New York Criminality & Lawlessness On The Waterfront Docksides Inspired Anglo Irish Priest To Close Down Notorious Gangster Operations
Castleisland, Co. Kerry, was the native soil of the parents of Fr. John Corridan and like millions of Irish people through the centuries, the Corridan’s emigrated to America where they settled and raised their families.
John was born in 1911 to Jack and Hannah Corridan and the family envisaged a prosperous life in New York as John senior became a policeman. Life took a cruel turn in 1920 when the Irish police officer died and left his widow alone to raise their young family.
Into the breach came Hannah’s brother Paddy, who also emigrated from Castleisland and had his own New York family of a wife and three children. The Corridans and Shanahan families got on with rearing their families and young John Corridan set his ambitions on becoming a priest. However his mother Hannah also needed the financial support of her young son and he duly obliged until he reached into his thirties.
Finally he would set out to achieve his missionary ambitions and in 1946 he was ordained as a Jesuit Priest. The Xavier Instiute of New York was his maiden posting.
The New York Docks were known for several decades to be a rough and tumble place of employment for dockers and Irish emigrants were prominent in the workforce. The docks also had a reputation as a place where bribery and offensive behaviour were common practice and a brave journalist working on the New York Sun newspaper decided to finally expose the illegal activities of Union bosses and their agents on the quayside.
Members of the Dockers Union were treated with scant regard and those who did not comply with strict orders often paid the ultimate price with their life. Such was the atrocities on the docks, and following the newspaper article, a film was now under consideration by a New York producer and it was around this time that the forty year old anglo Irish cleric became involved.
Fr. Corridan had built up a dossier of personal knowledge on the illegal activities of the union and its thuggish agents around the period 1950 and the film producer, on advice, decided to invest in Fr. John’s personal awareness of events on the dockside.
Speaking with Fr. Corridan, the producer, a Jew, named Budd Schulberg, arranged a meeting with the priest and would later describe the cleric as one of the greatest and bravest individuals he had ever met.
Schulberg knew it was not going to be a pleasant film story or endear himself and Fr. John to the Union bosses who may decide to order a hit on both men. However the meeting with Fr. John Corridan touched on such unsavoury and illegal activities, Schulberg could scarcely believe the depth of corruption on the New York docks.
The priest was of a tall and awesome build and he spoke the language of the common people of New York and fear was never part of his vocabulary. The producer quickly recognised this important factor but also involving a priest could lead to complications for both men, especially with the powerhouse of the catholic church.
Fr. John had already assumed his own role with the dockers and was an important source of unofficial representation informing the men of their legal working rights and how, united in great numbers, they could expand their own personal union. Fr. Corridan was already in the process of establishing a new rebel association to represent the dockers and his presence was now causing many ripples within union circles.
In the filming of “On The Waterfront” certain colleagues of Schulberg questioned the authentication of Fr. Corridan and they even wondered was he really a priest of the cloth and could he be working in disguise for Union leaders who were now shuddering at the notion of a film portraying them as New York gangsters.
Many of the scenes constructed for the film revealed outrageous acts such as a dock worker forced off a roof and hitting the deck fatally wounded. Actors who featured in the film included Marlon Brando, Eve Marie Saint and Karl Malden, all leading actors of their own era.
The award winning film was a huge box office attraction and won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, best actor (Marlon Brando) and best actress (Eve Marie Saint) and further acclaim was the statement, that “On The Waterfront” was included in a list of best ever films.
The influence and integrity of Fr. John Corridan on the factual matters in the production of the film, raised grave concerns with the government power brokers at Washington D.C. even before the film hit cinema screens. President Eisenhower’s office ordered the establishment of an investigation into the brutality and illegal tactics of the Dockers Union in New York.
The film was directly responsible for the setting up of the New York/New Jersey Waterfront Commission to root out the evils and substantially improve working conditions as well as workers representations.
Meantime the catholic church in New York state were keeping a watching brief on the activities of Fr. John Corridan and were not impressed that one of their own congreagation was defending their flock on a filmset advisory role.
Fr. Corridan became a champion of the people all over America and his portrayal as Fr. Barry in the film made him a people hero worldwide.Cardinal Spellmam of New York decided it was time to act.
The Cardinal, with strong Irish connections, decided that the involvement of his cleric in the film, was not in the interests of the catholic church and unsurprisingly he wasted no time in removing Fr. John from his Waterfront clerical duties.
A man of such great intelligence and admired so much by the nation was dispatched to a seminary college far removed from the Waterfronts of New York. The instruction from the cardinal to Fr. John, was to teach economics and theology.
Undaunted Fr. John Corridon, with mountains of Kerry blood in his veins, never wavered when matters of principles were on the agenda and a famous quote he delivered stated “Not until we we can bring the spirit of Almighty God into our daily lives can the city of New York prosper.
The final chapter in Fr. John’s life saw him become a Brooklyn hospital chaplain and surrounded by people fighting for their own lives on a daily basis at the hospital, his departure from planet earth came unexpectedly in 1984 at the age of seventy three.
It took a fatal heart attack to end the lifespan of a remarkable anglo Irish American priest, a man who confronted notorious New York gangsters head on and lived to expose their greed and exploitation of their fellow man.
Derry JF Doody
In our 2017 refurbishment programme of our Irish heritage website, the incorporporation of our Ancestral Sons & Daughters is a new feature and one that we look forward to expanding in quantity throughout the forthcoming years.