28 October 2011
3 hours, 41 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Daniel Barry (b. Queens, NY, 1958) is an American journalist, currently writing for The New York Times. He is the eldest of four children to Eugene and Nora Barry. His mother emigrated from Ireland in the early 1950s.
Dan Barry grew up in Deer Park on Long Island with three younger siblings: a younger brother named Brian, and two sisters named Brenda and Elizabeth. Barry attended St. Cyril and Methodius School grammar school, and then went on to St. Anthony's, an all-boys institution, for high school. After graduating from St. Bonaventure's College with a Bachelor's degree in journalism, Barry decided to go to graduate school at New York University, where he completed his Master's, also in journalism.
In 1983, he landed a spot at the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Connecticut. Here, he further developed his writing skills. Soon, however, he outgrew the small newspaper.
After four years, Barry was offered a job at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. At the Providence Journal, Barry was assigned to cover the town of West Warwick, Rhode Island. While at the PJ, Barry and his investigative team won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles regarding the state's court system.
In 1995, Barry was encouraged to submit a story to the New York Times as part of a job application. He decided on a story about a boxing match. The piece was organized contrarily to how news stories are generally written: he spent the majority of the article on the boxer's background, weaving in action from his match, and left the outcome of the fight until the very end of the article. The NYT found this piece to be engaging and impressive, and Dan Barry was hired.
While at the NYT, Dan Barry resurrected the "About New York" column, which he wrote for three years. In 2005 Barry travelled to New Orleans to cover the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina storm. He spent days observing and writing the story of a corpse he found in the middle of a city street which laid untended for days without ever being collected. When the story was published on the front page of the NYT, Barry was convinced to start a column similar to "About New York," but concerning the entire country, and "This Land" was created.
In February 1999, Barry's mother lost her battle with lung cancer. Only months later, Dan Barry was diagnosed with cancer, suffering a growth on his voice box. Throughout his chemotherapy regimen, he refused to submit to his disease, and continued writing for The New York Times.
In January 2000, Dan Barry's cancer appeared to be in remission. He wrote his memoir, Pull Me Up, which was released in 2004. While promoting his book, Barry was once again struck with cancer, this time in his esophagus. In January 2005, his esophagus was removed, a surgery that apparently saved his life. Dan Barry has been cancer-free since.
In addition to Pull Me Up, Dan Barry has published City Lights: Stories About New York, a collection of his "About New York" columns, (2007) and Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game (2011), which is about the longest game in professional baseball history.
Excerpt No. 1
"Mr. Barry, Why did you become a reporter?"Disc 1, 00:58:15–01:02:24
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
DB: Why did you—why did you—'Mr. Barry, why did you become a reporter?' Is that one of your questions?
RW: It is.
DB: Is it? Well, let's skip ahead. Um, uh, well, I say—all right, so, uh, three things: uh, my father's rage against authority, not trusting authority, you know, wanting to fight back, you know, depression, all that kind of stuff. That's one. All right? Two, getting my ass kicked when I was kid because, you know, I'd get bullied. I'd be wearing this uniform, you know? I mean, as I said in the book, why don't you just put a sign on my back that says, you know, 'kick—kick me'? Right?
LA: So, not all the kids in the neighborhood went to Catholic school?
DB: No. No, there were a lot of public—'publoids,' they would call them, right? Um, right. And, um, uh... You know, really, I got my ass kicked a lot. A lot. And, uh...
LA: 'Cause you're a tall guy. You weren't real...
DB: I was a—I was a very thin, goofy, shy guy with, uh, a—an extraordinary overbite. Um, and then I had braces for a long time—it looked like, you know, it looked like the Verrazano Bridge in my mouth. And, uh, and... you know... uh, it got me... and I'm wearing an idiotic uniform out in public. You know, I mean if you're a kid going to Deer Park High School, you know... it's irresistible, isn't it? So, so it's my father's anti-authoritarian—or challenging the powerful—with, uh, with getting my ass kicked all the time with my mother's, um, reliance on stories to communicate and process what's happening before us. And so, um, as I, as I tell, my mother—and I'm not making this up—my mother would go to, uh, to King Cullen or Food Fair or some lousy little super market up on Deer Park Avenue to get a quart of milk, and then she would come home and Merv Griffin would be on, but the sound would be off because we'd be gathered around her because she'd be spinning this unbelievable yarn out of going to get a quart of milk at King Cullen. And by the time she was done, you were crying with laughter or marveling at, at the folly of humankind because she would tell you, um, what the cashier looked like, like how she was chewing her gum while she was talking, what the woman ahead in line was putting on, uh, the checkout line, and 'How could she be a good mother if she's getting Cocoa Puffs? We all—they must be rich! All right, they must be rich and they must not care for their children because they're buying Cocoa Puffs, which is a premium cereal and it's not good for you.' You know, and, and everything, and at the end of the day, all she did was buy a quart of milk. So, you know, that's what my childhood was like. Beginning to try to navigate the world and process the world through the telling of stories.
LA: And an eye for detail!
DB: Oh! Oh, it's unbelievable...
Excerpt No. 2
Facing CancerDisc 3, 00:01:00–00:04:20
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
DB: ...eh? All right, so, uh, I had to go in five days and be hooked up to an IV, um, um, pole for five days straight: Wednesday to Sunday, constant— 24 hours—and then go home for a couple weeks, and then go back and spend five days in the hospital. And I did that six times, I think. I think six times. Um, and the first time I went in there, um, one of the nurses noticed that I wasn't happy. And so, she told a counselor. A counselor came in, and said, "You don't seem happy." And, uh, I really—I was shocked. I said, "What do you mean?" There was an incident where I'm not happy. I said, "Who's happy? Why would I be happy?" Do you know what I mean? "I'm in Sloan-Kettering, and I'm gonna be here for five days, and no one's—you know, it's a bad situation, and I'm supposed to be happy?" And, on another floor they had arts and crafts, and you could, you know... I couldn't do any of it. And I refused to put on the johnny. Uh, I wore street clothes till, uh, uh, I went to bed. It was like, it was my way of not, um, submitting to the role of, of "patient." And also, I had a mantra. And you know what it was?
RW: I remember I really liked it.
DB: It's very poetic. It was, "Fuck this." Fuck this. And, you know, if you talked to priests, if you talk to theologians, they'll tell you that there's a whole strain of poetry—uh, prayer, rather—that is rooted in, in, um, profanity. You know? And that's what I was doing. I was kind of praying, but I was also kind of saying, "Fuck you." And, um, that was my mantra. And, you know, the first time, you're feeling okay, and feeling okay, and then boom, the chemotherapy is taking hold, and you're sick as a dog, and you're walking around with your Ginger Rogers of an IV pole wherever you go, and you're making believe that it's not with you. Every morning they would have coffee downstairs—I didn't like the food they brought up, and so in the morning I would get on the elevator and, uh, I had the IV pole, and everyone else was healthy, and I'm making believe that I'm just normal, except I have an IV pole with me, you know, and I look like hell, and then I'd go down, and I'd have a Starbucks coffee and a muffin or something, and I'd go up and just lay in bed and, uh, try not to throw up, and then I'd go home, and then I would throw up, and then in a couple weeks I'd go back, and in between I would try to go to work because I wanted to, uh, no surrender, not submit, and I wanted also, I thought of journalism, I thought of newspaper work, as a curious way of saying, "I'm here." Do you know what I mean? Like, if I could get one little story in the paper, uh, with my name on it, it's like my little, uh, uh, note of rebellion. My little, um, um, sign that I'm still here and fuck this...
Excerpt No. 3
Hurricane Katrina and Starting "This Land"Disc 3, 00:36:28–00:39:41
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
DB: Oh, so I, I did the column, and while I was doing the column, Hurricane Katrina occurred, and, so I wanted to go down there, so I went down there, and I wrote a bunch of stories there; I wrote a story about, you know, riding around New Orleans and, uh, seeing—several days after the hurricane—and seeing a body in the middle of the street in downtown New Orleans, and it had been there so long that someone had put a traffic cone next to the body, so that cars wouldn't run over it. And so, I wrote a story about, effectively, how fucked up is New Orleans? You know, this is how fucked up: there's a body in the middle of the street, and no one picks it up. And I went over and talked to a cop, and he said, "Aw, yeah, it's been there for three or four days—I put the traffic cone there because the cars were, I didn't want it to get hit." I watched as National Guardsmen came over. I said, "Oh, they're gonna pick up the body." Uh, and they looked at the body, one of them takes a photograph, and then they all turn around, and then one turns around one more time and he blesses himself, and then they leave. And so, we have a... I said, "No one's picking up the body because New Orleans is so screwed up, and the government is so screwed up, that they can't figure out what to do. In the Marines, when your brother falls, you pick up the body and bring him away, but here in New Orleans, we don't even collect our own dead. And, uh, the photographer I was working with and I went home, we went back in the morning, and I said, "How much you want to bet that body's still there?" We—there was a curfew in New Orleans, and we had to drive all the way to Baton Rouge—so we go right back to the street: goddamn body is still there, right? And then we drive around the whole city, I'm writing the story, she's driving, and I'm writing as we're going, come back in the evening, right at dusk—goddamn body is still there. I write the story, it's on the front page of The New York Times—the body's gone. Um, so out of that experience of writing several stories from New Orleans, uh, someone suggested, "Why don't try to do the 'About New York' for the entire country?" And, uh, it sounds absurd. It is absurd because with New York, you have a stipulated sense of place, do you know what I mean? You could write about, um, Times Square and people in Leavenworth, Washington will know what you're talking about, you know what I mean? It's a stipulated place. We, in America, understand New York, even if we don't really understand New York. We have an understanding of what New York represents, and as a columnist for a national newspaper, you can play off that. You know what I mean? And it's easier, in a way, because it's stipulated—we know where we are. So, with a column that goes around the country, you're deny—you're effectively denied that. You're starting anew every time you write about Terre Haute or from Leavenworth or from, you know, uh, Baton Rouge. Whatever....
Excerpt No. 4
The Preponderance of Irish American ColumnistsDisc 3, 00:50:43–00:54:40
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
RW: There are a lot of Irish American columnists. We've got Jimmy Breslin, Pete and Denis Hamill, and so on and so forth. Do you think it's a coincidence that there are so many prominent city Irish American columnists, or... What do you think the correlation is there?
DB: Um, Breslin, over the years, has, um, has said that he created the form, okay, that before Breslin here was not this voice, and then Breslin comes along and soon everyone wants to be Breslin. You know, you could argue that Mike McAlary was often times an imitation of Jimmy Breslin and, you know, for some measures, a pale imitation. So, Breslin says, "You know, I did this." And he's said this. "You know, I started this thing and now anyone with an Irish surname can add a column in —into New York." You know, and, uh, I don't, you know, I don't know if that's true. And Breslin's hard, by the way, on the Irish. He thinks that the Irish American had forgotten, uh, his or her hard-scrabble roots, and he calls them, "Look at them with their shopping mall faces." You know, like they've forgotten. What he's also saying is, "Aw, they all became Republican." Um, you know, I don't know what that is. I don't know, you know, I don't know if it's true only to New York. If I think about the columnists in Chicago, I think about Mike Royko. If I think about Los Angeles or Philadelphia, they're other guys. You know, Steve Lopez—not Irish American. You know, in, in Boston, right now it's Kevin Cullen, and accolade of Jimmy Breslin's and a friend of mine. Um, I don't know. I don't know what to say about that. I think that, um, there is a facility with language, uh, I think that there is a blue-collar sensibility to newspaper-writing that appeals, um, to Irish Americans, you know. Um, I think that, you know, uh... Did I ever think that I would be a surgeon who could save someone's life by deftly removing their esophagus so that they continue on with life? I never, ever, uh, considered that thought. It just wasn't part of where I came from and who I am. Did I ever dream of becoming a columnist for a newspaper? I think when I was, like, 10. Do you know what I mean? I don't know what that is. The fact that, uh, New York has a preponderance of Irish columnists, um, I don't know. I don't know. I think because we tell stories, because we're blue-collar, because we tend to be more blue-collar—you know, my parents didn't go to college. We're drawn to, um, we're drawn to, uh, challenging authority. We enjoy—we thrive in, um, mocking the powerful and challenging the authority, and, um, with a facility of language, creating a scene that allows you to be there while we mock and challenge.
- Rachel Whitbeck [RW]
- Linda Almeida [LA]
- Family of Nora Barry in Ireland: her father, Daniel, and mother, Agnes, in the back row. Nora and siblings, Mary, Joe and Chrissie (l-r) in front. Man in glasses on left unidentified.
- Cover of menu card for last night's voyage of the Cunard liner, MV Brittanic that carried Nora Barry to America in 1955.
- The menu card from the final night's dinner of the Cunard transatlantic liner, MV Brittanic, signed by Nora Barry's friends on her first passage to the United States. Dated August 18, 1955.
- Immigration card of Dan Barry's mother, Nora.
- Eugene and Nora Barry, Dan Barry's parents, on their wedding day.
- Eugene and Nora Barry.