Irish Waterfront, Then+Now

Gabriel Cohen, with whom PortSide did the Graving Dock book reading at GMD shipyard, runs a great book reading series at Sunny's Bar in Red Hook. First Sunday of every month at 3pm.

January 3, he had an author in the roster who brought me back to town earlier than I would have come otherwise. That was James T. Fisher, author of "On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York"

The title is one heckuva mouthful, but the book promises to explain the story of Father Corridan, the priest, and his fight against corruption on the docks upon which the movie “On the Waterfront” is based. The reading was the bomb. All three readers were good. Fisher turns out to be a professor of Theology and American Studies at Fordham. My ears perk up at the AmStud label; that was one of my two majors at Yale and shaped the lens through which I view the world.

Listening to Fisher, it occurred to me that Corridan in the 50s was inventing here at home what was called liberation theology and so associated with Latin America. Hearing the degree to which senior people in Manhattan’s Catholic church were complicit in corruption on the docks, corruption that led to the killing and disappearance of many men, impressed me and my seat companions, Seth Goodwin and Meg Fellerath, two beloved water rats I was happy to find in the bar.

I introduced myself to Fisher and soon thereafter a torrential exchange of emails began, excerpted here [links added during blog creation]:


Carolina it was only later heading home I remembered that my great friend/former student Adam Davis was cast member in that Puccini Opera you hosted out in Bklyn. Adam was touting the setting to the skies. … I love the 'blue space' concept and amazed by the vision behind this; thanks from Jim now the NYT has promoted the write up of Sunny's event from City Room blog to book page, just below Warren Beatty and Joan Collins

all the best to you from Jim


….Glad you like the Bluespace concept. The waterfront is so sorely overlooked and misunderstood that we had to work to find language to get people aware of the water part of the waterfront. Clearly, that was not the case in the era of your book Irish Waterfront.

I overheard the Times journalist remarking to you that your reading contained some important history in rebutting the idea that "On the Waterfront" was a Budd Schulberg justification for HUAC testimony. THANKS for sending the link. I was afraid I'd miss his follow-up column.

I just read his piece. Such a shame that he did not mention, as you did, that the Times itself for weeks carried many pages of stevedoring testimony. You strongly made the point that the stevedoring testimony was a major issue of the day. In neglecting to include that Jim avoids being too self-referential to Times' prior coverage but slights the importance of a maritime issue to a general audience, eg, he continues the forgetting of the Bluespace. While listening to you at Sunny's, I felt that the whole HUAC slant to interpreting the movie was only possible because the world had forgotten the importance of the docks at the time. Similarly, another line of criticism of the movie is that the priest is just too much, is implausible, and that the morality message is too melodramatic, but that line of criticism also depends on not understanding the documentary basis of the film.


… why did the Port come to be romanticized nostalgically even as it remained a vital element of the local political economy? SNIP

So I treat some the issues that engage you but until we met I had yet to really dig in to the contemporary issues: tho I take every class every semester (some more than once) to hold class on west side piers it's nearly always historically-oriented. You don't need me tell you what a richly anomalous position you occupy since everything about Red Hook reads from a superficial perspective as "post-industrial," "post-modern etc' and indeed not long after yr time in Am. Studies at Yale the program became engulfed in just such 'discourses.' So part of your vocation as I see it is to teach a wholly different way of seeing what it means to work in a working port when the conditioned impulse is to respond: not so working port, least not like the old days… SNIP

As you know the waterfront commission was nearly dismantled last year once it was alleged to be as complicit in corruption as the hiring system it was designed to supplant in 1953.

Then I read that the new exec. director was inspired to achieve reform after reading my book! I had no idea what to make of this, having overlooked contemporary scene SNIP

Rocky Sullivan's on Feb 3 I plan to talk real directly about Columbia St and about the divisions between irish and italian waterfronts.

P.S. the crime commission stories are on any data base the offers NY Times: the public hearings covered Dec 1952-Jan 1953. Yet for a vivid education on life in the port at that time there is no substitute for the 5 volumes the NY State crime commission released in 53: these are at many local college libraries, NYPL etc.. At least one of the vols is heavy Bklyn-oriented.

Photo at left: 1953 Strike in Erie Basin, Red Hook, from collection of Brooklyn Public Library


Well! I can’t wait to sit down and talk at length with this guy. I hope to interest him in PortSide’s historical research. Since the death of the researcher Henry Silka, the pace of our research has slowed. An interim product is the Red Hook Visitor Guide we did Sept 2009. I’m definitely headed to Rocky Sullivan’s on Feb 3, 7pm to hear about the split between Italian and Irish waterfronts on Columbia Street.

PS If you want to read the Pulitzer Prize-winning articles that also inspired the movie see this book