John Corridan challenged corrupt union officials and Irish gangsters on the docks of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s, giving voice to the plight of the ordinary dock workers. His real life work was the inspiration for the character of ‘Father Barry’ in the film On The Waterfront.
Father Barry (played by Karl Malden), incensed by corruption and violence in the mob-run longshoreman’s union, puts pressure on young Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to do the right thing and give evidence against the union boss. Scriptwriter Budd Schulberg described the real life figure of Corridan as a “tall, youthful, balding, energetic, ruddy-faced Irishman whose speech was a fascinating blend of Hell’s Kitchen jargon, baseball slang, the facts and figures of a master in economics and the undeniable humanity of Christ.”
Born in 1911, John Corridan grew up in New York City, the son of Irish immigrants; his father was a Kerry-born police officer in Harlem. He entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained in 1945. The following year Corridan was assigned to the Xavier Institute of Labour Relations on Manhattan’s West Side, where he was made associate director. Here he encountered rampant extortion, corruption and even murder, where mobsters ran the docks and pilferage was widespread among the dock workers, who received little pay.
Corridan spoke up against what had become an institution, and fought for the rights of those affected. In 1948, he described the crime and injustice he had encountered to a journalist named Malcolm Johnson, who then wrote a series of articles on the waterfront crime which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and resulted in hearings by the New York Crime Commission. Corridan organised a successful five-day strike in 1951, without the consent of the union. Through his efforts, a New York – New Jersey Waterfront Commission was established in 1954 as a watchdog, further bringing about a reduction in the crime on the docks.
In 1957 Corridan left the waterfront, having successfully changed the community in which he had spent more than a decade pursuing justice for those left overlooked by the city. He requested a reassignment to teach economics in Syracuse, having attended New York University’s School of Commerce prior to beginning his theological studies. Corridan later taught theology in Jersey City before becoming a hospital chaplain in Brooklyn in 1967, a position he retained until his death in 1984.