During the first half of the past century the working waterfronts of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne were synonymous with “the Jersey shore,” especially in the parlance of maritime industry figures gazing west from their Manhattan dockside redoubts. There were no sunbathers to be found on those historic piers of Hudson County. Then, beginning in the late 1920s and 1930s Frank Hague, Johnny Kenny and other Hudson Co. politicos and associates traded some discretionary swag for real estate down along the sparsely developed Monmouth County seashore. New Jersey’s Irish Riviera was thus born.
In August 1932 Boss Hague bused roughly one in eight of his Hudson County subjects down to Sea Girt for a spectacular oceanfront rally in support of Democratic Presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt. With lunch for tens of thousands cheerfully provided by Hague’s omnipotent “organization,” FDR was so impressed he quickly forgave the Boss for having stubbornly backed his good friend and fellow (semi) Irish Catholic Alfred E. Smith, whose quixotic bid to recapture the nomination, four years after his crushing defeat at the hands of Republican Herbert Hoover, confirmed the wisdom of Hague’s decision never to seek statewide office in the still heavily rural-Protestant Garden State. Who needs Trenton when you already have Jersey City…and Sea Girt and Spring Lake?
Or neighboring Manasquan, the favored girlhood summer destination of my mom and her joyously frolicking cousins and aunts, the “Honan girls.” I instinctively equate that scene with the end of Irish America, simply because in my own earliest memories of places like Manasquan the buoyantly communal imagery is supplanted by familial discord, scarily erratic adult behavior and still-mortifying glimpses of my highly ineffectual fight-or-flight responses.
Memory!: so richly capricious yet inestimably valuable to historians, as reconfirmed decades later during an interview with John O’Brien, an elderly priest of the Newark Archdiocese, who reminisced on his own boyhood Irish Riviera, the fabled Rockaways, along Queens’ Atlantic coast, where—a decade or more before the Honan girls gamboled in Manasquan—O’Brien learned to swim by emulating his idolized cousin, John Corridan, the future waterfront priest. Corridan was a loner, Father O’Brien repeatedly informed me, vividly illustrating his theme with stories of the older boy furiously swimming solo, hundreds of yards “beyond the ropes.” I never relinquished that image while seeking to explain how, decades later, the rechristened Jesuit “Pete” Corridan sabotaged the Irish waterfront’s tribal moorings.
Corridan understood that the waterfront’s militant localism—with each pier functioning as a virtual ethnic parish—ensured that no outsider could ever stitch together a coherent narrative to cover the entire Port, so he presented himself as an insider to the journalists, reformers and filmmakers enlisted as allies in his cause of waterfront justice. The loner fiercely resisted the claims of his tribe: in this sense On the Waterfront originated not in Corridan’s impassioned late 1948 Jersey City oration “Christ in the Shapeup” but in those solitary ocean swims against the tides, far from past the confining ropes of Rockaway’s Irish Riviera.
In On the Irish Waterfront we simply followed this loner’s lead in making the narrative connections suggested by his own boundary-crossing apostolate–working out of a tradition he helped establish–that became virtually “normative” for U.S. Catholic activists and historians alike, at least for a time in the post-Vatican II era. Yet at some point in the course of work on this book I mournfully—or was it resentfully–concluded there was no way of extending this apostolic tradition—as I understood it—to achieve social justice for persons like our son Charlie and millions of others featuring cognitive difference/disabilities. That may simply reflect a failure of imagination on my part, and/or serve as an invitation to eschew the melodrama and move on.
I know the above reads like a jarring un-transition, but this entire post was meant to treat just those questions! We’re clearly not there yet. Next time out we’ll finally treat of Charlie in light of the Honan girls and the post-Irish Riviera Jersey Shore. In the meantime, while I stumble along, you might have a look over here for enduring witness to Charlie and persons like and not so-like him inhabiting the country of difference we once dubbed autismland. That coinage is my sole contribution to Dr. Chew’s brilliant blogging career, apart from a redemptive role behind the wheel along Jersey roads leading to the ocean, with Charlie emphatically urging: ‘this way; this way!’