Here in the Western United states it just means friend or buddy. It’s not super common. Most folks would say they were spending time with their friends over ‘pals’, but you’ll hear it on occasion. It can be used ironically, but it would generally be accompanied with a more aggressive, confrontational tone and phrasing. Like in almost any situation context is key.
For instance, if you heard someone say, “You think you can get away that, pal? You don’t know who you’re messing with.” You can safely assume they’re not particularly happy with you.
Thanks, guys. I think like many words it depends on the context and the period in which it is used. I think it was probably it more common usage early to mid-20th Century. I get the gangster connection and in this particular instance I wanted it to run as a language point through a group of close knit characters so, at the risk of confirmation bias, I will go with it as a suitable choice.
Well, I never knew that! That’s an interesting article on Wikipedia. Interesting to see the Pal’s Regiments were instigated by Lord Derby. I grew up in Liverpool very close to Lord Derby’s estate and grounds and know the world was still in use in the 60s and 70s as a street slang.