One of the mysteries of Gangs of New York concerns the moniker of the Dead Rabbits-the mythic, supposedly ultraviolent 1850’s Irish gang that plays a central role in both Martin Scorsese’s $70 million epic and the 1927 book by Herbert Asbury on which it is based. Historian Tyler Anbinder, in his book The Five Points , claims “that the origin of the term is uncertain.”
On the other hand, Asbury-whom Professor Anbinder calls “a usually careful if somewhat dramatic chronicler of old New York”-asserts authoritatively that the name came about after a gang member “threw a dead rabbit into the center of the room. One of the factions accepted it as an omen … and called themselves Dead Rabbits.”
I always thought this story was phony. If some fool had thrown a dead rabbit into a roomful of Five Points Irish immigrants in 1850, they would have skinned it, cooked it and fed it to the family in a stew.
So what is the source of the Dead Rabbits?
At the end of Asbury’s book is a list of several hundred words and phrases called “The Slang of the Early Gangsters,” which was excerpted from an encyclopedic underworld dictionary compiled by a onetime New York City police chief and warden of the Tombs Prison, George W. Matsell.
In Matsell’s dictionary, the word rabbit is “a rowdy,” and a dead rabbit is “a very athletic, rowdy fellow.” Rabbit suckers are defined as “young spendthrifts.” A slew of other slang terms in Matsell’s dictionary jump out at you from the soundtrack of Mr. Scorsese’s film: ballum rancum for a wild party, crusher for a cop, mort for a woman and lay for one’s criminal leaning or occupation.
These ancient terms are the secret language of the Irish crossroads. They are the beginnings of an Irish-American dictionary concealed within a centuries-old camouflage of English phonetics and spelling, finally reclaimed and reracinated into the American-Gaelic tongue.
In an Irish-English dictionary published in Dublin in 1992, the Irish word ráibéad is defined as a “big, hulking person.” It is that word, ráibéad -along with the slang intensifier dead , meaning “very”-that provides the simple solution to the 150-year-old mystery of the moniker “Dead Rabbit.”
A “rabbit sucker” is a ráibéad sách úr , which in Irish means “a fresh, well-fed, big fellow.” In the streets of New York, that phrase meant “fat cats”-a couple of swells on a spree in the Five Points, ripe for the fleecing.
Like hundreds of thousands of Irish New Yorkers, my family spoke in the slang and accents of the old East River slums of Manhattan and Brooklyn. My great-grandmother, Mamie Byrnes, and her six siblings were raised five minutes from the Five Points in the 1880’s. The Irish language became a key ingredient in their conversations. Like the lost Gaelic speakers of the rural river towns of the Mississippi and the wind-swept cliffs of Canada’s eastern islands, New York’s Irish hung Irish words and phrases like brightly colored garments on a clothesline of American English syntax.
Today, there are literally thousands of Irish words, phrases and place names that have shape-shifted into American working-class and rural-backwoods culture and slang. Without knowing it, every day Americans speak Irish, the oldest written European tongue after Latin and Greek. The words, music and poetry of Ireland are as woven into the fabric of American culture as bluegrass, blues, baseball, Westerns, street slang and hip talk. Like a river driven underground by great geologic upheavals, Irish is a surviving but lost tongue in America, flowing deep beneath the language and crossroads of North America.
Below are a list of translations of some of the slang terms mentioned in the Scorsese film:
Ballum rancum: a dance where everybody is a thief or a prostitute.
Ball iomrá na gcumainn: the place everyone is talking about.
Crusher: a police officer.
Cuir siar ar (the s is pronounced “sh”): to force upon; an enforcer.
Lay: a criminal occupation.
Lé : Leaning, partiality, inclination.
Mort: old New York slang for a woman.
Mór te : fiery passion, high spirits, warm affection.
Finally, the word buckaroo comes from the Irish bocaí rua , meaning “wild playboys” or “bloody bucks.” This term traveled west, along with Billy McCarty-a.k.a. Billy the Kid-who, like Mamie Byrnes, grew up five minutes from the Five Points. He became a cowboy psychopath. She became my mother’s grandmother.
Terry Golway will return to this space next week.