This page is dedicated to the Irish and Irish-Americans of the New York City area who left a lasting impact on the city and America.
James Francis Cagney
James Cagney was born July 17, 1899 above his father's
saloon at the corner of Avenue D and 8th Street, on the
lower east side. This area was known as
the "Gas House District." James Cagney Sr was a hard
drinking bartender from County Leitrim and wife Carolyn
Nelson the daughter of a Norweigan ship's captain. In 1900,
the Cagneys moved uptown to First Avenue, between 79th and
80th Streets. In 1907, they would move again to 96th
Street, between Third Avenue and Lexington. It was this
neighborhood that leave its impression on young Jimmy.
A lower, middle-class neighborhood of many immigrants. It
was from the Jewish families in the neighborhood that Jimmy
would learn to speak fluent Yiddish. (A talent that he
would slip into some of his early movies.)
Jimmy was known as a street fighter. Several
of his childhood friends would land in prison as adults. One was even sent to the electric chair. But Jimmy dreamed of being an artist. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School and landed a job as a junior architect. He then enrolled at Columbia University. His first taste of the stage came from a
pantomime role he had with his brother at the Lennox Hill Settlement House.
His father died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, and shortly thereafter, sister Jeanne was born. Jimmy withdrew from Columbia after only 6 months to support the family. He
worked as many as three jobs at once to keep the family above water. On a whim, he auditioned for the role of a chorus girl in the all-male show Every Sailor and won it. The pay was enough to keep the family comfortable, and Jimmy used this opportunity to learn to dance.
In 1920, he joined the cast of the Broadway show Pitter Patter and met his future wife, Frances Willard (Billie) Vernon. Jimmy and Billie married in September 1922. When Pitter Patter closed, Jimmy and Billie toured with
vaudeville shows - sometimes together, sometimes not. The Cagneys would go on to adopt two children: James Jr and Cathleen (Cassie).
In 1930, Al Jolson recommended Cagney for a role in the movie production Sinner's Holiday. Jolson had seen Cagney in the Broadway version and insisted that Warner Brothers hire him. Warners signed Cagney immediately. He would stay with the studio until the 1940s.
Cagney made a major name for himself in 1931's The Public Enemy, portraying Tom Powers. This would be the start of his tough-guy roles. He was the leading box office attraction for several years running in the late 1930s.
Cagney fought hard for stars' rights. He was one of the original founders of the Screen Actors' Guild and the first actor to receive a percentage of the box office.
In 1940, the House Committee on Un-American Activities leaked the names of several prominent actors they believed to be Communists. Cagney was among them. Some film historians now believe that Jimmy took the role of George
M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy to disprove these myths.
When Warner Brothers told George Cohan that Cagney would be portraying him in the film, Cohan was outraged. He didn't believe Cagney could fit the bill of a "flag-waver" as he was mostly the "gangster-type." When Cohan saw the premiere in 1941, he was moved to tears by Cagney's performance. Cagney would receive his first and only Oscar for the role. He was the first actor to receive an Oscar for a musical performance. He proved to the world that he was more than a tough-guy.
Cagney retired from acting in 1961 to sail, work on his farms and paint. He owned 4 farms (including a 700-acre farm in Dutchess County, NY), land on Martha's Vineyard, a Beverly Hills mansion and a NYC townhouse. In 1974, he was the first
actor awarded the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.
In 1981, neighbor Milos Forman approached Cagney with a proposition. He was adapting Ragtime for the
screen, and wanted Cagney in it. When Cagney inquired which role he would play, Forman told him, "any role you want." Cagney was stricken with health problems during the filming of Ragtime, including diabetes.
In 1984, Cagney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the US government. The same year his beloved sister, and Yankee Doodle Dandy co-star, Jeanne Cagney died. In 1985, Cagney would lose his only son.
Jimmy Cagney died of a heart attack on March 30, 1986 at his home in Dutchess County. President Ronald Reagan delivered his eulogy. Cagney made 72 films in his lifetime, and left an indelible impression on the film industry.
Unlike Robinson and Muni, who came by their tough-guy postures through the careful application of the actor's craft, Cagney was the real thing - a punk raised in the Irish slums of New York who had made good and learned to be a
gentleman, but whose every gesture reeked of the streets. -Box Office magazine 1998
No other political group in Irish-American history was as influential, famous
and infamous as Clan na Gael. It was Clan na Gael, or rather it's New York
City head, John Devoy, that made Ireland's fight for independence an
international cause. In order to understand the group, it's important to
understand it's most famous leader.
John Devoy was born in Kill, County Kildare in 1842, but grew up in Dublin.
His family was fiercely nationalist, and John followed suit. He received a
beating from a schoolmaster at age 10 for refusing to sing God Save the
Queen. He joined the Nationalist Petition movement in 1861, and traveled to
France. While there, he joined the French Foreign Legion and served in
Algeria for a year.
Upon his return to Ireland, Devoy became a Fenian organizer in Kildare. In
1865, he was appointed Chief Organiser of Fenians in the British Army. He
was arrested and tried for treason in November 1866 and sentenced to 15
years. At Portland Prison, he organized strikes and was moved to Millbank
Prison. In 1871, he was released and exiled to America. When Devoy arrived
in the US, he received an Address of Welcome from the US House of
Devoy once said that he would never touch Irish politics again. He took a
job as a journalist at the New York Herald, and seemed to live up to his
words. However, Ireland was never far from his heart and the Irish-American
population was looking for a leader. Devoy fit the bill.
It's unknown exactly when Clan na Gael was formed, but most agree that it was
around 1871 in Philadelphia. It's mission was complete and absolute
independence of Ireland from Great Britain, and the complete severance of all
political connections between the two countries by unceasing preparation for
armed insurrection in Ireland. Membership was open to anyone who fervently
believed in Irish independence. Devoy became the head of the New York City
chapter, which would grow to be the largest in the US. He pleaded with
Americans to give the Irish genuine democracy and authentic republicanism.
The exploits of Clan na Gael are legendary in Irish-American history, due, in
no small part, to Devoy. They were the largest single financier of the
Easter Rebellion and the ensuing War of Independence in Ireland. Devoy
contacted Germany during World War I, defying American neutrality, in order
to secure arms for the Easter Rebellion.
Devoy published Land of Erin in 1882 and welcomed Padraig Pearse to his
home in 1914. He addressed Dail Eireann in 1919, and believed the 1921
Anglo-Irish Treaty to be a grave disappointment. He founded and edited New
York City's Gaelic-American newspaper from 1903-1928. He was a regular
political contributor to the Irish-American newspaper.
In later years Devoy lost his hearing and his sight, but this didn't slow him
down. He thought that Eamonn De Valera was a dangerous amateur in politics,
although he supported De Valera's fundraising attempts in the US. However,
their dislike of each other led to an intense rivalry between Clan na Gael
and Sinn Fein.
John Devoy, a confirmed bachelor, died in poverty in Atlantic City in 1928.
His remains were transported back to Ireland, where he was interred in
Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. The Irish cause and its supporters, owe a
great deal to this man and his vision of a free and united Ireland.
Second Earl of Limerick
Thomas Dongan was born in 1634 in Castletown, Kildare. His father was Sir
John Dongan, a cavalry officer and member of the Irish parliament. The
Dongans were supporters of the House of Stuart and a true royalist family.
When Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland, 15 year old Dongan fled to France with
his brother William. He joined an Irish regiment of the French army. It was
there that he formed a close friendship with the Duke of York. Dongan was
recalled to England in 1677, and appointed Lieutenant Governor of Tangier
In 1682, Dongan was appointed governor of the New York colony. (Then still
called New Amsterdam.) In 1683, he convened the General Legislative Assembly
and passed the important Charter of Liberties and Privileges. The charter
granted popular rights and religious tolerance throughout the colony.
Aspects of it included:
- granted the Assembly the right to levy taxes and make laws
- established system of town, county and supreme courts along with a jury
- granted the right of religious liberty for all
- granted the right of suffrage
- forbade martial law and quartering of soldiers without consent
- granted elections by majority vote
The charter was sent to the Duke of York, who signed it and affixed his seal.
However, he simply put it aside and never returned the document to Dongan.
When the Duke acended the throne (becomming James II - and the colony's name
changing to New York), he reneged on the charter. Dongan went on to pen a
similar charter for New York City in 1686.
As governor, Dongan was able to grant lands, but not to himself. He found a
way around this by granting 24,000 acres of land on Staten Island to a
friend, who turned around and sold it to Dongan the very next day! Dongan
built a manor there and named the estate The Lordship and Manor of
Cassiltowne - after his hometown in Kildare.
In 1688 James II, bowing to pressure, abolished the General Assembly of New
York, cancelled all charters and relieved Dongan of his post. Dongan turned
down an offer to command a regiment in England, and instead chose to retire
to his estate on Staten Island.
When America learned that William of Orange had overthrown James II, anarchy
broke out in New York. Dongan's replacement, Governor Andros, was thrown in
prison in Boston. Jacob Leissler, a militia man, became acting governor. He
viewed Dongan as a threat and accused him of organizing an army to overthrow
the government. Leissler ordered his arrest. Dongan went into hiding,
eventually leaving for London in 1691.
When he returned home to Ireland, Dongan found that his brother William, the
Earl of Limerick, had fled to France with James II following the Battle of
the Boyne. The Dongan estates (26,000 total acres in Carlow, Dublin,
Kildare, Kilkenny, Longford and Tipperary) had been forfeited and given to
the Baron de Ginkel. Dongan, now the third Earl of Limerick following
William's death in 1698, was allowed to sell the estate but was required to
monetarily compensate any who purchased land from de Ginkel. In 1709, he
sold the land to William Conolly - speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
Conolly completed the Castletown House in 1725.
Dongan used the proceeds from the sale to pay off all his debts and move to
London. The unmarried, childless Dongan died in poverty on December 15, 1715
at age 81. He was buried in the graveyard at St Pancras, north of London.
The manor at Cassiltowne (Staten Island) burned to the ground on Christmas
Day, 1878. The town, however, retains the name Castleton.
The New York City charter was modified twice prior to the American
Revolution. The Dongan Charter for Albany remained in effect for 300 years-
until 1988. There is a statue honoring Thomas Dongan in Poughkeepsie NY.
The base reads:
One of the greatest constructive statesman ever sent to an English colony.
The assembly which he created passed an act known as the Charter of Liberties
and Privileges which assumed the sovereignty of the people and
proclaimed religious liberty, the right of suffrage, trial by jury and no
taxation without the consent of the assembly. Dongan's charter was the Magna
Carta of American constitutional liberty. Many of its examples are embedded
in the structure of our federal government.
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus
Eight year-old Virginia O'Hanlon was the only child of Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, a
coroner's assistant with the New York City Police Department. In September
1897, she heard from her friends that there was no Santa Claus. A firm
believer, the panicked Virginia ran to her father for confirmation. Unsure
of how to handle the dilemma, Dr. O'Hanlon suggested that Virginia write to
the family's favorite newspaper, The New York Sun. He said time and again,
If you see it in the 'Sun,' it's so. Virginia ran off to pen her letter.
Francis Pharcellus Church was the son of a Baptist minister. His father had
also founded the New York Chronicle. Church himself had an illustrious
career in journalism: Civil War correspondent for the New York Times,
editor of the Army and Navy Journal and editor of the Galaxy - a literary
In 1897, Church was working as an anonymous editor for The New York Sun.
Any letters dealing with the issue of theology were sent his way. In
September of that year, he was called into his boss's office and given an
assignment: to answer a letter from an 8 year-old girl. He was given one
day. He bristled, his boss later reported of Church's reaction to the
Church died in April 1906, married but without any children. It was at the
time of his death that The New York Sun revealed that he had written this
famous editorial. The Sun reprinted the editorial annually until it went
out of business in 1949.
Virginia O'Hanlon went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter
College in 1910 and her Master's degree from Columbia University in 1911. In
1912, she entered the New York City school system as a teacher - and later a
principal, where she would work for 47 years. She answered all personal mail
about her letter with a printed copy of the editorial. Virginia died at age
81 on May 13, 1971, in a nursing home in Valatie, NY.
An assistant editor at The New York Sun sent Virginia her original letter
as a keepsake. It has passed down through her family and now resides with
her grandson. It's value was appraised by Kathleen Guzman, formerly of
Christie's - now with PBS' Antiques Roadshow, at ,000.
Church wrote his answer to Virginia's letter in a time when most people
believed that science could and would provide all the answers to life's
mysteries. Pseudo-science ran amok at the close of the 19th century. But
while all those scientific theories have fallen by the wayside, Francis P.
Church's editorial continues to live on.
The editorial in its entirety:
We take in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below
expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author
is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, If you see it in The Sun, it's so. Please tell me the truth,
is there a Santa Claus?
115 West 95th Street
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the
skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They
think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.
All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In
this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect,
as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the
intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and
generousity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to
your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas, how dreary would be the world if
there was no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no
Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to
make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense
and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You
might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve
to catch Santa Claus coming down, but what would that prove? Nobody sees
Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real
things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you
ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's not proof
that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all of the wonders
there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart a baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there
is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor the
united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.
Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view
and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it real? Ah,
Virginia, in this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives, and lives forever! A thousand years
from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, he will
continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
James John "Jimmy" Walker
Jimmy Walker was born July 19, 1881 in Greenwich Village to Irish immigrant parents. He graduated from St Francis Xavier College and NYU Law School. Walker worked briefly as a songwriter with only one success:
Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May in 1905.
Walker joined the Democratic party and was soon noticed by
Tammany Hall. With Al Smith as his mentor and Tammany backing, Walker won a seat in the state assembly in 1909. While with
the assembly, he legalized boxing in NY State, allowed theaters
to stay open on Sundays, pushed for five-cent fares, 8 hour workdays for women, workmen's compensation laws and safety in tenements. In 1912, he married chorus girl Janet Allen and was admitted to the NY State Bar Association. He won the senate seat in 1914.
In 1921, he became the minority leader and the head of the
NYC Democratic party. Enormously popular, Walker was elected to
his first term as mayor in 1926. While serving as mayor, he established the Department of Sanitation, unified the public hospital system and approved construction of the subway. He successfully defeated Fiorello La Guardia in the mayoral election of 1929.
Walker was known for his walking stick, gray spats, silk topper and care-free attitude towards everything. You would frequently
find him walking up Broadway or heading a parade. A legendary night-clubber, he was called The Late Mayor because he rarely arrived at City Hall before noon and was always late for appointments. He personally invited Bronx schoolchildren to the opening of the East 174th Street Bridge and even
played piano at a Bronx orphanage on his 51st birthday. Though married, his string of mistresses was public knowledge. The most notable was singer Yvonne Shelton.
He was approached by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt to explain the widespread corruption throughout NYC government. Due to the exposure of several frauds and charges of graft, Samuel Seabury was appointed to investigate Walker. After his court appearances in September 1932 where Walker was unable to explain the large sums of money deposited into his bank account, the court levelled 15 charges of graft against him.
Walker quickly resigned as mayor and fled to Europe with Shelton.
Once Walker was sure that it was safe, he returned to NYC in 1935. The city rolled out the welcome mat for its prodigal mayro. In 1940, mayor La Guardia appointed him arbitrator for garment industry disputes. He would then move on to become
president of Majestic Records. Jimmy Walker died November 18, 1946 and is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne NY.
Reporter and playwright Ben Hecht The Front Page said of him:
Walker is a troubadour headed for Wagnerian dramas. No man could hold life so carelessly without falling down a manhole before he is done.
But the best quotes are those from Jimmy himself:
A reformer is a guy who rides through the sewer in a glass-bottom boat.
There are 3 things a man must do alone. Be born, die and testify.
This fellow Seabury would convict the Twelve Apostles if he could - on Samuel Seabury following Walker's appearance in court
I have never heard of a girl being ruined by a book - on censorship of novels