It is the day after St. Patrick’s day, the day where we celebrate the death of St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, whom legend has it drove the snakes out of Ireland when there were no actual snakes there. One could easily surmise the “snakes” were the pagan inhabitants of early Ireland that the good Saint converted to Christianity. With certainty, we know Ireland is a relatively rough and tumble country, racked by political and religous strife throughout history. Out of this past, a cliche’ rooted in truth, was born, that of the “Irish Cop”. How did this happen, you ask?
St. Patrick’s day is marked by parades, shamrocks, corned beef and cabbage, a degree of ribaldry and lot’s of green denoting the Emerald Isle. The early Irish were a rough hewn people, mostly rural who settled their differences with fists and certainty. They were among the poorest of immigrants to America and were reduced to manual labor in the big cities during the 19th and into the 20th century. Their existence was viewed as the “Irish Problem” by the civic leaders of the day. They were often involved in petty crime and prostitution and stereotypes began to develop. Forward thinking leaders thought that by assimilating them into the police culture, the Irish Problem would be mitigated. All of this was happening under a broad umbrella of Catholic/Protestant conflict, only recently brought under control in the motherland. Being Irish meant being rough around the edges and handling conflict at a base level. Enter a black population, post Civil War, and the Irish of the day had yet another ethnic group to be handled with street justice. The Irish, it was thought, were ideal candidates for police service. They began to thrive in the police culture and today can be found in police service all over the country in rather disproportionate numbers. Indeed, the longest reigning Police Commissioner in New York was Raymond Kelly, an Irishman, one of a number of Irish descendants to fill that role. In the early days of policing, jobs were tough for the Irish, and policing was not considered a refined and attractive occupation, ideal for a hard drinking Irishman who could handle situations with fists, boots and a club.
Historians generally agree the country’s first Irish cop was one Barney McGinniskin, an Irish laborer from the streets of Boston. He was tossed out of the service just 3 years later when a fiercely anti- Catholic bunch of Neanderthals took control of the state legislature. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Irish began working their way into political power as much a result of their rapidly increasing numbers as anything. More and more Irish cops led to the hiring of their friends, and they began their quest for power in police service. They also still controlled street gangs and organized crime, thus they controlled both sides of the crime equation. They are still evident in police forces today where their past has taught them to remain loyal to their heritage. So it is, we have an understanding of the meaning and origin of the hard drinking, scrappy “Irish Cop”.
Perhaps the legendary discord between the Hatfields and McCoys is the best American example of Irish heritage at work. This issue wasn’t to be settled until blood was spilled. A 19th century Irish Cop had no problem drawing blood in the resolution of a street scrap…and a legend was born. Certainly, it can be argued, the application of the early Irish style of street resolution to petty crime has a place, but may be gone forever in the face of a kinder and gentler style of policing. God love the Irish, folks in my professional heritage, who solved problems back in the day that stayed solved. Raise a glass of Guinness next St. Patrick’s day in honor of a good old fashioned “Irish Cop”. They made America better.
Have a great day!