The Irish Mob is one of the oldest organized crime groups in the United States, in existence since the early 19th century. Originating in Irish American street gangs of the 19th century—depicted in Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book The Gangs of New York—the Irish Mob has appeared in most major American cities, including Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans.
Outside of Ireland itself, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom also have histories of Irish gang activities.
In the United States Boston ProhibitionBoston has a well-chronicled history of Irish mob activity, particularly in the heavily Irish-American neighborhoods like Somerville, Charlestown, South Boston (“Southie”), Dorchester and Roxbury where the earliest Irish gangsters arose during Prohibition. Frank Wallace of the Gustin Gang dominated Boston’s underworld until his death in 1931, when he was ambushed by Italian gangsters in the North End. Numerous gang wars between rival Irish gangs during the early and mid 20th century would contribute to their decline.
The Winter Hill GangThe Winter Hill Gang, a loose confederation of Boston-area organized crime figures, was one of the most successful organized crime groups in American history. It controlled the Boston underworld from the early 1960s until the mid 1990s. It derives its name from the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville, Massachusetts, north of Boston, and was founded by first boss James “Buddy” McLean.
While Winter Hill Gang members were alleged to have been involved with most typical organized crime related activities, they are perhaps best known for fixing horse races in the northeastern United States. Twenty-one members and associates, including Howie Winter and his right-hand man and bookkeeper, Salvatore Sperlinga, were indicted by federal prosecutors in 1979. The gang was then taken over by James J. “Whitey” Bulger and hitman Stephen Flemmi, both of whom were of Irish heritage.
Irish Mob WarThe Irish Mob War is the name given to conflicts throughout the 1960s between the two dominant Irish-American organized crime gangs in Massachusetts: the Charlestown Mob in Boston, led by brothers Bernard and Edward “Punchy” McLaughlin, and the Winter Hill Gang of Somerville (just north of Boston) headed by James “Buddy” McLean. It is widely believed that the war began when George McLaughlin tried to pick up the girlfriend of Winter Hill associate Alex “Bobo” Petricone, also known as actor Alex Rocco. McLaughlin was then beaten and hospitalized by two other Winter Hill members. Afterward, Bernie McLaughlin went to Buddy McLean for an explanation. When McLean refused to give up his associates, Bernie swore revenge but was soon killed by McLean in Charlestown City Square.
The war resulted in the eradication of the Charlestown Mob with its leaders, Bernie and Edward McLaughlin, and Stevie and Connie Hughes all having been killed. George McLaughlin, the one who started the war, was the only one who survived by being sent to prison. McLean was also killed, by Charlestown’s Hughes brothers, and leadership of The Winter Hill Gang was taken by his right hand man, Howie Winter. The remnants of the Charlestown Mob were then absorbed into the Winter Hill Gang, who were then able to become the dominant non-mafia gang in the New England area.
 Recent yearsDuring the 1970s and 1980s, the FBI’s Boston office was largely infiltrated through corrupt federal agent John J. Connolly, by which Whitey Bulger was able to use his status as a government informant against his rivals (the extent of which would not be revealed until the mid to late 1990s). This scandal was the basis for the book Black Mass and served as the inspiration for the fictional film The Departed.
New York Pre-prohibitionIrish-American street gangs such as the Dead Rabbits and Whyos dominated New York’s underworld for well over a century before facing competition from other, primarily recently arrived Italian and Jewish gangs, during the 1880s and 1890s. Although gang leaders such as Paul Kelly of the Five Points Gang would rise to prominence during the early 1900s, gangs such as the Hudson Dusters and the Gopher Gang would remain formidable rivals during the period.
In the early 1900s, with Italian criminal organizations, such as the Morello crime family, encroaching on the waterfront, various Irish gangs united to form the White Hand Gang. Although initially successful in keeping their Italian rivals at bay, unstable leadership and infighting would prove their downfall. The murders of Dinny Meehan, Bill Lovett, and Richard Lonergan led to the gang’s disappearance by 1925, and the waterfront was taken over by Italian mobsters Vincent Mangano, Albert Anastasia, and Joe Adonis.
ProhibitionDuring the early years of Prohibition, “Big” Bill Dwyer emerged among many in New York’s underworld as a leading bootlegger. However, following his arrest and trial for violation of the Volsted Act during 1925 and 1926, Dwyer’s former partners were split between Owney “The Killer” Madden, a former leader of the Gopher Gang, and Frank Costello against Jack “Legs” Diamond, “Little” Augie Pisano, Charles “Vannie” Higgins and renegade mobster Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll.
The WestiesThe Westies are an Irish American gang hailing from Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan, New York City.
The most prominent members have included Eddie McGrath, James Coonan, Mickey Featherstone, and Edward “Eddie The Butcher” Cummiskey. Coonan was imprisoned in 1986 under the RICO act, along with multiple charges of murder. Coonan had let his wife, Edna, become involved in his affairs, and she too was imprisoned. Mickey Featherstone became an informant after his arrest in the early 1980s.
Michael Spillane vs. James CoonanA power struggle between two factions for control of the Westies lasted from 1966 until 1977. Michael Spillane’s position as boss of Hell’s Kitchen was challenged by James Coonan, an up and coming gangster. There was a long history between Spillane and Coonan involving an affair between Spillane and Coonan’s mother. It is said that Coonan started the war by shooting up an apartment with Spillane in it. Coonan then started kidnapping Spillane’s associates, holding them for ransom or executing them.
In the 1970s, with Spillane’s organization already weakened by years of warfare with Coonan, a war started to brew between Spillane and the Genovese crime family over control of a construction site in Hell’s Kitchen. The Genovese family moved quickly, murdering Spillane’s top three lieutenants in 1976. This prompted Coonan to attempt a complete takeover of the Spillane organization by forming an alliance with Roy DeMeo of the Gambino crime family. The Genovese family decided that the Westies were too violent and well led to go to war with and thus mediated a truce via the Gambinos. The Westies were left in control of Hell’s Kitchen (paying 10% of their profits to the Gambinos), and the Genovese family were left in control of the construction site they wanted, paying part of the profits to the Westies.
ProhibitionDaniel “Danny” O’Leary fought with Maxie Hoff over control of Philadelphia’s bootlegging throughout Prohibition.
Post-World War IIIn the years following World War II, the Northeast Philly Mob, also known as The K&A Gang, was the dominant Irish gang in the city’s underworld. A multi-generational organized crime group made up of predominantly Irish and Irish American gangsters, the Philly Mob originated from a youth street gang based around the intersections of Kensington and Allegheny, which grew in power as local hoods and blue collar Irish Americans seeking extra income joined its ranks. In time, the group expanded and grew more organized, establishing lucrative markets in gambling, loan sharking, and burglary.
The group shifted gears in the 1980s and expanded into neighborhoods beyond Kensington. It was during this time that Italian Mafioso Raymond Martorano and over 36 others were indicted for their alleged involvement in a large methamphetamine ring.
ProhibitionThe successors of Michael Cassius McDonald’s criminal empire of the previous century, the Irish-American criminal organizations in Chicago were at their peak during Prohibition, specializing in bootlegging and highjacking. However, they would soon be rivaled by Jewish and Italian mobsters, particularly Al Capone and the Chicago Outfit.
The organizations existing before Prohibition – including the North Side Gang, which included Dion O’Banion, George “Bugs” Moran, and Louis “Two-Gun” Alterie; the Southside O’Donnell Brothers (led by Myles O’Donnell); the Westside O’Donnell’s; Ragen’s Colts; the Valley Gang; Roger Touhy; Frank McErlane; James “Big Jim” O’Leary; and Terry “Machine Gun” Druggan – all were in competition with Capone for control of the bootlegging market.
Other areas in the United States EastProvidence-based bootlegger Danny Walsh, an early member of the “Seven Group”, was known as one of the leading organized crime figures on the east coast until his disappearance in February 1933.
In New Jersey, Enoch L. Johnson, aka “Nucky,” was an Irish-American political boss in Atlantic City who controlled bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. Became more widely known because of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
CentralIn Cleveland mobster Danny Greene fought for control of the city’s underworld against James Licavoli during the 1970s.
John Patrick Looney controlled bootlegging and extortion in Rock Island, Illinois until his eventual arrest, after a two year manhunt.
The Egan’s Rats ruled St. Louis’s criminal operations until the early 1930s.
Tom Dennison was the early-20th century political boss of Omaha, Nebraska. A politically savvy gambler, Dennison was in charge of the city’s gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution in the 1920s.
SouthGeorge Horace “Kid” McCoy held the Jefferson County and Shelby County, Alabama underworld under his control in the 1920s and 30s until Donald “Little Man” Popwell had McCoy killed on December 24, 1938 at a Christmas Party in Bessemer, Alabama.
In Birmingham, Alabama, Carlton C. “The General” Russell was named boss of the Celtics in Alabama by the New Orleans Commission. Not long after “The General” ordered a hit on Georgia’s Celtic Boss, Roy Sirus. The murder is currently a cold case file in the Fulton County Sheriff’s files. A Grand Jury failed to take action in the case (2002).
In Savannah, Georgia, Johnny Bouhan, an attorney, held significant influence over county and city government until the late 1960s. He was loosely allied with the Dixie Mafia but a falling-out after Bouhan’s death led to the arson of his law firm, Bouhan, Williams, and Levy. This was widely believed to be a retaliation for the law firm filing suit against a Toombs County, Georgia judge who was a leader in the Dixie Mafia.
NorthThe twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have also been the base for several colorful Irish-American gangsters. During Prohibition, St. Paul’s underworld was ruled over by “Dapper” Danny Hogan prior to his murder in 1928. In Minneapolis, his equivalents were “Big” Ed Morgan and Thomas W. Banks.
Elsewhere in the world CanadaThe West End Gang, a primarily Irish criminal enterprise, is one of the three organizations that makes up Montreal’s “Consortium,” making it one of the most influential criminal organizations in Canada.
AustraliaIn Australia, Melbourne has a long history of Irish organized crime stemming from the poor Irish Catholic working classes. Many Melbourne trade unions have been infiltrated or brought under the mob’s control. Originating from waterfront workers in the Melbourne docklands after World War II, they controlled a large part of the drug trade until the old Painters and Dockers Union was disbanded in 1984. Since the late 1990s, the Moran family is one of the more powerful Irish crime families in Melbourne and allegedly played a significant role in the 1998-2006 Melbourne gangland killings.
United KingdomThe Clerkenwell crime syndicate, most often known as the Adams Family or the A-team by the British press, is alleged to be one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the United Kingdom if not in fact the strongest .
The Noonan family is a criminal group in Manchester headed by Dominic Noonan.