Irish-American Interior Design: Historical Collectables

There is now, and always has been, a market for antiques. And if you’re the sort of person who wants to fill your house with Depression glass or, I don’t know, banjo clocks, have at it. There is a whole industry to support you, from fellow collectors to various antiques publications to Antiques Roadshow. Everybody seems to want a silver bowl made by Paul Revere, and let them go after the decorative stuff.

There is less of a market for what I will call historical collectibles, for lack of a better name. This is especially true of artifacts that represent regional or ethnic histories. I work in a historical society, and we discover with alarming frequency that whole collections of invaluable historical documents have just been dumped because it was assumed nobody would want them.

We Irish-Americans have to take responsibility for preserving our own history. One day, perhaps, there will be a really fine museum of the Irish-American experience, but, until then, our houses and apartments will do the trick just as well. Better yet: These collectables often serve as excellent decorative items, and conversation pieces, because they generally have a story associated with them.

Here is a handful of examples, but these are illustrative, and not merely intended as recommendations. My suggestion is that you do a little reading and find a subject that especially interests you. It might be a local Irish-American group, or a publication, or a specific person. Go ahead and search the web for an item that represents that person, or several items, or as many as possible. Congratulations: Your home is now a historical archive!

1. Barney Williams Photograph, currently $53.55

Why, it's Ragged Pat himself!

Why, it’s Ragged Pat himself!

The history of Irish-American vaudeville and melodrama seems to regularly make an appearance on eBay, as demonstrated here by one performer from the era: Cork-born, New York-based actor Barney Williams, who was popular in the middle part of the 19th century, sometimes as a minstrel, and more often playing Irish roles. All sorts of memorabilia from the early days of Irish-American performance is out there, most of it under $100, much of it available for much less.

2. 1934 Chicago World’s Fair Irish Village, $1.99

Actual Blarney.

Actual Blarney.

Properly titled the Century of Progress International Exposition, the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago is famous for many things: Fan dancer Sally Rand, an exhibit of baby incubators that contained actual premature babies, and a Homes of Tomorrow exhibit. It also featured an Irish village, the second time such a thing had appeared at a Chicago World’s Fair. Irish Village souvenirs from the 1934 fair are generally quite reasonably priced, 0ften coming in at under $10. It’s also possible to find souvenirs from the village at the 1893 fair, but those tend to go for more money, such as an Irish Village token now on sale for about $150.

3. Martin Sheridan tobacco card, $5.99

Policeman and Olympiad Martin Sheridan.

Policeman and Olympiad Martin Sheridan.

Martin Sheridan was part of a group of Irish-American athletes called the “Irish whales,” all associated with the Irish American Athletic Club in Queens (and many, including Sheridan, were NY policemen.) Famous for their athletic prowess and ample girth (Sheridan himself won nine Olympic medals between 1904 and 1906).  Irish Whales memorabilia isn’t hard to find, and, best still, it’s often low-priced.

4. Antique St. Patrick’s Day postcard, $11.99

St. Patrick's, also known as Nervous Frog Day.

St. Patrick’s, also known as Nervous Frog Day.

One of the easiest items to find online is old postcards, and Irish-themed postcards, especially those meant for St. Patrick’s Day, are often both strange and hilarious. Even cards from the Victorian era will sometimes go for $5-$10, so fill an entire wall with them!

5. Irish Power button, $3.49

Don't try to buy this one; I already did.

A green fist extended into the air.

There are a lot of Irish-themed pinbacks online. I like this one, which is just like the one worn by Dick O’Connor to kick off his 1978 Congressional campaign in Trenton. He doesn’t seem to have won, so perhaps don’t use the button to forward your own political ambitions, or, failing that, look at other button options. You might even be able to find the earliest “kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons, which seems like it might have debuted at the 1965 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston, where it sold like gangbusters at an event that was otherwise marred by hooliganism.

Irish Travellers in America: The Gipsie Encampment


Elysian Fields in Hoboken, 1859; the approximate date and location of this story.

I don’t like to use the word “tinkers” to refer to Travellers — like “pikeys” and “knackers,” the word is disparaging. But I am ever looking to find the oldest reference to Travellers in this county, and the oldest I have so far found calls them tinkers.

The article is from the New London Daily Chronicle from New London, CT, from September 1, 1851, and the text is as follows:

It would appear from several statements which we see in the New York Express that the little colony of what have been called Gipsies at Hoboken are not Gipsies at all, but a band of Irish Tinkers, who have been counterfeiting the Zingalan trade, and done it very bunglingly. A person acquainted with lingo which the Gipsies speak, has been among them, and found that they know no more of it that they do of Choctaw.
And so we look back and discover that when they were thought to be Gypsies, this particular Traveller encampment caused a surprising amount of excitement in the press.
And so we look back and discover that when they were thought to be Gypsies, this particular Traveller encampment caused a surprising amount of excitement in the press. The Daily National Intelligencer of Washington DC seems to have been the first to notice them, writing about the group on August 5, 1851. The article claimed they have recently immigrated and their point of origin was Dunham and Newcastle, England. “The women and children are said to possess the peculiar physical features of their strange race, having slender figures and an abundance of black hair,” the article reported. The men were tinkers, according to the article, and left the writer uncertain as to their future: “[I]t may be reserved to the United States to solve the problem whether it is possible, under any form of social and political institutions, to amalgamate with other races a strange order of cosmopolites, who have, immemorially, been nomadic in habit, and intolerant of any admixture with a different people.”

While the Intelligencer worried if these so-called Gypsies might ever integrate into mainstream America, the first appearance of this group in the New London Daily Chronicle is decidedly certain that trouble is ahead, writing on August 8, 1851:

Vagabonds of the worst order themselves, they will find the rowdyism of the city too much for them, and if there are not several murders within a short time we shall be very much mistaken.

At the same time, the New York Herald delighted at the possible spectacle, writing:

Those who wish to see a real novelty, and a real curiosity in this country, can do so by taking a walk on the road north of the cricket ground, above the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, where they will see, close by the margin of the adjoining grove, a small colony of genuine Gipsies, living in that filthy and degraded style peculiar to that singular, and often troublesome, class of bipeds. There are, in all, three families, numbering about twenty-five persons, young and old.

The author, despite their frankly racist misgivings, actually entered into the encampment and interviewed a few from the group. He reported that two were born in Egypt, most of the rest were from England, and two from Ireland. One of these Irishmen claimed he had joined the Gyspies in England when he was a boy, and that he was perfectly happy to be part of the group.

I need not reprint all the articles. They share a mixture of fascination and horror about the new Americans in their midst, and jokey accusations that this group is a band of thieves abound. Additionally, the word “Zincali” is thrown about here and there, or variations (this is likely what “Zingalan trade” referred to in the first story). This is from a book called “The Zincali” by George Borrows, published in 1842 and detailing the Romani people of Spain.

On August 21, 1851, the Baltimore Sun reported with some alarm that all but seven of the encampment had returned to England with the idea of gathering up more Gypsies to bring back to America with them. From that point on, the press’s attention wanes — there were no reports of murders or mass theft. Gypsies are occasionally reported as being in Hoboken from that point on, but it is impossible to tell if they are in any way related to this initial encampment.

Apparently, there was some fortune-telling, if the Middletown, CT, Constitution is to be believed. On September 3, 1851, they wrote that “Ambitious young men, and hopeful young women are particularly victimized by the old hags of the encampment.” Further, “It is contended very strongly by some that they are not gypsies, but a pack of juggling Irish.”

It’s also hard to know what to make of these stories. They are so blinkered by popular prejudices as to be nearly useless as reportage. Perhaps they were right that some in the encampment were Rom, all came from England, and some were Irish. Maybe all were Irish. I suspect their employment as tinkers is true — it shows up a few times in the stories.

Beyond that? I don’t know. The first Irish Traveller to come to the United States is supposed to have been Tom Carroll somewhere around 1849, which is just about the the members of the Hoboken encampment arrive (they tell several interviewers that they have been in America for about a year), but there is nothing to connect Carroll and this group. It’s impossible to say for sure if the Irish who are part of the group are Travellers.

Regardless, this is the oldest newspaper record I have located that identifies a group as Irish tinkers, and, uncertain though it may be in the facts it presents, it nonetheless demonstrates that America in the mid-nineteenth century already had its anti-Gypsy prejudices in place, and was ready to apply them to anyone who fit the bill, even if they weren’t sure of the group was actually Gypsy.

Irish Travellers in America: Shelta

How much can we learn about Irish Travellers from one woman's experiences 80 years ago? Apparently enough to be a self-declared expert.

One woman’s experience 80 years ago; apparently still applicable.

You don’t often find Irish-Americans referring to Irish Travellers, but I did find a February 14, 1908, article in the Washington DC Evening Star in which the Gaelic League of the District of Columbia invited a speaker, Dr. Joseph Dunn, to speak about Shelta, the language of Irish Travellers. He “illustrated his talk with specimens of their written and spoken language.” From other publications I learn that Dunn was Professor of Celtic and Lecturer on Romance Philology at the Catholic University of America.

There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers.
There have been occasional non-Travellers who have developed an interest in the Traveller language, such as folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who I have mentioned before. Online slang books regularly reference Cant, another name for Shelta, although almost always as examples of the language of criminals. There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers. I shall likewise respect this privacy, and so will simply discuss the moments when the press became aware of the language without revealing too much about the language itself. I couldn’t anyway, as I am neither a linguist nor versed in Shelta, although I understand some of it is derived from Irish.

In 1946, journalist Westbrook Pegler, writing for the Idaho Statesman, mused on the doubletalk and
bafflegab of politicians, mentioned an Irish-American tradition he had heard about called “swerve” in Boston, which consisted almost entirely of nonsense phrases. Pegler dug deeper and discovered Shelta, and, upon being informed that there were still speakers of the language in New York, set out to find some. He fails to find any and ends his article asking “why the tribe of tinkers vanished from the earth.”

Of course they hadn’t, although interest in the use of the language mostly languished, but for some scholarly interest in it.  Joey Lee Dillard mentioned use of the language in 1985’s “Toward a Social History of American English,” where he claimed that most American Irish Travellers spoke Cant, a derivative of Shelta consisting of about 150 “secret words,” and few could speak the more than 1,000-2,000 Irish-derived words of Shelta. I’m not sure how correct this is, or even if there is any way to gauge its accuracy, without communities of Travellers who are willing to discuss the language and its usage, and that seems unlikely.

There was an uptick in discussion of the language after the release of “Traveller” in 1997, such as a series of letters written to The Dallas Morning News on October 10, 1997, in response to an article about itinerant con artists. The helpful but bigoted letter writers wanted to alert the author to the fact of Irish Travellers, Murphy Village, the movie “Traveller,” and the language Shelta, which one letter writer, with supreme confidence in their own unsourced knowledge, claimed is a “kind of a backward slang — ‘pig Gaelic’ — invented by Gaelic-speaking tinkers a couple of centuries ago to confuse the Irish and Scottish authorities.”

A 2000 truck accident that killed five young Travellers also brought the language to the fore, as newspapers caught a whiff of controversy when family members proved less than eager to talk to the press, especially as some of the boys may have had false IDs. The Dallas Morning News, in a story on January 23 of that year, wrote “The discrepancies fanned long-held suspicions that the Irish Travelers are more than they seem. Don Wright, an Elkhart, Ind., writer who spent more than a decade investigating the group, says they’re accomplished professionals at running assorted home-improvement scams and other frauds.”

We’ll come back to Don Wright, a travel writer and self-declared expert on Travellers who has probably been the single-most pernicious defamer of Travellers, ever eager to get in front of cameras and claim that every single Traveller is a criminal. But for now, back to the article:

They share a secret language – alternately called Shelta , Gammon or Cant – a linguistic cauldron with roots in English, Gaelic, Hebrew and Greek. It can still be heard on certain citizens band radio channels.

And this is how it goes: News articles that insist Travellers are a criminal conspiracy then bundle their language in as part of that conspiracy, implying if not stating outright that the language is mechanism for hiding their wrongdoings. The New York Daily News provided a depressing example of this in writing about Madelyne Toogood, the woman who was caught on camera beating her child in 2002. “Monster Mom is the Product of a Sad Irish Subculture” read the September 24 headline, authored by Denis Hamill, an author of thrillers who had written a book called “Fork in the Road” which tells the story of an Irish-American who falls in love with a Traveller in Ireland, who turns out to be a thief from a family of thieves. Hamill presents himself as being an expert on the subject and insists that Toogood isn’t an aberration, but comes from a world ” where women and children are often abused.”

He offers no evidence, although he claims he met many “tinkers” (a word he insists on using despite admitting that it is considered pejorative)  when he spent a semester in school in Dublin, and “there was something sad, lost and heartbreaking in the eyes of many tinker children.” Apparently, one semester in Dublin and seeing a few sad-looking children is enough to make him a specialist in the subject, although he also cites a book called “Nan: The Life of an Irish Traveling Woman,” which he describes as definitive. In fact, in “Fork in the Road,” he credits the book as one of his primary sources, and in the article Hamill claims the book “reveals a life of squalor, beatings, infant mortality, childhood illnesses, alcoholism, incest, illiteracy and general unbearable sadness.”

The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.
Firstly, to get this out of the way, “Nan” is the story of one Traveller, mostly set during the 1930s, in Ireland and England, and the abuse she suffers is almost entirely at the hands of one man, her second husband, an alcoholic. The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.

Hamill has this to say about Shelta: “The research for this novel was complicated because very little has been written about this subculture, the history of which exists almost entirely in oral tradition, and which has its own impenetrable language called Gammon or Shelta, a kind of Gaelic pig Latin.”

I can’t help but read a sort of casual contempt in this phrase. There is evidence that Shelta dates back quite far. As early as 1904, Irish scholars were noting that Shelta seems to have more in common with Old Irish than modern Irish, which puts its origins back somewhere around 900 AD. Modern English, by comparison, only dates back to about 1500 AD. While the sorts of Shelta words that are regularly published do seem to involve some pidgin language uses and some backslang, it is a private language used by a private culture, and so little of it is broadly known outside the Traveller communities.

I generally feel it is a good idea to be cautious when discussing a language you know little about from a culture you’ve mostly read about, and calling the language a “Gaelic pig Latin,” especially as part of an article that argues that Travellers everywhere are impoverished, pathetic, and abusive, is not that.

Irish Travellers in America: The Irish Pedlar


Old James, the Irish Pedlar.

As you may have noticed, part of the difficulty in surveying news stories about Irish Travellers is that the press gave them so many names, and knew so little about the group, that  stories about Travellers appear under a variety of search terms (just the endless ways newspapers chose to spell “Gypsy” is enough to have the researcher buffaloed), and it can be hard to tell if the story is about Travellers or just about itinerant Irishmen.

It is very possible that the earliest stories about Irish Travellers in America had them identified as “Irish pedlars,” but I base this on a March 19, 1794, article in the Philadelphia Gazette that spoke of pedlars in the contemptuous way Travellers are historically spoken of, and name them with the nationalities we now identify as Traveller. I quote: “Would a farmer differ with his wife & daughter about the pedlar they would give a preference to in purchasing their gewgaws; whether they would employ the English, Scotch, or Irish pedlar when one of them was stealing the sheep, and wantonly sporting with the property on the farm. No, certainly they would unite and drive the thief off.”

This is actually not the earliest mention I find of Irish pedlars. Decades earlier, on August 22, 1771, the Boston News-Letter printed the following ad:

Stolen out of a Pasture in New York, last Monday Night, a large black Mare, with a strip of white in her Face, and some on her Legs, Wall Eyes, Paces mostly — the Person supposed to have stole her, is a small Irish Pedlar. Whoever apprehends said Thief, so that the Mare may be had again, shall have SEVEN DOLLARS Reward, and and all necessary Charges paid by me, JOHN CARLILE
The defense pointed out that McArdle had suffered a fire and his property had been stolen, and offered testimony that Hunt had indeed stolen it, and McArdle was found not guilty.
It’s interesting to me that the Old World prejudice against Irish Travellers seems to have been transported to the New World — I will note that while both these articles accuse pedlars of crimes, in the first case it is simply based on suspicion, and in the second case it is simply as a rhetorical move.

By the 19th century, the Irish pedlar was a well-known enough character in the United States to appear in jokes, such as the following, printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser on  September 3, 1823, and widely reprinted after that:

An Irish travelling merchant, alias a Pedlar, asked an itinerant pouleter the price of a pair of fowls. “Six shillings Sir.” “In my dear country, my darling, you might buy them for sixpence a pace.” “Why don’t you remain in your own dear country, then?” “Case we have no sixpences, my jewel,” said Pat.

We have not met an actual Irish pedlar yet, and the first one to appear is one Peter McArdle in a property dispute published in the New York American in 1825. There’s not much to the story: McArdle seems to have been in a dispute with one Mrs. Elizabeth Hunt over some missing property, and when Hunt denied having it, he allegedly assaulted her. The defense pointed out that McArdle had suffered a fire and his property had been stolen, and offered testimony that Hunt had indeed stolen it, and McArdle was found not guilty. So, again, a story of a crime, but in this instance our pedlar was not only not guilty, but was, himself, victim of a crime.

From this point on, there are a series of criminal complaints, the most notorious of which was the 1843 murder of Ebenezer Bacon, a wealthy farmer who was stabbed to death during a robbery. Two Irish pedlars, William Bell and Bethuel Roberts, were arrested, and Roberts — an alcoholic suffering from Delirium tremens — confessed. “The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut” by Lawrence B. Goodheart summarized the case: Bell and Roberts looked likely to be hanged until Lucian Hall, an ex-convict, confessed. For a while, it looked like all three would go to the gallows, despite the fact that Bell and Roberts now maintained their innocence. Finally, Hall offered up a confession exonerating the other two, and they were released.

Let me note again that I cannot say for sure that anybody in these stories were Irish Travellers. They are identified as Irish pedlars only, although this is almost universally associated with a rootless, itinerant lifestyle, which eventually took simultaneous pedagogic and poetic form in the 1850 book “Old James, the Irish Pedlar,” written by Mary B. Tuckey, a native of Cork, for the American Sunday School Union. I won’t say too much about it, as it was written and is set in Ireland, but it’s interesting that it is meant for an American audience. It presents the character of an Irish pedlar whose peripatetic lifestyle both mirrors and teaches the story of Christ.

Multiple stories in 1875 tell of peddler Pat K. Laferty, who was found in the woods near Memphis with a bullet in his skull, robbed of his possessions, and nearly completely devoured by pigs and dogs.
It could also be a dangerous life, as the Alexandria Gazette pointed out on  July 4, 1851, when it told of an Irish pedlar who was found naked and dead on the side of the road by some passers-by, who decided he had died of smallpox and buried him on the spot. The grave was reopened some time later and revealed that he was murdered, and that his belongings were later found on someone else. The following year the Connecticut Courant published a December 11 story about an Irish pedlar was “assailed and throttled” by two armed robbers; they made off with $75 cash and $100 worth of jewelry — about $5000 total in today’s money. Multiple stories in 1875 tell of peddler Pat K. Laferty (sometimes Klaftery), who was found in the woods near Memphis with a bullet in his skull, robbed of his possessions, and nearly completely devoured by pigs and dogs. It’s not surprising to discover that peddlers, who carried a lot of cash and merchandise, were the targets of theft; the future would bring many stories of Irish peddlers who are robbed and sometimes murdered. I would document more of these — and there are many — but for the following fact:

In the 1850’s, the spelling of pedlar converts to the more familiar peddler, and increasingly seems to reference immigrant Irish who sell miscellaneous supplies in their neighborhoods, rather than the itinerant travelling pedlars of the earliest stories. These characters are caught up in the hum and thrum of city life, and the press treats them about as it treats the rest of the Irish community, and immigrants in general: Sometimes as victims, sometimes as criminals, sometimes as local color. Once in a while there is a hint that the Irish peddlers may be Travellers, or still associated with Travellers, such as a March 10, 1871, society story in the Vermont Phoenix that told of a social event that included costumed presenters, including an Irish peddler and a Gypsy woman “in their antique costumes,” which hints that the peddler in this instance was seen as being a sort of kin to the Gypsy.

We start seeing an increasingly theatricalized Irish peddler from this point on. Irish dialect comics added peddlers to their collection of comic characters, such as Vaudevillian Roger Imhoff, who toured in 1917 with a sketch in which an Irish peddler has a troubled stay at an inn overnight; the sketch was called “The Pest House.”  There were also more traditional theatrical versions, such as the comic opera “The Highwayman” from 1905. Perhaps the last example of the stage Irish peddler was a children’s play called “Run, Peddler, Run” that debuted in 1939 at Princeton and proceeded to enjoy productions for the next few years at America high schools. This, in turn, was based on a novel, “Bound Girl of Cobble Hill” by Lois Lensky, published in 1937 and telling of an “bound girl” — a sort of indentured servant — in Connecticut in the 1780s. From what I can tell, at least in the stage version, the titular girl is the sister to an Irish peddler, and the play is about his attempts to find her.

I will close with exactly the same caveat that I opened with — that it is extremely difficult to decide whether Irish Travellers are the subjects of news stories, because they were so poorly understood and there was such a variety of words used for them. But there are some lessons we can take from looking at the stories Irish pedlars. Firstly, they were certainly viewed with the sort of mixture of suspicion and romanticization that Irish Travellers were (and are). But, more importantly, despite the fact that they were often treated as an especially criminal class, they were often the victim of false allegations and real crimes, as they were especially good targets for robbers. We’ve seen this in other circumstances — the mentally ill and the homeless, as an example, who are still often treated as potential sources of crime or violence, but tend to be victims of crime and violence far more often than they are perpetrators.

I don’t know how often Travellers are targets of crime and violence — the press is happy to identify their ethnicity when they are suspects of crimes, but doesn’t seem to have the same eagerness when they are victims.

Irish-American Symbols: Tipperary Hill Traffic Light

A watercolor by  Casey Landerkin witha  Haiku by Michele Reed from the The Syracuse Poster Project Haiku Challenge. Artist: Casey Landerkin, of Syracuse Poet: Michele Reed, of Oswego Stone throwers were rightÑ What would Tipp Hill be without that green-on-top light?

A watercolor by Casey Landerkin witha Haiku by Michele Reed from the The Syracuse Poster Project Haiku Challenge.

There is a traffic light in Syracuse, New York, that is upside down, and I always felt that this would catch on as a symbol of Irish America. The traffic light is on the corner of Tompkins Street and Milton Avenue in a neighborhood called Tipperary Hill, which, as you can probably guess from the name, was largely settled by the Irish. And why is the street sign upside down? Well … because it’s an area largely settled by the Irish.

I cannot find contemporary accounts, so I’ll print the legend. As story has it, when Syracuse began installing traffic signals in 1925, members of the largely Irish Far Westside neighborhood rebelled at placing a red signal above a green one, as green symbolizes Ireland and red symbolizes England. Young Irelander poet Thomas Davis wrote a poem on this very theme called “The Green Above the Red,” which reads, in part, as follows:

Full often when our fathers saw the Red above the Green,
They rose in rude but fierce array, with sabre, pike and scian,
And over many a noble town, and many a field of dead,
They proudly set the Irish Green above the English Red.

So, as the tale goes, locals broke the street lamp, and continued to do so until it was hung upside down, to the satisfaction of locals and the frustration of color-blind motorists.

Is it true? The Syracuse Post Standard went searching for evidence and found it in short supply:

If the light truly went up in 1925, there was a strange period of silence before it became a well-loved community institution. Almost certainly, for example, there were two John Ryans involved in putting the green on top – “Huckle, “ the city alderman, and John M. Ryan, who ran the city’s traffic signal system. …

Indeed, the first reference to green-over-red in The Post-Standard was apparently in 1949, when the paper reported that Mayor William O’Dwyer of New York City stood beneath the light to greet the famous Walker triplets – two sets of triplets who grew up in the same family.

But if there is little documentary evidence, there was no lack of locals who claimed knowledge of the story, and knowledge of who was involved:

One of the key players in the tale was “Dinty” Gilmartin, a one-legged Irish immigrant who ran a grocery store at that Tipp Hill intersection. The stone throwers used to hang around Gilmartin’s store, and The Post-Standard in 1960 referred to Dinty Gilmartin, then 90, — as the “guardian of the famous green-over-red traffic signal.”

“I heard all the stories, “ said Bob Gilmartin, 80, Dinty’s grandson. He was told that the stone throwers didn’t stop at breaking glass. They also targeted trolley cars passing near Gilmartin’s store, and they found a way to push the cars off the tracks as another means of forcing the city to put the green light back on top.

The Times Union also spoke to a rock-thrower on  March 17, 1989, 81-year-old Richie Britt, and this is the story they got:

“We watched the light being put up. The next morning it was busted. We wanted to have the green on top, it was that simple,” said Britt, who was 14 at the time and destined to become a folk hero.

“It went on for a couple of weeks. We probably busted it seven or eight times. Then the city decided to put the green above the red and that settled that,” Britt said in a still defiant tone.

“Everybody knew about it and nobody said anything. My mother could see me tossing rocks looking out her window; she was quite an Irish lady,” Britt said. “Even the cops, most of who were Irish, they’d blow their horns so we’d scatter before they got there.”

Though none of the youths were ever arrested for breaking the traffic light, Mayor Young “officially” exonerated the nine surviving “stonethrowers” just before the 1987 St. Patrick’s Day parade, at which they served as grand marshals.

Delightfully, the park includes a life-sized statue by artist Dexter Benedict of an Irish-American family, with the father pointing out the street light to his wife, daughter, and son, the latter of whom has a bit of a sly look, perhaps because of the slingshot in his back pocket.
There is now a park adjacent to the street named “Stone Throwers Park,” and the city’s website lists the supposed stone throwers: “A monument was erected to forever memorialize the original group of stone throwers: Jocko Behan, Richie Britt (from the story above!), James ‘Duke’ Coffee, Patrick ‘Packy’ Corbett, Kenny Davis, George Dorsey, Mikis Murphy, Stubbs Shortt, and Eugene Thompson.” Delightfully, the park includes a life-sized statue by artist Dexter Benedict of an Irish-American family, with the father pointing out the street light to his wife, daughter, and son, the latter of whom has a bit of a sly look, perhaps because of the slingshot in his back pocket.

Now, it’s not sure that we can trust all of the claims about the traffic signal — there is, as an example, no evidence that John F. Kennedy ever visited it, despite the story being often repeated. But his brother, Robert, did visit in 1966. It’s become a regular stopping point when Irish and Irish-American bigwigs visit Syracuse, such as Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who posed under the signal light in 2005.

The traffic signal has, unsurprisingly, become a symbol of the Irish-American population of the area, and so will sometimes make its way on to pins and brooches, and it seems like the sort of thing that could find a wider following. Believe it or not, there is a pretty wide selection of traffic light jewelry, and it’s pretty simple to take one and flip it over. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a deep cut — unlike a shamrock or a claddagh ring, it’s not the sort of thing that most people are immediately going to recognize. But there’s an appeal in that as well — like the black star pins that anarchists wear or the pins that Esperanto-speakers wear (which is a green star; what is it with stars?), the upside down traffic signal could be an in-group thing.

If you’re wearing one, and you see someone else wearing one, just offer up a quick nod. You both know what it means: If there’s ever a time when circumstances require it, when the Irish-American cause demands it, you’re ready to pick up a rock and throw it.