An Irishman’s Diary on the man who inspired ‘On the Waterfront’

The story of the campaigning and pugnacious Fr John Corridan

 Fr John R Corridan testifying in 1953 before a US Senate committee investigating waterfront crime. Photograph: AP

Fr John R Corridan testifying in 1953 before a US Senate committee investigating waterfront crime. Photograph: AP


Joseph Ryan and John Corridan were born in New York, in 1884 and 1911 respectively, the sons of Irish immigrants. Both lost their fathers while they were children and were reared in modest circumstances. Ryan became president of the dockers’ union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, in 1927 and, in 1946, Corridan, now a Jesuit priest, was assigned to a school in St Xavier’s parish on West 16th Street in Manhattan where he became, in effect, the parish priest of the Catholic men who worked on the local piers.

At the time, many of the 40,000 longshoremen (dockers) who worked in the port of New York were casual labourers, hired on the “shape up” system. At the beginning of each shift, they stood in a semi- circle before a hiring boss. Those chosen paid him part of their wages and he, in turn, made a contribution to the ILA. Inevitably, workers supplemented their incomes by pilfering and in 1949, for example, the shipping companies reckoned their losses at $50 million.

Although Ryan became the “president for life” of the union with an annual salary of $20,000, he wasn’t its absolute ruler. While he could authorise new locals (branches) and many of the officials who controlled them were beholden to him, other locals, especially the ones with predominantly Italian and Greek memberships, were semi-independent fiefdoms and some were run by gangsters like the notorious Albert Anastasia, the president of Murder Inc.

One of the most profitable branches, Local 824, the so-called “pistol local” run by Irish gangsters, ruled the Hell’s Kitchen piers where the luxury liners docked.

There was also a widespread belief that Ryan had unspecified financial arrangements with William McCormack, a major employer in the harbour area, nicknamed Mr Big because of his business activities and his 100kg frame.

In 1948, Corridan briefed a journalist, Malcolm Johnson, for a series of articles titled “Crime on the Waterfront” that appeared in the New York Sun. It won a Pulitzer Prize and led to hearings by the New York Crime Commission at the behest of the governor, Thomas Dewey.

In 1950, the mayor of New York city, William O’Dwyer, also established a” blue ribbon” panel to investigate but, as the chairman was McCormack, its conclusion that conditions on the docks were generally satisfactory was hardly surprising.

In 1951, Corridan organised a strike that lasted for five days despite the union.

In 1953, the American Federation of Labor suspended the ILA and the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbour was established to deal with criminal activity in the port.

Next year, Ryan stepped down and was fined and jailed for violations of the Labor Management Act, particularly for receiving money corruptly.

However, the members of the ILA decided twice not to join a new AFL supported union and it was readmitted to the federation in 1959.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s articles had aroused the curiosity of a Jewish, former communist writer, Budd Schulberg. He contacted the journalist and through him met Corridan who in turn introduced him to workers on the docks. The outcome was a screen play titled On the Waterfront.

After a number of rejections and false starts it was filmed over 35 days in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1954, with a budget of $800,000 that was recouped 10 times over during the initial release.

Eli Kazan directed, Sam Spiegel produced and Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. It garnered eight academy awards and became one of the iconic movies of the mid century.

One of the main characters, Fr Pete Barry, played by Karl Malden, was based on Corridan and the five-minute “Christ on the Waterfront” speech which Schulberg wrote for him was influenced by a talk Corridan had given to a chapter of the Knights of Saint Columbus in 1948. The hat and coat worn by Malden belonged to Corridan.

Although he was a champion of the longshoremen, Corridan, who was once described by Ryan as “the type of priest who can’t mind his own business”, wasn’t universally popular among the men or indeed with the political establishment or the archdiocese of New York and, willingly or not, he was transferred to a teaching post.

After his death on July 1st 1984, his obituary in the New York Times stated that he had no known immediate survivors but as his mother, Hannah Shanahan, was one of 11 children from a family near Castleisland, he probably had cousins in Kerry.

Karl Malden died on July 1st, 2009, 25 years to the day after the man he had immortalised on film.

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