The Scorsese film is based on Herbert Asbury`s 1928
book, Gangs of New York. It conflates
Asbury`s chapter on “The Killing of Bill the Butcher”
(Bill Poole, killed by one of Irish immigrant gangster`s
William Morrissey`s gunmen in 1855 – the killer was
acquitted by a Tammany judge) with the later Civil
The book is
worth reading, because you`re not going to get an
accurate picture from the movie.
Daniel Day-Lewis, a London-born Anglo-Irishman [i.e.
Protestant] who is
Irish identified and has often played Irish
Catholics on screen, is Poole, the American-born
villain, described as a
“nativist.” Leonardo di Caprio, an American of
Italian and German descent reprises his role as an
immigrant Irishman from the hit movie
Titanic, in which a providential iceberg
prevented him from actually landing in New York.
Karen Butler`s UPI
interview with Day-Lewis sets the tone. She intones
“During the mid-1800s,
hundreds of new Irish immigrants flooded the nearby
docks daily in search of the American dream. What
greeted them, however, was more boiling cauldron than
melting pot. The Irish were largely shunned,
particularly by the anti-immigrant "Native Americans,"
and viewed as outsiders who stole American land and
“Getting Gangs of New
York on the screen has turned into one of Scorsese`s
more painful and protracted obsessions. This story of
so-called native Americans, actually the descendants of
English settlers, and their resistance in the
mid-1800s to the arrival of a great tide of Irish
immigrants has fascinated him for years.”
“Harvey, Marty, and a jar
full of ears,”
Esquire, July 2002
“So-called native Americans”! That`s g-o-o-d!
But in fact the “so-called native Americans” were indeed
natives of the United States of America. The Irish
immigrants were natives of Ireland, where rioting was
The Draft Riots were a revolt by the immigrant Irish
against Civil War conscription. The Irish, who were
competing with native-born free black Americans for
New York jobs, committed striking atrocities against
them. Asked by American Enterprise magazine
whether New York really had an “Irish problem,” Daniel
“Of course. There was a
flood of immigrants from Ireland. Probably a third of
them did not speak English. They couldn`t do anything
but laboring work, pick and shovel.
“The draft riots were the
worst violence in the city ever. Burning a
Negro orphanage! Mostly Irish instigated.”
Were native-born New Yorkers justified in being
suspicious of the Irish immigrants who were taking over
City Hall – making New York a byword for
corrupt government even before they committed all
these murders and tried to set the city on fire?
Yes – they were.
Of course, the chances of Liam Neeson, the “obsessed”
Scorsese, or Daniel Day-Lewis sympathizing with the
“native Americans” is quite low.
Day-Lewis was asked by UPI`s Karen Butler (who
apparently knows nothing about the different varieties
of “Irishman”) if it bothered him to play the American
villain who “murders an Irish hero (Neeson) and
oppresses his Catholic followers, the Dead Rabbits?”
Day-Lewis said no – it was all "in the spirit of
I`d call this the
frankest statement of the meaning of “diversity” yet.
December 18, 2002