Talking Irish–American History and Exile on Bridge Street
An Interview with Eamon Loingsigh
by Constance Renfrow
Eamon Loingsigh’s debut novel Light of the Diddicoy was celebrated as a “historical fiction at its best.” And now, we at Three Rooms Press are ecstatic to announce the sequel: Exile on Bridge Street, due out April 2016, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland. We had a chance to sit down with Eamon to discuss writing and reading, Irish history and the Easter Rising. Eamon Loingsigh’s family emigrated from Ireland in the late 19th century, and his grandfather and great-grandfather ran a longshoreman’s saloon on Hudson Street in Manhattan from 1906 to the late 1970s. In addition, he is the author of numerous articles on Irish–American history, as well as the novella An Affair of Concoctions and the poetry collection Love and Maladies.
3RP: Let’s start off with the question usually reserved for last. Of course, we know you as a writer, but what do you do for fun that’s not writing?
EL: I wander around New York City and enjoy its offerings as well as exercise my love as a low budget, semi-professional gourmandise and partaker of liquescent intoxicants and watch and talk and listen to all peoples.
Ah, the New York life! So what are you reading right now?
Verlaine: Fool of God (again)
Do you have a favorite book?
I have too many favorites to commit to just one. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse is one favorite, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, as well as Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont are just a few of many that I can think of off-hand.
That’s a great selection—and quite varied. To shift over to writing, do you have any advice for new writers?
Get something other than an MFA in creative writing. The only requirement there is to being a writer, is to live. If you live, you can write.
As an author, you focus on Irish and Irish–American history. How did you first become interested in the Easter Rising? What made you decide to write about it?
Well, my family taught me about Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916 from the moment I was born. It is an incredibly symbolic beginning to Ireland’s independence movement led by a poet (Padraig Pearse), a working-class socialist (James Connelly), and a career rebel (Thomas Clarke) among others. Pearse believed that the only way to motivate the Irish people en masse to strike against their ancient oppressor was the “blood sacrifice.” He wrote about it in his poetry. He dreamed of being executed by the English as Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This is a man who believed in the power of symbolism, and he coordinated it into a real-life circumstance that led to Ireland’s War of Independence. It is a story a writer can appreciate, and so not only is it dear to me as my family is Irish-American, but it is also a fascinating true-life narrative.
The new book is called Exile on Bridge Street. Why “Exile” and why “Bridge Street”?
There is a line in Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence written by Pearse concerning, “Her exiled children in America.” He was referring to all of the Irish sent abroad by circumstances created, or agitated by the British Empire. Millions died, millions more left Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s. Not because of a blight on a potato crop, but because of a highly detrimental (many argue genocidal) economic system forced on the Irish by England. The exodus (or “exile” as Pearse calls it) continued throughout the nineteenth century and up until World War I.
The many characters in this book come from families that were exiled from Ireland and landed in Brooklyn. Bridge Street is located in a neighborhood called “Irishtown,” due to a large settlement of Irish immigrants there. By 1916 however, many new immigrants from other European nations were settling in the area, yet the Irish held power over the local labor racket and the extraordinarily busy docks and longshore business (by 1910, New York City was the busiest port in the world). These descendants of the exiled still held fast to their Irish roots and refused to live by what they viewed as Anglo-American laws, and instead made their own law. The newspapers called them a “gang” or a “band” of violent longshoremen who lived under a strict code of silence, refusing to divulge any information about their doings to the police—even on their dying beds. These Irish dockwallopers were known simply as “The White Hand,” as opposed to the Italian “Black Hand” of the era.
Dinny Meehan is a huge character throughout the book. Who was he?
Dennis L. “Dinny” Meehan (1889–1920) was a career criminal and the first clear leader of the White Hand Gang. In 1912 he, along with three others, were arrested for the murder of a local bartender, who was also a rival gang leader. After being exonerated in 1913, bucking the law (a traditional prerequisite of all Irish leaders), Meehan quickly took the reins of the Irish-American gang that had its headquarters on Bridge Street in Irishtown, Brooklyn—until 1920 when he was murdered by gunshot in his own bed while his wife was wounded in the shoulder. His time as leader marks the most successful period of the gang, while William “Wild Bill” Lovett and Richard “Pegleg” Lonergan oversaw the gang’s decline afterward.
In Exile on Bridge Street, the fictional Meehan is a wise twenty-seven-year-old who runs the Brooklyn labor and longshore rackets from the second floor of a Bridge Street saloon overlooking the waterfront and bridges. With many bodyguards and dock bosses who run the port terminals in his name from the Navy Yard down to Red Hook, he shares the tribute money with those most loyal to him. Anyone who disobeys him ends up dead, and any ship unloaded without the White Hand partaking is treated just as severely: burned in the New York Harbor for all to see.
Despite being a violent man, Meehan is dedicated to family and has a loving wife and a young son. He also devotes much of the gang’s earnings to helping the poor Irish in his neighborhoods and those who show loyalty to him—such as William “Liam” Garrity, the story’s narrator and protagonist.
Garrity arrived in Brooklyn from County Clare, Ireland a fourteen-year-old without a home or job. Needing to get his mother and sisters out of Ireland, Meehan vows to help young Garrity for a very hefty price. But Garrity is willing to pay it since his family is helpless against the British who will come to the family farm to retaliate for what was done by Irish rebels during the Easter Rising. The hero of the story is Dinny Meehan, described through the eyes of Garrity.
Check out Light of the Diddicoy here. Follow Eamon Loingsigh on Twitter @eamonLoi, and follow Three Rooms Press on Twitter or Facebook to keep up to date with the publication of Exile on Bridge Street.
Eamon’s playlist from the making of Exile on Bridge Street:
- Bach’s French Overture by Sviatoslav Richter
- “Old Fenian Gun” traditional Irish song
- “The Foggy Dew” by Sinead O’Connor
- “Thousands are Sailing” by The Pogues
- “Danny Boy” Sinead O’Connor
- “Have You been to Carrick” by Seamus Ennis
- “Haul Away Joe” Clancy Brothers