Designed to attract the Kerry town’s diaspora, it centres on the emigration of 5,000 people from the Lansdowne Estate in the late 1840s after the famine.
WS Trench, the land agent for the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, forgave rent arrears and donated £4 to every tenant who wanted to leave for America and Canada.
With £12 being the annual cost of feeding an inmate of the poorhouse, Trench’s offer was based on long-term cost savings for the estate.
“I plainly proved that it would be cheaper for the estate, and better for them, to pay for their emigration than to continue to support them at home,” he said of the plan.
Many of the destitute Lansdowne tenants drawn from the areas of Bonane, Tuosist, Lauragh, Kilgarvan and Templenoe, who took up the offer, ended up living in the infamous Five Points area on Manhattan’s lower east side. Taking its name from an intersection of streets that formed five corners, the notorious area was home to a number of criminal outfits, which had names like the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies — many of them were immortalised in author Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book, Gangs of New York, and loosely adapted by director Martin Scorsese in his 2002 film of the same name, which starred Leo Di Caprio and Daniel Day Lewis.
Charles Dickens, who visited the Five Points on his American tour, wrote: “Poverty, wretchedness and vice are rife, reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. All that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.”
“Reaction to the event has been very good, particularly in the Kenmare locality, as it is a telling part of the history of the area,” said organiser, Jerry O’Sullivan. “For those who don’t know anything about this historical chapter concerning the residents of the Lansdowne Estate and the role they may have played in the real life gangs of New York, it will be a chance to see and understand what really happened.
“We want to identify the living relatives of those who were forced to emigrate and bring them back to celebrate this gathering devoted to this part of Kenmare history,” he said.
Among the events scheduled are a play at the Carnegie Arts Centre depicting life in the 1850s, and the story of the emigration programme instituted by WS Trench; a showing of Sean De Morda’s The Land is Gold documentary about the Lansdowne estate; and the unveiling of a plaque in the town square, telling the story of the American dream that began in the hard reality of the Five Points. “This is an opportunity for the descendants of those who left to find out their family’s story of triumph over adversity, surviving the Irish famine, as well as life in the turbulent Five Points, to progress in American life,” O’Sullivan said.
Rachel Foley, founder of Ancestors from Ireland, a genealogy-research business in Killarney, is also organising the event. “We don’t fully realise the huge potential of the Kerry connection, and indeed, the whole of Ireland, to North America,” she said. “These descendants are hugely interested in their roots and the story of where they came from.”
Foley was part of a Kerry tourism delegation to New York earlier this year, to publicise the Gangs of New York gathering. “It was hard to believe, upon entering the large halls of Ellis Island, that this was the place that so many Irish-Americans passed through on their way to a new life in America,” she said. “It was hard to imagine my own ancestors making their way to an uncertain future. So many Irish left in very difficult times and succeeded in the land which gave them such an incredible future.”
One of the most famous people of Kenmare lineage was Congressman ‘Big Tim’ Sullivan, both of whose parents were Lansdowne tenants, and who rose to such prominence in New York politics that he named Kenmare Street in Manhattan in honour of his heritage. The renaming of a street in Kenmare to reflect its links to New York is being considered by the festival organisers. Despite the poverty they left, and the hellish conditions to which they arrived in the Five Points, many of the Lansdowne emigrants quickly adapted, with a ruthless resourcefulness, to the demands of this alien new world. They rose far above their origins.
From his early days as a shoeshine boy and saloon owner, Big Tim became a Tammany Hall leader, who would dominate New York City politics from 1890 to 1913. A shrewd and charismatic operator, quick to exploit the ever-changing demographics of the city, he created an Irish-dominated political machine, but populated with Italian and Jewish emigrants. It was one of America’s first multiethnic political organisations.
“When they’ve voted with whiskers on, you take ’em to a barber and scrap off the chin-fringe,” he said on election days. “Then, you vote ’em again with side lilacs and a moustache. Then, to a barber again, off comes the sides and you vote ’em a third time with the moustache. If that ain’t enough, and the box can stand a few more ballots, clean off the moustache and vote ’em plain face. That makes every one of ’em good for four votes.”
Adept at the kind of paternalistic and corrupt politics that defined Tammany Hall, Big Tim was also the champion of a number of progressive and contentious causes, including labour reform and women’s rights. He also successfully promoted the licensing of guns, via the Sullivan Law.
Big Tim’s right-hand man was his first cousin, also Tim, who was quickly christened ‘Little Feller’ by the press. When Big Tim was elected to the Senate, his smaller cousin served as his clerk, and went on to win his own assembly seat. Credited as the real brains behind the machine, Little Feller subsequently became the majority leader of the New York Board of Aldermen.
“While part of the lore around those gangs was undoubtedly about criminality, a huge element of it was about protecting your own tribe,” said Jerry O’Sullivan. “The Irish needed to organise themselves along those lines to survive and prosper from the ghettos they were forced into when they arrived.
“Part of the reverse genealogy of this Gangs of New York gathering, and putting together as much of this local history as we can, will, we hope, benefit Kenmare in extending cultural links that will increase tourism for many years to come.”
*The Kenmare Gangs of New York Gathering Festival: Aug 30 — Sept 1.