It has been a hate-love relationship.
A new book about New York’s Irish and Italian populations tracks the evolving relationship between the two communities. The author of “An Unlikely Union” says the two ethnic groups competed in every facet of city life until after World War II, when members began to intermarry in large numbers. The Marine Park author says his inspiration came from an intimate source — his own marriage.
“I’m half-Italian on my mother’s side and my wife’s ancestry is Irish,” said Paul Moses, who will discuss his book at Bay Ridge wine bar the Owl’s Head on Sept. 9. “Years ago, that could never have happened. I wanted to explore that change.”
The fierce rivalry began in the 1880s, said Moses, when a wave of new Italian immigrants undercut the wages of more-established Irish workers. The two ethnic groups competed for control of the Catholic church, city politics, and for criminal control of the Brooklyn waterfront. The book recounts a turning point in the latter battle, on Christmas Day in 1925, when infamous gangster Al Capone helped a group of Italian mobsters to murder the leaders of an Irish gang at a Sunset Park speakeasy. The Italians ultimately won the organized crime war.
Tensions over control of the Catholic Church ended more peacefully, said Moses, as Italian children enrolled in Catholic school became used to the mostly Irish Catholic nuns and priests who taught there.
Irish and Italian relations changed further after World War II, when both communities abandoned their ethnically-defined neighborhoods to settle in southern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park. Living, working, and praying together defrosted the chilly relations between the groups, said Moses.
“People moved out of their own ethnic ghettos and moved into residential neighborhoods together,” Moses said. “As people begin to mingle, the social boundaries between them blur and fall away and all of a sudden there are romances.”
One of the early intergroup romances was between Capone and his wife.
“Capone’s wife was Irish,” said Moses. “He grew up on Garfield Street and she grew up on Clinton Street. It’s a really Brooklyn story.”
Paul Moses discusses “An Unlikely Union” at the Owl’s Head [479 74th St. at Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, (718) 680-2436, www.theow