If New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is elected mayor in November, she will be the first Irish-American mayor of Gotham in more than 60 years – in a city where the sons of the Emerald Isle once dominated City Hall and the police and fire departments. (Quinn would also become the first female and openly gay mayor of the city -- historic events on both counts.)
Quinn’s candidacy is also being watched by some in her ancestral land. This summer, the Lord Mayor of Belfast himself, Máirtin Ó Muilleoir, endorsed Quinn during a visit to Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor's official residence. “We think that every city needs an Irish mayor,” he quipped. “And New York has had a series of wonderful mayors and we think it would be wonderful in the days ahead … if New York had an Irish-American mayor again.” Without mentioning Quinn by name, he added: “The generosity of Irish-Americans -- and also the ability of the Irish to make connections, to win people over, those are great qualities in a mayor. So we’re fairly hopeful that we will have an Irish-American major soon.”
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (also an Irish lass) praised Quinn in a column, where she paid the candidate the highest compliment by describing her as a “pushy broad.”
New York City has not had a full-blooded Irishman in City Hall since William O’Dwyer (who was born in County Mayo) resigned in 1950, partly over accusations that he had links to organized crime figures. Prior to O’Dwyer, New York witnessed a steady array of Irish mayors – at least nine, the most famous of which was probably Jimmy Walker, the wildly colorful, charismatic (and corrupt) dandy who embodied the “Roaring Twenties” as much as Babe Ruth and Louis Armstrong.
Indeed, the legendary Tammany Hall became a center of Irish political strength by the late 19th century – a powerful Democratic Party machine that not only guaranteed votes for Irish lawmakers, but helped fill the city’s services, especially the police and fire departments, with Irishmen. Perhaps the most famous Irish New York politician of them all was Al Smith, the Tammany product and governor, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1928.
However, since O'Dwyer's resignation, New York has elected three Jewish mayors (Abraham Beame, Edward Koch and Michael Bloomberg); two Italians (Vincent Impellitteri and Rudolph Giuliani); one German Catholic (Robert Wagner, whose mother was born in Ireland); one WASP (John Lindsay, who was of English and Dutch origins); and one African-American (David Dinkins), but no full-blooded Irish.
Moreover, over those 60-plus years since O’Dwyer’s reign, the city has changed drastically. While the population of New York City has edged up from about 7.9 million to 8.3 million – the white percentage of the populace (which, of course, includes the Irish) plunged from about 90 percent to 44 percent. The apparent disappearance of Irish mayors matches the decline in New York’s Celtic population – just after the Great Famine of the late 1840s triggered massive emigration to the U.S., the Irish accounted for as much as one-quarter of the city’s residents. As of the 2000 Census, the number of Irish in New York City numbered about 520,000 (about 6 percent of the total population).
Still, Irish names remain prevalent in the city’s police and fire departments, though their numerical strength has been slowly falling. As of 2010, about 53 percent of NYPD’s 34,000-plus officers were white (many of whom were Irish), although they held an “overwhelming majority” of high-ranking positions. The current Police Commissioner, Raymond Kelly, follows a long tradition of Irish police chiefs stretching back more than 100 years. Since 1901, when the city’s police department came under the leadership of one commissioner, New York has had 40 police bosses – more than half of them of Irish descent, including those with such Gaelic surnames as Murphy, McAdoo, McKay, McLaughlin, Mulrooney, Bolan, Monaghan and McGuire.
The New York Fire Department also retains a heavy Irish presence -- some 90 percent of firefighters are white, according to the Village Voice, many of Irish descent. “New York’s fire department may, in fact, be the whitest large institution run by a major city in the United States,” Steven Thrasher of the Voice wrote. “Your chance of becoming a firefighter in New York if you aren’t white, Irish, or Italian, and come from a family of firefighters has traditionally been very slim.”
Of course, with respect to Quinn, should she win the election, she will open a whole new chapter of New York’s glorious Irish history – she is vastly different from Irish mayors of decades past, not only due to her gender and sexual orientation but also because he cannot count on a large Irish voter base for support. In the absence of a Tammany machine and the presence of a diverse city population, Quinn has to form coalitions with a number of other ethnic groups, labor unions and other city entities. In Quinn’s case, her Irishness is merely window-dressing; it is not something she can use to gain power.