Irish Gangs in New York

Within the Five Points neighborhood–arguably the worst slum in the city–Irishmen sought to create a sense of community, authenticity, and belonging for themselves. This craving for an identity, as well as their need for food and money, led them to form gangs. Gangs gave Irish immigrants a way to cultivate a community without being discriminated against or judged for their lack of education and finances.

Initially, gangs were peaceful, although this did not last for very long. Irish immigrants quickly grew tired of the way they were being treated–feeling inferior to others threatened them and undermined their masculinity–and lashed out with violence and crime. Gangs very quickly became associated with criminals, and the stereotype of the “fighting Irish” was perpetuated.

One of the most well-known gangs around this time was known as the Dead Rabbits. It was formed by a man named John Morrissey, a former boxer–which only perpetuated the violent Irish stereotype. At that time, most Americans were unjustly prejudiced against Irish immigrants, believing them to be dirty, uncivilized, and drunken. The formation of gangs only made these stereotypes more believable.

John Morrisey, the founder and leader of the Dead Rabbits gang.

Ironically, though, most gangs weren’t exclusively interested in organized crime. the Dead Rabbits, as well as other Irish-based gangs, often rioted over discrimination against their people, and would back politicians who promoted fair pay and treatment for immigrants.

Mayor Fernando Wood, a politician who was supported by the Dead Rabbits because he advocated for the welfare of immigrants and minorities.

These gangs, although they started off harmless enough, became what Irish immigrants were known for. They still play a part in how Irish people are viewed today–stereotypes such as the “fighting Irish” or the idea that all Irishmen are alcoholics can still be seen in contemporary settings. Furthermore, gangs are sensationalized in media, such as Martin Scorsese’s cult classic film, Gangs of New York, which also influenced how people viewed the Irish.


Works Cited:

Kennedy, Robert C. “On This Day: July 10th, 1875.” The New York Times, The New York Times,
Serena, Katie. “The Dead Rabbits, The Bowery Boys, And The Great July 4th Riot.” All That’s Interesting, All That’s Interesting, 6 Feb. 2018,
Photo Sources:

“Fernando Wood (1812-1881).”,

“John Morrissey.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Dec. 2018,