an interview by Jon Maniscalco with Eamon Loingsigh
A New Auld Irishman
Eamon Loingsigh is an Irish-American writer, poet, fighter, and drinker of hard cider. His novel Light of the Diddicoy, a pulp saga of Irish gangs on the Brooklyn waterfront in the early part of the 20th century, was published in 2014 by Three Rooms Press as the first book of an Auld Irishtown trilogy. The second, Exile on Bridge Street, is due out in March 2016. I caught up with him by email to discuss Diddicoy and the work of writing crime tales set among real histories. - Jon Maniscalco
JM: Light of the Diddicoy takes place in Brooklyn. Could you tell me about your relationship with that city?
EL: My great-grandparents on my father's side both came from County Clare, Ireland. They owned and ran a longshoremen's Irish saloon at 463 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. When they started having multiple children, they moved to Brooklyn, but kept the saloon. All four of my grandparents were born in Brooklyn and so were my parents (I was born in Rockville Center/Oceanside, Long Island). Also, my entire family is of Irish origin. When I was in my early 20s, my grandparents told me about a place called "Irishtown" in Brooklyn, where they used to live in a famous, if not infamous place known for keeping the police out and running the area by their own laws based on Irish codes, culture and a nuanced Brehon law.
Eventually, after writing my first two books, I decided to look it up and found a plethora of loose information that I eventually put together in this book in fictional form (the first in the trilogy), and on my blog as non-fiction reportage.
JM: What kind of research did you put into this, to create a realistic depiction of the 1900s?
EL: To start with: many, many hours researching at the Municipal Archives on Chambers Street in Manhattan, pulling police reports, coroner reports, death certificates, medical examiners' reports, mugshots, etc. Almost all of this information had not been researched before and was very difficult and time-consuming. I also read thousands of articles in the newspapers of the time that outlined the violent dealings of the White Hand Gang's members. On top of that, I took over the research of our family's genealogical tree and found information about the family's saloon and how it funneled money to Ireland for Irish freedom in the 1910s and 1920s and beyond; was kept open during all of Prohibition, but was lost due to the Great Depression; and was then bought back. I also found on the NYC censuses of the era where they lived and who was living with them.
All in all, it was a lot of work, however fun it was. It took me four years, all while I was working fifty-hour weeks at dead end jobs, and raising a family.
JM: Are there any authors you believe have been particularly influential to you?
EL: Too many to name. I don't have one favorite book, I have a hundred-more, even. There were a few that had an influence on me, but eventually I had to figure out how to learn from other writers instead of mimicking them. That's the main point.
I decided not to study literature in college because I felt like all these preconceptions of their work would be fed to me through a funnel-like an assembly line of information that would only allow me to be on the same level as everyone else. I wanted to learn about popular books on my own. I won't read forewords or introductions until after I finish the book.
I still listen to what the college professors say about famous works, but not until after I read them with a clean slate. I remember laughing when I watched Jerry Seinfeld do an interview on a talk show one time. He was asked who his influences were too. His answer was reminiscent of my own feeling when he said, somewhat arrogantly, you know I've always watched other shows (in my case read books) and thought to myself "I can do it better than that."
JM: How would you describe the conflict in your book to a complete stranger?
EL: The conflict comes mainly from a gang leader who still believes in the old way of doing things. He is very Irish in character (although born and raised in New York) in the way that he holds a resentment toward the Anglo-American world, similar to how many Irish feel about the British. The Irish culture that Dinny Meehan leads in the White Hand Gang is extraordinarily similar to the culture of the gypsies of Ireland. In fact, I argue that in Brooklyn, the waterfront gangs had more in common with gypsies than with "gangsters." The gang believed in a strict code of silence. They kept the law at arm's-length, and settled scores with their fists (a means of resolution most often set upon anything they saw as being Anglo-influenced). And of course they fought among themselves in their respective factions. The tension comes from the city of New York changing and becoming more and more powerful under a dominant Anglo-American cultural structure as many immigrants, including Irish Americans, assimilated. The White Hand Gang, however, did not assimilate. Instead they tried to stick to the old Irishtown methods, which only succeeded in isolating the street gang mentality even more as time went on. Everyone around the gang is accepting change while the "bhoys" on the docks stayed the same. It's actually a struggle I deal with every day, in my life . . .
JM: Tell us a bit about how you decided to become a writer.
EL: Well, I suppose it was around the time when my mother was slowly succumbing to cancer. At the same time, we found out that I had a seizure disorder.
Right before I had my very first seizure, I experienced what is described as an "aura." That had a pretty big impact on my perception of things. In that aura, I had accepted that things were polemical for a reason. Opposites were actually dependent on each other. Almost like everything I had experienced in life was literally perfect, whereas before having the aura/seizure, I felt everything was flawed and wrong. I was 18 years old and although I never had the thought of being a writer previously in my life, I suddenly felt I had an unlimited reserve of feeling and thought and emotion and understanding to write for a hundred lifetimes. At the same time, I also realized that there is no such thing as a "writer." Yet everyone, or almost everyone, can write. To become a professional writer, therefore, was not my objective. Instead, I wanted to write down the things I witnessed, like a reporter. In fact, I later earned a degree in journalism. So, I tend to write about deeper meanings or hidden truths while using the topic of the story as a springboard.
JM: Speaking of deeper meanings, what kind of responsibility do you believe you have as a crime writer? Are you sending a social message?
EL: I don't see myself as a crime writer. I think maybe I just take genres and turn them into literature, as only a few writers have been able to accomplish, such as Mario Puzo, Cormac McCarthy, and a few others. Some people describe me as a historical novelist; others, as a writer in the gangster genre. I'm almost always "an Irish-American writer." [We admit complicity in this regard. -Eds.]
In the end, I don't even see myself as a writer. More like a witness who sends in reports. \\
Readers can connect with Loingsigh on Twitter, where he posts as @eamonloi. Interested in reviewing books in the Auld Irishtown trilogy for Clarion? Let us know—we’re on the same platform, tweeting as @clarionlitmag.
Jonathan Maniscalco is a co-editor of Clarion. He’s written recently about the appearance of homelessness in detective fiction for the newspaper Spare Change.
>> back to Issue 18, 2015