Cleveland’s Irish Gangs, Gangsters and Gamblers
By Neil Conway
Margaret Lynch, Executive Director of the Irish American Archives Society, presented a class for Continuing Legal Education to the Lake County Bar Association, that was more about breaking the law than keeping it. In fact, it began with a the history of Irish Immigration from the 18th Century forward, spurred by famine, poverty and the desperate situations it creates.
The slide presentation began with a documentary tracking Irish Immigrants, largely populating the Flats, and their gradual migration West. The Flats; the Angle (a triangle formed by West 28th and the Flats); the McCart Gang (original neighborhood toughs); and St. Malachi (a now renovated Irish church) were all included. Prohibition paved the way for speakeasies, accompanied by other accepted vices like the numbers racket, illegal gambling, and even resistance to organized labor. These vices characterized the illegal activities collectively evolving into organized crime. This was epitomized in the Mounds Club in Willoughby (Lake County) and their historic demise, where the attendees were all robbed at gunpoint.
Ms. Lynch’s journey thru time featured many sometimes heroic, but more often jaded figures crossing several generations. The world champion boxer Johnny Kilbane was shown along with the monument commemorating his success. Pictures of the notorious McCart Gang followed, and the Mounds Club proprietor Tommy McGinty, solidifying the Cleveland connections to County Mayo, and in particular Achill Island. But more current and curious is the life of “The Irishman” Danny Greene, who met his fate by a car bomb in Lyndhurst in 1977.
Greene was originally a stevedore. Bold and ingenious, he made his way into the numbers game, and was alleged to have triggered the sordid death of Shonder Birns as part of a turf war. Birns perfected using the stock market in the newspaper for a numbers game evolving into daily gambling payoffs. Loan sharking, racketeering and gambling found their way into the Irishman’s control. In fact, he survived numerous attempts on his life by the mob. A former Marine, he left a small army of Cleveland would be hitmen dead, which eventually lead to his death by assassination from explosives. Some experts attribute the demise of Cleveland’s underworld and a series of arrests and convictions after Greene’s murder at this time (Nardi, Licavoli, Leonardo) to their obsession to kill Greene. This entailed plans overheard by bartenders and waitresses at meetings in local bars and restaurants, where the deadly scheme to kill Greene was concocted.
Thank you Ms. Lynch for this walk thru a part of local history that is often avoided and forgotten. Thanks also to the Lake County Bar Association and their connections with the Irish American Law Society of Cleveland helping to continue appreciation of the role of the Irish locally in Cleveland.