By James Mulvaney
The New York Times crossword puzzle is usually a breeze on Monday. On January 26 it stopped me in my tracks.
Clue 27 down was “police van” and the answer was “PADDYWAGON.”
I was horrified. The term refers to the historic bigoted presumption that most arrested people were Irish, likely drunk and disorderly.
I dashed off a letter of complaint to the editor and got a reply several days later from puzzle editor Will Shortz.
“Sorry to have offended you,” he started.
You’d think a crossword guy would know when to stop.
“But I'm afraid this isn't a term I'm going to worry about. The Irish are not a group that's discriminated against in the U.S. I don't know anyone who has the slightest ill feeling about Irish people.”
An apology, by definition, cannot include the word “but,” my late mother said often enough for me to remember.
Eileen O’Keefe Mulvaney, a woman with a fine hand managing the English language and a doctorate in the teaching of reading, started me on the Times crossword. She also taught me not to use ethnic slurs. She would not be pleased with Mr. Shortz.
Beyond Shortz’ ignorance of that important rule, his condescension was insulting. He continued: “And virtually no one today would connect the term ‘paddy wagon’ in any disparaging way with the Irish anyway.”
The crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times has appointed himself the arbiter of the sensibilities of the as many as 44 million people who claim Irish ancestry based on the U.S. census.
Were we offered the chance to vote? Why is this the first time we’ve been informed?
I first spotted the phrase as a clue in a puzzle dated August 18, 2014 (35 down). I submitted a letter to the editor saying such an offensive term had no place in the paper.
I referred to the Times archives—quoting Pulitzer Prize Winning Columnist Anna Quindlen — to bolster my position that the phrase is offensive (I too have a Pulitzer Prize, albeit for Investigative Reporting, not opinion writing).
No reply was forthcoming. I occasionally stewed.
I am a today a teacher in the Law and Police Science Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
I teach my students— the next generation of the NYPD— that even innocent intent does no forgive the use of ethnic insults.
The year I was born, my father’s ethnicity proved more significant than his academic achievement.
He was managing editor of the Cornell Law Review but none of his applications to white shoe— read WASP— law firms were so much as acknowledged. “They don’t hire Irish,” he said.
His father, and my other grandfather, told me about clubs they couldn’t join, schools they couldn’t attend, and towns with restrictive covenants to keep our people out.
I didn’t give it much thought until the mid-1980s when I was working as an American reporter covering the war in Belfast.
On more than one occasion I was manhandled into the back of a prisoner van by the RUC.
As a resident of Andersonstown I was a presumed Paddy— a Royal-hating Catholic — therefore worthy of incarceration, penal law be damned.
My American press card would eventually win my freedom (albeit without apology for the temporary incarceration or gratuitous punches, kicks and verbal insults).
My second letter of complaint quoted a 1992 Times story in which the Rev. Calvin Butts III, Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem saying the phrase “paddy wagon” was “a slur against the Irish.”
It is true that we Irish do not suffer much discrimination these days.
That does not give license for ethnic insult. New York Governor, David Paterson, appointed me as deputy commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights, the nation’s oldest civil rights law enforcement agency.
Our historic law proscribes, among other things, discrimination on the basis of national origin. The law says nothing about a social statute of limitations that allows discrimination and hate-speech after a group attains a degree of comfort.
The New York Times is an important institution. Arrogance diminishes its value. The job of the New York Times is to present facts, and, in the case of puzzles, provide amusement.
Their job is not to tell me how to think. When a reader disagrees it should spark introspection, not dismissal.
Language matters in news stories, editorials and crossword puzzles.
My grandfathers spoke of newspaper classified ads that said “Irish Need Not Apply.”
I guess the new rule is “Irish Should Not complain.”
James Mulvaney was based in Ireland in 1984 and 1985 under a fellowship sponsored by St. John's University and Newsday. He wrote extensively from both sides of the political divide quoting paramilitaries, politicians and non-aligned residents. He was the only American journalist at the 1985 Airlie House meeting that brought together unionist and nationalist leaders for private talks in Virginia in what is now recognized as the beginning of the Irish peace process.
In a 20-year newspaper career, Mulvaney wrote from five continents and led a team that won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. He was appointed by Governor David Paterson as Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights. He is an adjunct professor in the Law and Police Science Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
caption: A Paddy Wagon is more than just a name as this early 20th century photo illustrates.