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Hell's Kitchen
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Dave Newman

Three surprising ways the Irish left an imprint on Hell’s Kitchen

You can still see the Irish impact on the Manhattan neighborhood today.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver
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If you find yourself in a pub in Hell's Kitchen this St. Patrick's Day, know that you're celebrating in what was once the most Irish neighborhood in NYC.

Hell's Kitchen, which is bound from 34th to 59th Streets and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, is full of hip eateries, luxury apartments and Off-Broadway theaters, but for several decades, it was home to Irish immigrants who found work on the docks and railroad along the Hudson River.

RECOMMENDED: St. Patrick’s Day in NYC guide

We spoke with the founder of Hidden Tours, who is an expert on the Irish history of Hell's Kitchen, the gangs that ran its streets and the pubs and former seedy businesses that thrived there, to find out ways the last remnants of the Irish who called this neighborhood home in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Below are three lasting impacts they had on Hell's Kitchen:

Important religious icons

The Church of the Holy Cross (329 W. 42nd Street) was founded in 1852 to serve the Irish Catholic community that had begun moving north from Five Points downtown. Irish refugees fleeing the Great Famine began to flood downtown between 1840 to 1860, so points further north offered space and work. 

The most famous rector of the church was Father Francis Patrick Duffy, whose name you might recognize from the Times Square Plaza that bears his name and his bronze statue. After serving as a chaplain for the 69th Regiment (a unit made up mostly of first and second-generation Irish immigrants) during WWI, Father Duffy served the church and was known for befriending Broadway stars and panhandlers alike, according to Hidden Tours founder Russell Wolin. He often used the proximity of the church to the theater district to draw attention to the plight of the desperately impoverished Irish community that populated Hell’s Kitchen at the time and would sometimes persuade stars of the stage to tour the neighborhood with members of the press in tow. Much beloved, his statue was unveiled in Times Square in 1937.

Times Square
Photograph: Courtesy Times Square

Pubs with gang roots

Mickey Spillane’s (350 West 49th Street) is named for the last true Irish godfather of Hell's Kitchen, according to Wolin. He ruled the neighborhood from 1960 through 1977 with a number of rackets, loansharking and kidnapping members of the Italian mafia. While he was a criminal, he was somewhat a community leader in his time—he wouldn't allow drug dealing on his turf and he would visit sick residents and give out free turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving. Spillane was eventually run out of Hell's Kitchen by the Italian mafia after it was clear he was going to make bank from the construction of the Javits Center. They took out his three main lieutenants and on May 13, 1977, he was gunned down outside his home—a murder that is still unsolved. You can read more about Spillane here. Wanting to pay tribute to Spillane, his son, opened Mickey Spillane's. 

Meanwhile, Hellcat Annie’s (637 10th Avenue) is the old location of the White House Bar, Spillane's actual former headquarters. It also takes the name of two infamous Irish female gang members: Hellcat Maggie of the Dead Rabbits and Battle Annie of the Lady Gophers. Hellcat Maggie was known for her custom-made brass fingernails she'd use to shred and gouge the faces of rival gang members, while Battle Annie was infamous for her accuracy with a thrown brick and for having as many as 500 women under her command. At the White House Bar, Spillane would do his business dealings here and take clients into a back room.

The McManus Political family's stomping grounds

Where Spillane ruled the streets, the McManus family ruled politics. The family, also locally known as the McMani, "ruled" Hell's Kitchen for about a century, from the election of Thomas McManus to District leader in 1905 until about 2017, when there was a McManus family member representing Hell’s Kitchen, Wolin said. (The two worlds combined in 1960 when Spillane actually married Maureen McManus, which was something akin to a royal wedding at the time, Wolin added.) It was mainly through the political skills of James McManus and the McManus Midtown Democratic Club (310-312 West 53rd Street) that the family held power within NYC for so long. Now, Thomas McManus runs the club, which is the oldest of its kind and the last vestige of Tammany Hall in NYC, according to Wolin.

James McManus was also a funeral director at the McManus and Ahern funeral home, which is now under new management as the Crestwood Funeral Home (445 West 43rd Street)

Wolin says it's important we mark these historical places because they've had such an enormous impact on modern-day New York and on American culture.

"The first Catholic to run for President as a major party candidate, Al Smith, came up through New York's Irish-Catholic politics, as represented back then by Tammany Hall, and there are still ghosts of Tammany in our politics today, including the still extant McManus Democratic Association," he said. "I also think it's important to understand that these tiny, cramped apartments in Hell's Kitchen that people pay top dollar for today were originally railroad apartments built for the working poor. Those usually would have been essentially one room shared by an entire family, that they later added bedrooms to. You can't understand where you are if you don't know where you've been."

If you are curious about learning more hidden Irish history in Hell's Kitchen, Hidden Tours runs a tour about the Irish mob of Hell's Kitchen Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as well as on St. Paddy's Day, Thursday, March 17. Tickets are $35 at hiddennewyorktours.com.

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