Life on “The Hill”

By Megan Sullivan, December 2007

 James Dennis Galvin

   My grandfather taught me how to pour beer. We sat at the round, glass topped table on his screened-in back porch, and with the convex pint glass tipped toward the wall, I held one hand steady on the jar as the other gripped the brown glass bottle before me.

   “Good girl, Meg,” my grandfather said. “Right, lean the jar towards you,” he instructed gently. “That’s the girl,” he said, “hold the bottle close to the rim.”

   That was the part where I always faltered; glad to have poured correctly thus far, and proud that the safflower colored liquid remained clear, I’d ease the bottle almost imperceptivity from the rim. The remaining contents would tumble forward quickly, and the light white foam that should have provided a rich, snow capped finish, would become flotsam suffused throughout the glass.

   “That’s no problem, we’ll just try again another time,” my grandfather said casually as he leaned forward to take hold of his only drink for the day.

   Although some might think this lesson unconventional (I was, after all, only eleven years old when we sat on that back porch), my grandfather’s instruction was purposeful rather than negligent: he was teaching me who he was, not how to drink alcohol. I never saw my grandfather drink more than a glass of beer, but by the time we sat on the porch that summer day, he had weathered a long history with the frothy liquid. To my mind, the pinnacle of that history occurred during prohibition, when he opened a speakeasy in Waterbury.

   In the early 1920s my grandfather, James Dennis Galvin, owned and operated Galvin’s Gymnasium. He had previously promoted boxing matches and would later referee them, and so it seemed natural that in the front room of Galvin’s Gymnasium, boxers would spar. In the back room, patrons would whet their lips with the fruits of my grandfather’s labor.

   My grandmother, a woman who before and after the fact was scrupulously law abiding, helped him in his endeavor on at least one occasion.

   “I’ll never forget the time I was stopped by the police, the jars clattering in the back of the car,” my grandmother told me when I asked her about that period of their life together.
My eyes widened. “What happened,” I asked?

   “Not much. It turns out that the lad who stopped me knew your grandfather. When I told him who I was, he tipped his hat and said to give Jim his regards,” my grandmother said, recounting the episode with a smile.

   And yet prohibition was not funny. When it was enacted in 1920, the Volstead Act, which enforced the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and made it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell alcohol in the United States, gave rise to businessmen such as my grandfather who were called “bootleggers” and whose “merchandise” was “bath tub gin.” The establishment where the liquor was sold was the “speakeasy.” Although legions of police officers and special forces were established to prohibit the sale of ‘the drink’, many cities and states had begun to discourage alcohol consumption prior to the 1920s.

   In fact in the United States, the Temperance Movement had been denouncing alcohol since the 1830s. Yet from the 1850s onward, agitators focused their attention on Irish and German people, the largest immigrant groups of the period. By the time Herbert Hoover denounced prohibition as a “great [failed] experiment” in 1926, my grandfather and others no doubt realized that the heady days of back room drinking were coming to a close. By February of 1933, when Congress proposed the 21st Amendment to repeal the 18th Amendment, my grandfather had long since ceased to sell bathtub gin.


A bootlegger in action.

   When I discovered that my grandfather had owned a speakeasy, I was surprised but not upset. I saw this as merely another clue in the puzzle of who he was, as one more telltale sign of the adventurous complexity of a man I had loved simply and without reservation. I also saw my grandfather’s actions as a byproduct of his heritage.

   As many acknowledge, the Irish were the largest immigrant population to enter the United States in the 1850s; but they were also Connecticut’s largest immigrant community prior to the Civil War. Certainly there were several reasons for the influx of the Irish, but the major precipitous was the potato famine of 1845.

   Connecticut provided a refuge for conventionally unskilled laborers who fled the famine and for men and women whose only principle employement experience was agricultural. And while the Irish did endure hardship in their new country, they had two important elements on their side: they spoke English, and they were Caucasian in a period when racism was omnipresent. Furthermore, according to many scholars, the Irish were courted for their numbers; they could, and would, create a formidable voting block.

   My grandfather was a part of this history. His parents had emigrated from Ireland to Waterbury, Connecticut in the late Nineteenth-Century. They were lulled to Waterbury by the promise of factory work, and the consolation of Irish neighbors. My grandfather was born in Waterbury and grew up in what is called the Abrigador section of town. He lived on Baldwin Street, but later recounted stories of life in “Washington Hill” or, as it was also called, “The Hill.” As though to reinforce the Irishness of this neighborhood, one commentator has said that the area we know as Hamilton Avenue was once called Dublin Street.

   What later became obvious to me was that my grandfather’s stories of Waterbury and “The Hill,” along with his obvious love for his parent’s homeland, was a kind of prayer, an incantation of remembrance. Out of respect and love for him, I wanted to remember this past and to research my grandfather’s life. My mother provided insight and history. She told me that after prohibition, my grandfather became a toolmaker and eventually opened his own shop.

   “Daddy never made any money. He let everybody pay on credit and then he never collected,” my mother smiled when she told me this, and I know that she had never minded her father’s carelessness with money.

Megan Sullivan flies a kite with her grandfather, James Galvin, at the beach.

   My mother also told me about my grandfather’s bachelor days. According to her, Grandpa spent a brief spell in Rhode Island, where he would take his lunch hours along the cliff-walks of Newport. There he’d meet the pretty Irish domestics who tidied the kitchens and dusted the drawing rooms of the city’s mansions.

   “Your grandfather always knew the girls. They’d meet him on the cliff-walks with cheese sandwiches, their colored hair ribbons blowing in the ocean wind,” my mother said.

   I imagined my grandfather younger and even leaner than he had stood in my lifetime. I imagined his six feet, one hundred and sixty pound body quick and decisive as he flirted with maids and ate cheese sandwiches. My grandfather didn’t marry until he was forty, and I was glad to learn that he had taken time to meet girls and travel a bit beforehand.

The Boxing Ring
   When I was in college, I learned about his love for the boxing ring. Long after he had died, I found a picture of my grandfather in his referee’s uniform. In a cardboard box marked simply, “Jim,” I saw cracked Polaroid photographs and frayed newspaper clippings. The black and white photograph made the striped jersey he wore more pronounced, the starched uniform pants more exacting. In the photographs, my grandfather stood tall and thin. His eyeglasses remained fixed, and his hair was combed off his forehead and out of his eyes. As I stared at the pictures, I imagined my grandfather in the ring, officiating a fight. I imagined him peeling apart two men as they landed fist to cheek, padded knuckle on spine. I asked my mother about the photographs.

   “Your grandfather worked as a boxing referee for years,” she said, although this was the first I had heard of it.

   “When he owned the tool shop, Daddy would close up after the dinner hour and drive over to the ring. In fact, your grandfather was in the ring the night your aunt and I were born. Daddy loved to tell us that they rang the bell, stopped the fight and made the announcement: ‘Jim Galvin’s wife just gave birth to twin girls, Marita and Marcia!’ Daddy said that everyone cheered, and the boxers came over to congratulate him before they took to their respective corners again,” my mother said. She also told me that everyone knew there would be a fair fight when her father was standing guard. “Daddy didn’t play favorites, and everyone knew that.”

   Among the newspaper clippings and photographs was a series of articles on Waterbury sports figures. Journalist William O’Donnell wrote that my grandfather was “one of the home town boys who [had] made it good as a boxing referee.” O’Donnell reported that my grandfather had refereed for great matches including those between Harry Greb and Frank Moody and Jack Delaney and Frank Moody. My grandfather had worked with well-known fighters such as Pancho Villa and Kid Kaplan. When I read them, the names meant nothing to me, and yet they intrigued me, and I found myself repeating them aloud: Jack Delaney, Pancho Villa, Kid Kaplan.

   When I set out to discover more about these men and the history of boxing in Waterbury, I learned that the city had once been considered a great boxing town and that one sportswriter fondly recalled a fight where there were nearly twenty five hundred fans present. This same sportswriter noted, “in its heyday, Waterbury could present at least two fight cards a week and make money.” According to my grandfather, and as he is quoted by another sportswriter, Waterbury matches often drew crowds from New York and New Jersey. Waterbury may have hosted more than its share of fights, but the archives of the Connecticut Boxing Commission make it clear how seriously the sport was in Connecticut.

   There are pages of bylaws that date from before and after my grandfather participated in boxing and that explain the regulations on everything from the licensing of matches and referees (both at the discretion of the Commission), the duration of matches (not more than twelve rounds), and the age of the boxer (18 and above for professional matches), to the mandated days off (no boxing on Christmas Day, Good Friday, Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day). I’ve no doubt that part of the State’s allure was its proximity to New York and New Jersey. Yet I also suspect that the popularity of boxing within the Nutmeg State in general and The Brass City in particular also owes much to the areas’ Irish-American communities. In the late 1880s three Irish American boxers, Paddy Ryan, John Sullivan, and James Corbett, succeeded each other as heavyweight champions. Their Irish heritage made them instant celebrities in Irish-American households, and in 1890 Irish-American boxers held five of the seven heavy weight division championships. Some commentators speculate that because of this, boxers of this period sometimes changed their names to make themselves sound more Irish.

   In one of the newspaper clippings I found, I read from a sports column called “Chatting with Chick.” Written by Chick Kelley and printed in the Waterbury Democrat, the column quotes my grandfather as he recalls one memorable Waterbury match: “Frank Moody, the Englishman, was in [the ring] with Jack Delaney. After Delaney had Moody on the deck a couple of times, Moody threw a punch at me. Delaney won by a knockout, but you can bet that if Moody had connected with me I would have stopped [the fight] at once.” In the same interview, my grandfather speculates that it was Moody’s promoter, a man he calls a friend, who had urged the boxer to throw a punch at him. His point is not only that in boxing winning is everything, but also that no matter how important a match was, if it got out of hand, my grandfather would stop it (especially if he was hurt it the scuffle!). Yet the anecdote also reminds me how he was shaped by his heritage. My grandfather calls Moody “the Englishman” in order to distinguish him from the Irish Delaney. Even in a simple description, culture and history abound.

   I have written in other places about how special my grandfather was to me. Not only because he was my grandfather, but also because by his very life he showed me that it is possible to be both adventurous and cautious; to be generous with others while maintaining the self; to be involved in a community and committed to a family; and, finally, to be of a place and time even if one is no longer in it. I like to think that in the most expansive sense, my grandfather taught me who I am and where I am from. For this, I thank him and all that made him, including Waterbury, prohibition, and the sport of boxing.