By Geoffrey Cobb
T.S. Elliot once noted that April was the cruelest of months, but who cares what he said anyway, for he was nothing more than a poetic Yank putting on British airs. No, for Irish curmudgeons like myself March is the far and away the cruelest of months. Why, you may ask? Isn’t March the very month when we proclaim our Irishness in parades and festivities around the world? Ay, so it is and I and the other like-minded unrepentant Irish curmudgeons everywhere are sick to death of it.
If there is a better race on this planet for singing its own praises than the Irish, then I have yet to see it. Every March, they gather and croak the praises of the Irish. We are surfeited with tedious reminders of how the Irish Christianized the world, saved civilization and educated the developing world. We are told we are a race of saints and scholars and we are bombarded with the cloying achievements of each and every one of them, reciting a boring and seemingly endless litany of heroic Irishmen and Irishwomen, and each one is more worthy and virtuous than the one who preceded him. We are berated ad nausem with tales of Irish bravery in far-flung battles around the world, intrepid Irish cops who rid the streets of crime and noble statesmen who wrote laws and forged democracies. It is just enough to make you want to turn Welsh!
What bothers me most about the Irish and Irish-American self-love fest is that it forgets the other part of the Irish race who are equally deserving of recognition and celebration. No, we never hear a word about them, never see their banners in parades and never have essay contests in their honor, but it is high time that this glaring omission be corrected posthaste.
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Who are these overlooked Irish you may wonder? Why, the frauds, horse thieves, cheats, bank robbers, liars, con men, charlatans, hucksters, cads, blackguards, grifters, playboys, rogues and various other scoundrels who have always played an equally important part in the story of the Irish people. Let their stories be told in March, too!
One March day in a fit of ill temper, I happened upon the story of just this sort of overlooked Irish character. Annie Reilly, and when I read about the great achievements of this once celebrated, but now forgotten Irish woman I had an epiphany and my curmudgeonly heart leapt with joy at the very thought of it. Why not form an Annie Reilly society for the recognition of the bad Irish? We could carry her banners in parades, make speeches about her exploits and even hold high school essay writing competitions in her memory.
So who was Annie Reilly anyway? She was born in 1844 in Ireland, but made her way to New York as a young woman. Annie, also known under the aliases Kate Cooley, Connelly and Manning, was a 19th-century American thief and con artist widely regarded as “the cleverest woman in her line in America.” A well-known member of New York’s underworld, she was part of an elite “inner circle” of female career criminals under the famed female criminal Marm Mandelbaum during the 1860s and ’70s. These included some of the most notorious thieves, blackmailers and confidence women in the country, but they still couldn’t hold a candle to Annie.
Reilly, posing as a nanny, robbed many of the homes of New York’s rich. She was said to look much younger than her actual age and was both charming and intelligent. She spoke at least two or three languages. Once gaining the confidence of the lady of the house, most often by making “a great fuss over the children,” she would loot the house of its valuables, usually jewelry, sometimes leaving with as much as four to five thousand dollars worth of valuables. She rarely stayed in one place for long, waiting only one or two days before robbing her employers. She became especially infamous in New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia and all along the eastern seaboard. She was arrested numerous times, but broke out of prison not once, but twice.
Reilly became a living legend. Her criminal career was featured in Thomas F. Byrnes’s bestselling “Professional Criminals of America,” published in 1886. Byrnes claimed she had stolen more property in the prior 15 years than any other female thief in the United States. Reading of Reilly’s exploits I was reminded of an old saying about the Irish – “Even when we are bad, we are still really good!”
We don’t know when Annie died or even where she is buried. Sadly, her worthy achievements have been all but forgotten, but I hope to found an Annie Reilly society and each year honor these long-overlooked Irish men and women. Why I am already looking forward to next March!
Geoffrey Cobb is the author of “The King of Greenpoint,” a biography of the 20th-century Brooklyn politician Peter J. McGuinness.