By Chris Hughes
In Hollywood, in the thirties a group of Irish-American actors joined forces to form a group that regularly met for drinks and to talk. Nicknamed ‘The Irish Mafia’ by gossip columnist, Sidney Skolsky, the circle consisted of James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins, Frank McHugh and the man the press referred to as ‘Hollywood’s Irishman In Residence’: Pat O’Brien. The title acknowledged an ancestry in which he took great pride.
William Joseph Patrick O’Brien was born in 1899 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. All four of his grandparents were Irish-born. His father’s parents emigrated to America from their native County Cork and his mother’s from County Galway.
Raised in a strict Catholic family, he attended the High School, Marquette Academy – as did Spencer Tracy. The two became lifelong friends. Both considered entering the priesthood after graduation and both ultimately rejected the idea.
The pair joined the US Navy during World War I but as the war ended before the completion of their training they never went to sea. They both later decided to take up acting and moved to New York where they trained at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts.
O’Brien began his career performing on stage. Working in various companies he formed many friendships and met and fell in love with the actress, Eloise Taylor. He married her in 1931 and they remained together until his death.
Another highlight of 1931 was his breakthrough in cinema playing the reporter, Hildy Johnson in the critical and commercial success, ‘The Front Page’. A string of features followed including ‘Flying High’, ‘Virtue’ and ‘Air Mail’.
In 1938 he starred as Father Jerry Connolly in the classic ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ with his ‘Irish Mafia’ buddy, James Cagney as Rocky, a gangster.
In a sequence that has provoked much debate, Father Jerry told Rocky, who had been sentenced to death, not to go to his demise bravely. His aim was to stop youngsters who had idolised Rocky from viewing him as a hero. Rocky then fell apart as he was strapped into the electric chair.
Neither Cagney nor O’Brien could ever comment as to whether Rocky was genuinely fearful or had decided to make his final moments worthwhile.
Both actors mesmerised audiences in a movie that benefits immensely from their on-screen chemistry. In all the duo appeared in nine films together, including ‘The Irish In Us’ (1935). O’Brien said he and Cagney were always close despite their different personalities. As he put it: “Jim is a complete introvert and I’m an extrovert. I’m an Irish show off.