Irish Hooligan of Southwark

This column has been generally concerned with Irish who have "made good" in Britain. While the vast majority of the Irish community has contributed much to the land where they have settled, some individual contributions have not been so worthy.

One Irishman and his family certainly contributed a word to the English language which has now been adopted in many languages throughout the world. There is no need for me to explain what the word “hooligan” means.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary it came into the language in 1898, being, “the name of an Irish family in south-east London conspicuous for its ruffianism”.

The Daily News of July 26, 1898, reporting on social conditions in the areas, stated: “It is no wonder that Hooligan gangs are bred in these vile byways.”

A few weeks later, on August 22, the Daily Graphic decried “the avalanche of brutality which, under the name of ‘Hooliganism’ - has cast such a dire slur on the social records of South London”.
During the summer of 1898 most London newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph, Pall Mall Gazette and Westminster Gazette were referring to ‘Hooligan gangs’.

The Oxford English Dictionary also puts forward other claims such as a mishearing of the term “Hooley’s gang” although there is no evidence for this. It also says there was an Irish character called Hooligan of this period who appeared in the London comic magazine Funny Folk (1874-1894). Also it is claimed there was a popular music song about a rowdy Irish family called the Hooligans at this time.

The only music hall song I can find is Mrs Hooligan’s Christmas Cake which was sung in music halls in 1883.

However, Ernest Weekly, in Romance of Words (1912) emphasises: “The original Hooligans were a spirited Irish family of that name whose proceedings enlivened the drab monotony of life in Southwark about 14 years ago.”

But is there any trace of the Hooligan family? Can we “put flesh on the bones” of a family that might fit this description?

A writer named Clarence Rook (1862-1915) provides the main clues. He wrote about the slums and criminals in the City of London and environs. In 1899 he wrote a book entitled The Hooligan Nights which was about a young criminal’s story told in his own words. The book was actually reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1979, when the jazzman and critic Benny Green wrote an introduction to it.
In this account, Rook wrote: “There was but a few years ago, a man called Patrick Hooligan, who walked to and fro among his fellow men, robbing and occasionally bashing them.”

Rook, incidentally, created one of the first female fictional detectives, in the person of Miss Nora Van Snoop of the New York Detective Force. She appeared in The Stir Outside the Café Royal in which tale she has to fight “the aristocrat of crime” - one Colonel Mathurin.

That classic crime tale was reprinted as recently as 1990 in the Oxford Collection of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig, Oxford University Press.

So who was the Patrick Hooligan to whom the book refers?

He and his family came to London from the Limerick area and their name was probably Houlihan. Rook says they lived in Borough (Southwark), in south-east London. Patrick hired himself out as a bouncer.

He was a professional tough. He soon gathered a gang around him and operated as a small time crook, mugging people in the street rather than as a burglar. He was often in street fights, committed vandalism and criminal damage.

He and his fellow gang members used to gather and drink at a public house in Southwark called the Lamb and Flag. There is, of course, a more famous public house of that name north of the river at 33 Rose Street, Convent Garden. But that was not named Lamb and Flag until 1883. It had first emerged into recorded history in 1772 when it was called the Coopers Arms but popularly known as The Bucket of Blood because of the bare fisted fights that used to be staged there.

The Southwark’s the Lamb and Flag is thought to have been located in Borough High Street and has not existed for many years. The date of when Patrick Hooligan and his gang flourished is confused. It was certainly well before 1898 and efforts to find the date have not turned up anything. It could have been as early in the 1850s but certainly no later than the 1870s.

Patrick’s end came when, during one of the street fights, he killed a policeman and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

He eventually died while serving his sentence/ Some have suggested that he began to serve his sentence in the large prison at one end of Borough High Street, which no longer exists. But that was Marchalsea Prison and basically a debtor’s prison, well known to readers of Charles Dicken’s works.
By the turn of the 20th Century, the name Hooligan had crossed into literature.

Conan Doyle, in his Sherlock Holmes tale The adventure of the Six Napoleons (1904), writes: “It seemed to be one of those senseless acts of Hooliganism which occur from time to time and it was reported to the constable on the beat as such.” In 1909 in Tonobungay H.G. Wells wrote: “Three energetic young men of the hooligan type, in neck wraps and caps, were packing wooden cases with papered-up bottles, amidst much straw and confusion.”

By then the name was losing the capital H.

Oddly, in Edward MacLysaght’s The Surnames of Ireland (1957) the name is not listed even as a derivation of Houlihan. The derivation of the word is still “unattested”, as an etymologist would say. That is, we have not yet proved its origin. But there are enough clues about Patrick Hooligan for a good local Borough historian to get their teeth into and come up with more evidence on the man, who is said, gave his name not only to the English language but, through generations of English football “supporters”, to many languages of the world.

Courtesy of Peter Berresford Ellis and the Irish Post