Articles by: Paul Moses

  • Op-Eds

    The Fortunate Pilgrim

    This June, I deepened the ties to my Italianheritage by traveling for the first timeto the villages in Calabria and Basilicatawhere my mother’s parents were born.

    I never met either of my grandparents,who married in 1909 at St. Patrick’s OldCathedral on Mott Street and lived onthe next block down. Both died before I was born, but in some ways, I met them byseeing the small towns where they grew up. My grandmother, Rachela Martoccia (shortened to Martocci), was especially vague for me as she had died the year aftergiving birth to my mother in Manhattan.

    But to see her lovely hilltop village ofLaurenzana in the Basilicata region, to meetthe people, to kneel at the local shrinesand to taste the food specific to the area allhelped me to better understand her and myItalian ancestry. A castle that served Emperor Frederick IIin the thirteenth century presides fromLaurenzana’s rocky pinnacle. Nearby is an800-year-old church where the remains ofthe holy Franciscan friar Blessed Egidio arevenerated.

    The narrow, winding streetson the hill below, the stone buildings androunded towers date to medieval times.The Martoccia family, I discovered, livedin a valley far below these heights andworshiped in a little chapel on the town’soutskirts. I now understood one of thestories about my grandmother: how muchshe enjoyed going up to the ancient castlewhen she was a girl.

    Cerasi, my grandfather ChristopherMoscato’s hometown, is up in the clouds inCalabria’s Aspromonte mountains. Drivingthere was a little frightening because I wasso tempted to peek at the breathtakingviews while negotiating hairpin turns. Seeing Cerasi made me appreciate a story I heard about how my grandfather wouldleave home as a youth to work in the fieldswith a bit of bread, cheese and a chestnut inhis pocket. It would have been a very longwalk through those steep, pine-forestedhills to arrive at any fields.

    And I wasamazed that someone who came from suchisolated rural splendor could manage toraise six children in Mott Street’s crowdedslums.The people were very hospitable when I metthem on June 13 after Mass for the Feast ofSt. Anthony, Cerasi’s patron saint.

    I was invited in for espresso and cookies, andshown the Moscatos’ one-time home andthe communal wood-fired hearth wherebread is baked—a particular favorite for mebecause, perhaps not coincidentally, I aman avid bread baker.

    While just a handful live there nowadays, quite a few people with roots in Cerasireturn to the old family homes on weekendsor for vacation and a celebration of St. Anthony in August, demonstrating theancestral magnetism of the villages that dotItaly’s mountain regions.Now I’ve felt that pull, too.

    * A professor at Brooklyn College/CUNY, PaulMoses is the author of An Unlikely Union:The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians.

  • Facts & Stories

    The Irish-Italian Divide & How Enemies Make Peace

    The idea for my book An Unlikely Union was spun from the yarn of everyday life: my wife Maureen’s ancestry is Irish, while mine is half Italian. It’s not remarkable, of course, but that’s the point. 

    Not so very long ago, the prospect of an Irish-Italian union such as ours might have stirred anger in our respective tribes, or at least gossip among the relatives. But by the time we walked down the aisle at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Elmont, Long Island in 1976, that was no longer the usual case. 

    And yet, beginning in the nineteenth century and for decades into the twentieth, the Irish and Italians in New York and other major American cities were rivals in the Catholic Church, in the streets, on waterfront and construction job sites, in crime, the civil service and in politics. Then they fell in love with each other and married on a large scale in the years after World War II. What changed? That became a story I wanted to tell. 


    I became intrigued by this Irish-Italian peace while working on another book about peacemaking, The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, published in 2009. 

    At the time, I had so immersed myself in Francis’s encounter with the sultan of Egypt during the Crusades that I would frequently dream at night that I was in the Middle Ages.  As many authors will attest, a book project can produce an altered state of consciousness in which only the book seems to exist, much to the detriment of the writer’s relationship with his or her spouse. Basically, I wasn’t there for Maureen, even when I was sitting right in front of her.

    While this caused some friction, the Irish-Italian peace in our household held up. Buried as I was in research about a Christian saint who reached out to Muslims, I began to see the arc of a historical story of peacemaking right in my own home—the journey of New York’s Irish and Italians from rumbles to romance.  

    A deep, bitter conflict

    Through research in archived letters and newspapers, I found that the Irish-Italian conflict was deeper and more bitter than I had realized. For example, fights between Irish and Italian laborers were so common that the Brooklyn Eagle ran an editorial in 1894 asking “Can’t They Be Separated?” The paper urged contractors to “keep their gangs of workmen distinct—the Irish in one street and the Italians in another.”

    Having arrived sooner than the Italians, the Irish were well established by the time the Italians began to migrate to the United States in large numbers in 1880. In the big picture, the Irish were moving up to better jobs as the Italians came in as underlings. But there were still plenty of Irish bootblacks, laborers, dockworkers and their union leaders who hated the Italians for their willingness to work longer hours for less pay. That often led to violence.

    The Irish-Italian relationship was also complicated by the fact that they were two peoples divided by membership in the same church. Starting with churches such as Transfiguration on Mott Street in what is today Chinatown, parishes in New York and other major cities in the East and Midwest became battlegrounds for Irish-Italian conflict.

    Angry disputes between Irish and Italian priests reached all the way to the Vatican as the Italians complained to Rome that they were only permitted to hold services in church basements. “Why only the basement? Forgive me, Excellency, if I tell you frankly that these poor devils are not very clean, so that the others do not want to have them in the upstairs church,” New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan wrote indelicately to a Vatican office that was reviewing the plight of Italian emigrants. “Otherwise the others move out, and then good-bye the income.”  

    Seeds for better times

    But even in the midst of conflict, there were always seeds for better times. Irish labor leaders came to realize that they needed to unionize Italian workers, if only to present a united front against management. Archbishop Corrigan gave the Italians their own churches. Through the influence of its schools, the Catholic Church brought future generations of the Irish and Italians together and to the altar in marriage. 

    The Irish played the role of gatekeeper for the Italian immigrants, and were by turns mentor and tormentor. Eventually, the playing field leveled socially and economically. Love, marriage, babies and Italian Sunday dinners followed. 

    Working on the book was a humbling experience. I knew that Italians had occupied a low social rung, but saw through my research how routinely they were degraded and yet maintained their dignity and pride. Irish foremen may have been tough on Italian workers, but they were nowhere near as demeaning as the Anglo-Saxon intellectuals who claimed as a matter of science that Italians were racially inferior.  

    The only grandparents I knew were my father’s parents, a Jewish physician and his wife who fled from Hitler’s Germany. My mother’s parents, immigrants from Calabria and Basilicata, had died before I was born. Like Maureen’s Irish ancestors, they had come from extreme rural poverty to forge a new life. They lived in separate worlds: Little Italy and Brooklyn’s Irishtown.

    But when two peoples mingle in their houses of worship, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces, barriers can give way to collaboration and even love. That’s the story behind An Unlikely Union, which NYU Press will publish in June. 

    * Paul Moses is a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. Previously he worked for 23 years as a journalist in New York. In 1991 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting. His book The Saint and the Sultan (Doubleday, 2009) won the 2010 Catholic Press Association award for best history book. 

  • Op-Eds

    "The Irish and Italian roots" of the New York Police Department.

    A New York Times story in December on the funerals of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, two police officers assassinated in Brooklyn, referred to "the Irish and Italian roots" of the New York Police Department. It’s true enough that Italian Americans have deep roots in the NYPD, but therein lies another story: how they achieved acceptance after years of tense relations with police.

    I encountered this story as I researched my upcoming book, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians. Newspapers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offered many accounts of tension and distrust between the police and the minority community of the day—Italian immigrants. We can hear their echo in today’s news of frayed relations between police and minority communities in Ferguson, Mo., New York and elsewhere.

    From the Italians’ point of view, police not only failed to protect their community, but when they did act, the criminal justice system was stacked against them. “When a murder cannot be unraveled the police always find that `an Italian-looking tramp’ was seen in the neighborhood, or, `a knife was found resembling an Italian stiletto,’ ” Italian American journalist Gino C. Speranza wrote in 1904. “. . . A number of lawyers, when assigned by the Court to defend Italians, induce their clients, if they do not force them, to plead guilty.”

    Part of the solution was greater diversity in the criminal justice system, and Italian community leaders called time and again for more Italian American cops to be hired. They also pushed for Italians to be appointed as prosecutors and judges.

    From the police point of view, the Italians were uncooperative and prone to violence. Many agreed that the problem was not with the criminal justice system, but the Italians themselves. “The trouble now is that an Italian criminal at once seeks refuge behind racial and national sympathy, and many of his countrymen, otherwise honest, believe it a sort of patriotic duty to shield him from the officers of the law,” The Times editorialized.

    We can sense the undercurrent of this police-community bitterness in the 1899 case of a mentally unstable Italian saloonkeeper named Michael Farrelli who shot a popular Irish American officer in East Harlem, 25-year-old Patrick O’Keefe. Farrelli opened fire on O’Keefe as he prepared to write up a violation of the law barring sale of liquor on Sundays. After police arrested him, thousands of people surrounded the police station, trying to break through to lynch Farrelli. The same occurred when Farrelli was arraigned, but this time some Italians from East Harlem came out to show their support for police, hoping to avoid retaliation and demonstrate that their community was law-abiding.

    “Several outrages by Italians have occurred within a short time in that part of the city, and the feeling of the citizens is bitter,” The Times commented. “The police say that some day, if the Italians do not curb their powers for evil, there will be a large-sized lynching bee in Harlem, and the affairs that claimed Italian victims in the South will be tame in comparison.”

    That was no idle threat, as the lynching of 11 Italians cleared in the 1890 slaying of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was still fresh in mind. Indeed, police claimed to reporters that Farrelli had ties to the men who allegedly killed Hennessy in New Orleans, essentially alleging that he was connected to the Mafia.   

    As it turned out, Farrelli was no conspirator. He was simply deranged. O’Keefe, though blinded, survived to testify against him. The saloonkeeper was convicted and sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. He was then judged insane and moved to an asylum.

    It’s not exactly parallel, but the case reminds me a little of the debate over the motives of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the mentally unstable man who murdered officers Liu and Ramos as they sat peacefully in their patrol car and then committed suicide. Was he acting on an anti-police agenda, as early reports suggested? Or was the violent conclusion to his life “probably less political and more accidental than initially portrayed,” as The Times said his mother and friends maintained?

    Many news reports have noted the fact that Liu was Chinese American and that Ramos had roots in Puerto Rico—a sign of how much more diverse the Police Department has become, in part due to the efforts of former Commissioner Ray Kelly. They were, as Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a eulogy at Ramos’s funeral, “members of a force with officers from over 50 different countries who speak 64 different languages who protect a city with people literally from every country on the globe living in it.”

    Some 105 years before, the funeral of another police officer was a landmark in the long and bumpy road toward acceptance of Italians in the NYPD and the city at large. A massive cross-section of the city joined Italians in mourning the death of Detective Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, who became perhaps the greatest hero in the department’s fabled history after he was slain while on a mission in Sicily in 1909.

    In his eulogy at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott Street, Monsignor Michael J. Lavelle, a son of Irish immigrants later to be honored by King Victor Emmanuel for aiding Italians in New York, praised Petrosino as hero and martyr. “May it teach to the rest of the people the debt and the love that we owe to these strangers on our shores, so that we may not wrongly discriminate,” he declared. “Let us make every one as welcome in our hearts as they are under our flag.”

    Likewise, Governor Cuomo preached unity at Officer Ramos’s funeral. “At the end of the day, we are one,” Cuomo said. “One people, one state, one community, one family. Somos uno. Somos uno. Somos uno.”  We are one.

    Paul Moses is a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY. His book An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians will be released by NYU Press in June.