Right around this time of year, it isn’t hard to pick out the Irish neighborhoods. Mayfair and Roxborough and even pockets of Fishtown still fly their Irish flags proudly and light up businesses in green. There are pockets of this city where some of the more than 200,000 Irish Americans here have noticeably settled, the same way there are enclaves carved out that host ethnicities spanning around the globe.
One of those places used to be in West Philly. The neighborhood that’s now known as Mantua was once called “Corktown” by the working-class Irish folks who lived there, and though the small enclave bearing that moniker didn’t even make it to the 1960s, it can be found in books, journal articles and even in a play that debuted in Los Angeles in 2015.
The city of Philadelphia has indicated that “Corktown” is the “Irish section of West Philadelphia in the vicinity of Mantua,” or the geographic area just north of Drexel University in West Philly. At the beginning of the 20th century, this part of West Philly was largely occupied by Irish Catholic immigrants.
In 2006, Richard O’Mara, an Irish American who grew up in the area, wrote a journal article titled “Cork Town” in literary magazine The Antioch Review and recalled the Irish were “in the majority” when he was in elementary school, but that changed by the time he was a teenager in the ’30s. The Irish in the area referred to it as Corktown, an homage to an old seaport in Ireland from where some of the neighbors had left to come to America. Here’s what O’Mara said about the neighborhood:
I grew up in a slowly decaying neighborhood in west Philadelphia populated by Irish Catholics, African-Americans, and a sprinkling of Armenians and Jews, the latter groups mostly shop owners. The Irish, both American-born and immigrants, were the more numerous in that cramped pocket of the City of Brotherly Love. Having said this, second thoughts rush to mind: certainly we were in the majority when I was in St. Agatha’s Grammar School, but by the time I reached sixteen many of the Irish had moved to the inner suburbs, to places like Darby and Lansdowne. They were replaced by blacks, many of them poor.
In his writing, O’Mara acknowledged there were severe racial tensions in Corktown and that he and those close to him were “overtly racist, fluent in the vocabulary of prejudice, reckless with the old Jim Crow defamations of black people.” He wrote:
We lived in a fragile though doomed apartheid. Whites drank in one bar, blacks in another. In the local movie house, The Unique, blacks sat on the left side and whites on the right. But after a while, blacks began moving over to our side, insinuating themselves to begin the inevitable integration of the place. In 1942 when I saw my first movie there, John Wayne in Wake Island, the separation was already breaking down. By the time the western The Outlaw came out, a year or so later, blacks were sitting wherever they wanted.
By the 1950s and ’60s, many of the Irish American families living in Corktown left the city for the suburbs to the west. The neighborhood went from being racially mixed to about 90 percent African American, which it remains today.
While O’Mara chronicled racial tensions, playwright John Fazakerley — who wrote “Corktown ‘57,” a play that debuted in 2015 — focused his work on “family dynamics and political ire,” and wrote largely about one family and its connections to the Irish Republican Army. Fazakerley said when the play debuted that while the play was fiction, it was inspired by members of his family.
In the 1950s, when conflict in Ireland was heating up and IRA splinter groups were advocating political violence to achieve the ultimate goal of making Ireland an independent Republic, Corktown remained a “hot-bed” for pro-Irish sentiment. Fazakerley told media outlets covering the play’s debut that he was inspired to write the play when he found a 1948 photo of his grandfather holding him in Corktown, and the image became the poster photo for the play.
“My grandfather was an unrepentant Irish Republican who wouldn’t give up the fight,” the playwright said. “In his last days, he came to live with us, and I became his caretaker. He would regale me with stories of the family coming to America. Though I knew he was highly political, I never realized what that meant until I began to question family elders, who would entertain me with stories of Grandpop.”
The play, directed by a Tony nominee, ended up with pretty good reviews. And while the name “Corktown” itself didn’t last long past the mid-20th century, Philadelphia and the surrounding area remains one of the most Irish places in America.