well-told tale sent me back for a second viewing of this landmark film.


Boston-born Anthony Glavin is author of novel Nighthawk Alley